From a sociologist’s perspective, my husband and I come from families that are more similar than not. We both hail from white, working class communities. Our fathers went off to the Korean War, our mothers mostly stayed at home and we each have two siblings.
But if you peeled back the veneer, you would notice significant differences, especially if you happened to stop in during dinner time.
In my northern European household, meals were civilized affairs. We never raised our voices or interrupted one another, and we always valued the quality of food over quantity. My husband’s Italian-American home had a different script. I began to realize just how different the minute we all sat down together for Thanksgiving dinner. There seemed to be enough food for the entire neighborhood. After the turkey was placed on the dining room table, his mother brought out two trays of lasagna. With extra sauce and meatballs. For Thanksgiving.
After a prayer, the curtain went up and the opera began. Unlike my home, there was no turn-taking or follow-up questions. One person simply started talking and then another layered their thoughts on top, but not before turning up the volume. Then a third and fourth jumped in, making it impossible to really listen to anyone—which apparently wasn’t the point. This holiday meal helped me to better understand Christopher, but I was not able to extrapolate his genetically coded mealtime expectations until we had a substantial fight not long after.
At our inaugural dinner party in our tiny, newlywed apartment, we invited three couples over and crammed around our too-small table. The conversation was lively, the food was excellent, and we had no leftovers. Everyone enjoyed the dinner—except Christopher, who made several slightly critical comments.
This same scenario played out multiple times before I pointedly asked, “Why are you so critical of how I prepare meals for guests?” He shot back: “Because you don’t cook enough food, and you never put out extra sauce when you make pasta!”
Want to guess how our evening played out? That fight opened our eyes to the ways that our family cultures sculpted many of our preferences and biases. As our eyes were opened, we began to trace other marital challenges directly back to our family of origin.
Without realizing it, Christopher and I had each concluded that our family’s version of reality was morally superior. This is referred to as ethnocentrism.
I was guilty of ethnocentrism when I harshly evaluated his family’s Thanksgiving traditions. He was guilty of ethnocentrism when he judged me as incompetent because I didn’t put out extra marinara sauce.
This sort of dynamic can play out in all different aspects of marriage. If we fail to understand how our ethnocentrism sometimes leads us to create unrealistic and dishonoring expectations, we may end up endlessly criticizing and judging each other rather than discovering the beauty of otherness.
In order to avoid ethnocentrism, we have to identify our expectations, stop moralizing our preferences, and then value our spouse’s unique perspective. This is especially important if you have an inter-racial or inter-cultural marriage.
We tend to create expectations out of experiences, hurts, our reactions to those hurts, personal preferences and internalized cultural values. If a specific expectation emerges primarily out of our wounds, it will be more difficult for us to be aware of the expectation, let alone discern what drives it. Sometimes, one of the best ways to become aware is by paying attention to ongoing conflicts and dashed expectations.
For example, early in our marriage, Christopher and I constantly disagreed about what it meant to be home in time for dinner. After we negotiated what felt like a reasonable compromise and then he showed up an hour (or more) late, I felt angry. He would apologize but then we’d have a déjà vu moment a week later.
Though I had legitimate reason to be frustrated, his offense was a level two and my response was a level eight. This clued me in to the possibility that there was something more going on. After much prayer and many in-depth conversations, that more became clear.
When I was 12, my father began drinking. For the next 10 years, dinner was often a tense affair. Would dad be on time? (He often was not.) Would he be sober? If he wasn’t, how would mom respond? There was an obvious connection between my childhood wounds and our current marital conflict.
Christopher’s struggle with time triggered my unresolved pain and amplified my anger. My moralizing and displaced anger ruined more than a few dinners and certainly did not help Christopher to feel loved or to grow in his time management skills.
The next time you find yourself in an argument with your spouse or feel an all-too-familiar disappointment, step back for a moment. Try to determine if the conflict centers on embedded cultural expectations. Ask yourself, Am I assuming that what’s familiar and comfortable to me is what’s best for us?
As we pursue healing for our historic wounds, curb our moralizing and commit to honoring each other’s traditions, we learn how to realign our expectations and freely bless each other.
The impact of these choices often manifests in small, but tangible ways. Now, when I need to talk, Christopher listens and no longer expects me to replicate his family’s operatic style of communication. When we have company, I try to serve more food than I know we need because I want to validate rather than dismiss his traditions.
And sometimes, I even remember to put extra sauce on the table.
Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer, author, and photographer who lives and works outside Boston. You can find more of her work on Twitter (@DorothyGreco) or Facebook (Words&Images by Dorothy Greco).