June 8, 2017

Embracing the Joys and Challenges of Being in an Interracial Relationship

By: Maggie Anbalagan

Let me start out by saying that being in an interracial relationship is just like any other romance between two individuals. There are inevitably joys and struggles due to the sheer fact that you are two different people learning to share your lives and hearts with one another, no matter what colors of the rainbow your skin tones reflect.

That being said, being married to an Indian-American man whose coffee-colored complexion is the complete opposite of my own sun-averse skin, I’ve noticed that there are certain blessings and difficulties unique to an interracial and/or multicultural romance. Much of it is simply due to outside perception of the relationship, whether that of family members or broader society. However, there’s also a layer related to the interactions between the two involved. Below are some things you will likely encounter being in a relationship with someone of a different color and/or culture, and how to embrace your shared experiences as ways to bolster your beautiful, unique connection to your partner.

 Photo courtesy of Anete Lusina via Unsplash
Photo courtesy of Anete Lusina via Unsplash

Special attention

Whether for good or bad, you will at times be noticed due to your particular pairing of pigments. To you, it seems like the most normal thing in the world; but depending on where you are or where you travel, you realize that there are still people all over the globe and in our own country who live in a homogenized pocket of society. To them, seeing a dark-skinned woman with a white guy (or girl), for example, may be a huge anomaly, or even the first time they’ve ever seen such a coupling.

There will sometimes be stares or curious on-lookers as you hold hands walking down the street. Don’t assume all of these are hostile—many people just love to see a couple breaking the mold. You’ll even get a lot of, “Aww, you two are so cute together!” (This also gets old, but it’s well-meaning, at least.) But if the attention is unfavorable, as unfortunately may happen, try not to let it get to you. Take pride in knowing that your relationship is planting seeds of change and acceptance, working towards a society that sees the world not in skin tones, but through love-colored glasses.

 Photo courtesy of London Scout via Unsplash
Photo courtesy of London Scout via Unsplash

Unending speculation about what your children will look like

“You guys are gonna have such pretty babies!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from friends, parents and even strangers in a restaurant. While this is something my husband and I dream about in private, it’s a bit weird to have such public guesswork as to the looks of our future kids who are not yet even planned or conceived. I can’t say that I’ve noticed the same trend for my friends who are with someone their same race, at least not until their announcement of, “I’m pregnant!” So when this happens over and over, just smile and say thanks. Be flattered that everyone thinks your hypothetical babies will be the cutest ever. This is just not worth getting annoyed at…unless it’s your mother who won’t stop dropping hints about grandchildren. In which case, I’ll leave dealing with that one up to you. 😉

Assumptions that you have a “thing” for a certain race

While it’s true that we are physically attracted to appearances, which includes skin color, it really bothers me when others assume this is the main reason someone is with a person that looks different than them. There are so many layers of a relationship that go way deeper than the skin. If color or looks of any sort are the center of the connection between you, it sure isn’t going to last long. All the excitement of “the exotic” wears off after a while in any relationship, and you have to have the foundations of trust, common values, shared interests and deep love to last the long haul. So if you encounter this assumption, perhaps use it as an opportunity to politely educate others on all the many reasons you chose to be with your partner that don’t include his or her beautiful skin or foreign language. Or, just ignore it, and then go home and tell your partner all those reasons directly. That’s one way to sure make them feel loved!

Fear of meeting the family

A few weeks after we started dating, my now-husband casually let it drop that I wouldn’t be meeting his parents until we were to become really serious…like ready-to-propose serious. He said that’s just the way it works in most modern day Indian families living in the U.S. Being that his parents had an arranged marriage in India, the whole dating thing was not really a concept they openly embraced.

Honestly, at first I was a bit hurt, since it felt so natural for me to want to introduce my boyfriend to my own family. Plus, I didn’t like the idea of being some secret girlfriend, sneaking around as if we were doing something wrong. But on top of that, I was even more afraid that I might not be accepted or liked, if and when I finally did meet his parents. Not only would I be the very first girl he ever brought home, I’d be the first white, non-Indian partner ever introduced in his family, since his older brother had already married a lovely Indian woman. Uh, no pressure.

While it bothered me some (and I told him so), I decided to let my guy take the lead when it came to dealing with his family. I had to step away from my own perception of how to do things, knowing that his personal experience and upbringing was in ways quite different from mine. In the end, he did let the secret out sooner rather than later, but it was his choice and in his own way. And I was so lucky (and relieved) to be welcomed with open arms by all of his family.

I’m not naïve to the fact that not all families so easily accept partners of a different race, religion or culture. I’ve witnessed rifts among friends and their families who flat-out wouldn’t tolerate it. It’s a heartbreaking place to be, stuck between the blood who raised you and the one who holds your heart. Ultimately, the trials you face as a couple will either build your foundation stronger in the end, or shake it and prove that it cannot hold. But if it is to withstand, you must be the rock for your loved one to steady on, and understand that it’s not their fault, even if it is their family. You cannot control the way others perceive the world, but you can continue to live and love in the ways you hope to shape it.

 Photo courtesy of Tom Pumford via Unsplash
Photo courtesy of Tom Pumford via Unsplash

Culture and compromise

Any relationship entails some degree of compromise. It’s how the lives of two unique individuals are able to meld together for the benefit of becoming a strong unit. Even if you and your partner are from the same place and race, you’re likely to have different customs or observances that you hold important and want to continue. The more dissimilar your backgrounds culturally, religiously and ethnically, the more these needs for negotiation tend to arise.

As a small example, I grew up in home where wearing shoes in the house was no big deal and everyone did it all the time. But in Indian households, it is seen as rude and unclean to have shoes on indoors, which I learned very quickly during visits to my husband’s relatives. Even though he is Americanized in so many ways, it’s still really important to him to keep our home a clean and sacred space where shoes are left at the door. So I’ve had to get over my laziness of not wanting to kick off my shoes every time I cross the threshold, and respect something I know means more to him than it inconveniences me.

If children enter the picture, the many aspects of raising a family highlight the need for compromise even more. Intercultural couples are more likely to have distinct ideas and values around religion, holidays, parental duties, meal times and household rules based on their own diverse upbringings. Though we don’t have our own kids yet, thinking about traditions we hope to share with our kids is something my husband and I talk about. In my childhood, Christmastime was really magical, from the twinkling tree to the cookie baking with my mom. These are special memories I want to create with my children someday, and although his family didn’t celebrate Christmas in any big way, my spouse is willing to support me in carrying on these traditions.

What becomes hardest is when the compromises center around really deeply felt beliefs or ideas that neither side is willing to concede. Finding the balance of when to yield and when to hold your ground is tricky and can lead to a lot of tension. If your own discussions on these matters only lead to argument or avoidance of the topic completely, it might be helpful to seek out a couple’s therapist who can act as a neutral third party and find creative compromises. Since these issues go to the core of who we are and how we identify, it can be especially threatening to feel like you may lose some part of yourself for another person. Ultimately, what’s most important is to stay wholly true to who you are and communicate your feelings with care and calm, while at the same time giving space for your partner to do the same. You are together because you love the uniqueness that makes each of you your own person, and that bond will prove stronger than the differences at hand if you approach with an open heart.

 Photo courtesy of Ian Schneider via Unsplash
Photo courtesy of Ian Schneider via Unsplash

These are just some examples of what I’ve lived in my own life and witnessed through my friends and acquaintances, but I write this knowing that every couple’s relationship and experience is unique. This may resonate with you, or perhaps you have another insight or question—please share in the comments below! Let this be an opportunity for continuing an important conversation on the many colors, cultures and kinds of relationships in our world, so we can continue to embrace and uplift love in all its many forms.

Maggie Anbalagan grew good southern roots in Louisville, Kentucky, but has always had a heart with wings that fly her around the world to explore, taste and embrace new cultures and experiences. She has volunteered in Kenya, studied abroad in Bolivia, lived and taught in Mexico, wedding shopped in India, and eaten her way through Italy. From an innate fascination with words and languages grew her love of writing, and she holds a degree in both Literature and Spanish. Maggie is also a certified Yoga Instructor and Studio Manager at Wild Heart Yoga in Austin, Texas. When she’s not jet-setting, you’ll find her in the studio and on the mat, covering miles on Austin’s trails, recreating favorite flavors in the kitchen with her husband, and writing in coffee shops around town. And you’ll never catch her without snacks in her purse. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook for all the latest shenanigans.

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