Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Relationships

Why Partners Thrive in Intercultural Romances

Counterintuitively, they accommodate each other less.

Key points

  • Accommodation is a constructive response to conflict in a relationship.
  • A recent study found that people in intercultural relationships were more satisfied and committed on average.
  • Accommodation was found to be less important in an intercultural relationship than for same-culture partners.

Despite the old adage that opposites attract, decades of research in social psychology have demonstrated that people are overwhelmingly attracted to others who are like themselves, both as friends and as lovers. And, yet, in the last decade or so, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of intercultural romantic relationships.

Based on the similarity principle, you’d expect that a relationship in which each partner is from a different culture to be less likely to succeed than one in which both partners were from the same culture. And that’s exactly what early research showed. However, more recent studies find that intercultural romances can be just as satisfying and committed as their intracultural counterparts, in which both members are from the same culture.

So, what are the ingredients that make for a happy intercultural relationship? This is the question that University of California, Irvine, psychologists Nicole Froidevaux and Belinda Campos explored in an article they recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Accommodation in Relationships

Different cultures have different expectations about how people should behave in various social situations, including intimate ones. Thus, it seems likely that when partners come from different cultures, occasions for misunderstanding and conflict will increase. This has long been assumed to be at least one reason why intercultural relationships have historically been more likely to break up than intracultural ones.

And, yet, we can also find many intercultural romantic couples in which both partners are greatly satisfied with, and deeply committed to, the relationship. Froidevaux and Campos proposed that a process known as accommodation may account for this.

Accommodation occurs when a person responds in a constructive manner to an undesired behavior from their partner. Let’s say that your spouse has just said something that you find offensive. You could start an argument over this, but your partner is likely to get defensive. Or you could just walk away, but then your partner will never know what they did to offend you. Better than either of these, you can instead make an accommodative response by explaining to them calmly why you found their behavior offensive, which can likely lead to better understanding for both parties.

To test the hypothesis that accommodation was more important in intercultural versus intracultural relationships, the researchers surveyed 174 people who were romantically involved with someone from a different culture and 161 whose partner was from the same culture. The results of this study surprised the researchers.

Two Unexpected Findings

The first unexpected finding was that people in intercultural relationships were more satisfied and committed on average than those in intracultural relationships. This was surprising, since it contradicts the findings from previous research. However, the researchers did note that this study took place in Southern California, where people are likely to be much more open to intercultural romances than they are in more conservative regions of the country.

This observation gets at the issue of success in a relationship not being solely due to the way the couple interacts with each other. Rather, social stressors such as discrimination and family disapproval can wreck a relationship even when the couple would have been quite compatible otherwise.

The second unexpected finding was that accommodation wasn’t nearly as important for success in an intercultural relationship as it was when both partners were from the same culture. When it comes to intracultural romance, the degree to which the partners engage in accommodating behaviors strongly predicted how satisfied they were with the relationship and how committed they were to it. But this wasn’t the case with intercultural romances, as the researchers had predicted.

The Keys to a Happy Intercultural Relationship

So, what are the key ingredients that make for a happy intercultural relationship? The answer to that question awaits further research, but, in the meantime, Froidevaux and Campos offer some suggestions:

One possibility is that psychologists have misunderstood the way in which similarity plays a role in successful relationships. Instead of looking at a superficial similarity such as race or ethnicity, people are more likely to be seeking out potential partners who are similar to them in personality and attitudes. In this way, couples can be happy together as long as their personality and attitudes are compatible, at least as long as they experience no undue pressure from outside the relationship.

A second possibility the researchers proposed is that people who seek out potential romantic partners from other cultures do so because they are high on the personality factor known as openness to new experience. Rather than being comforted by a partner who’s just like them, they’re excited by a partner who’ll provide them with novel experiences. They may also chalk up conflicts in their relationship to cultural differences, and, so, they have less need to engage in accommodative behaviors.

A third possibility they provided is that the exact mix of cultures may also be important. For example, research shows that Black-White relationships are more likely to break up than are Hispanic-White ones. This may be due to the longstanding tensions and history of discrimination that exists between the Black and White communities, such that even if partners are compatible, external forces against the relationship may be more than they can stand. Again, this brings us back to the point that intercultural romances have been less successful in the past due more to social disapproval than to partner compatibility.

Intercultural romances are on the rise, and there’s every reason to believe that many of these will turn out to be happy and fulfilling. As social attitudes become more open to “mixed marriages,” the external stresses that often tore these relationships apart have abated. As a result, people can make meaningful and lasting romantic connections that offer real opportunities for personal growth.

Facebook image: adriaticfoto/Shutterstock

References

Froidevaux, N. M. & Campos, B. (2023) Intercultural romantic relationship quality: What is the role of accommodation? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/02654075231196927

advertisement
More from David Ludden Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from David Ludden Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today