Carolyn Hax: Marriage threatened by cultural differences

Carolyn Hax
Columnist June 20

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My fiance and I are planning a small, affordable wedding with our family and friends next year. We are a young couple who decided that homeownership is more important than an extravagant wedding, and we are making sacrifices on the guest list, venue, wedding dress and decorations to make sure that we can afford this wedding and our mortgage payments.

My main problem is my fiance’s family. They come from Vietnam, and he believes that his family will feel that they will lose face if we do not have a catered seven-course meal with black-tie wait staff, like his siblings had when they got married.

We are paying for this wedding ourselves, and I do not want such a huge expense, plus I feel that my blue-collar family, and I as well, would be very uncomfortable with something so formal. Whenever I try to explain this to my fiance, he tells me I am being culturally insensitive and that I cannot understand because I am not Vietnamese.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Should I allow us to take on an expensive extravagance for the sake of being culturally sensitive?

Wedding

I try not to go too crazy in picking apart word choices, but in this case I think the way you wrote this sentence — “My main problem is my fiance’s family”— is a potentially marriage-killing mistake.

Your “main problem” is not his family. It’s that you and your husband don’t agree on how to handle your cultural differences. And that includes the failure of both of you to recognize that the “for the sake of being culturally sensitive” imperative applies to both of you. He is just as obligated to agree to an informal wedding that would make your family comfortable as you are to agree to a formal wedding to make his family comfortable.

Neither of you has any claim to cultural primacy here, and I don’t like your chances until you’re both ready to see this — or until one of you decides you just don’t care enough to hold your ground and defers to the other’s way of handling appearances.

The latter option is fraught, though, so don’t pounce on it just because it’s there. Too many people enter that state more with an “I don’t want to break up so I’ll make this sacrifice” mind-set than “I genuinely don’t give a [fig] which culture we honor and, hey, his rituals are fascinating to me — and even though I think his parents are being irrational and forcing mine to make a sacrifice they themselves refuse to make, my fiance recognizes this and won’t allow this to set a precedent, and is prepared to make it up to me in other ways, including to stand up to them when the stakes are higher; plus, he and I are solid in words and deeds on respecting each other’s needs, plus he defers to me on X, which I value so much more, so bring on the seven-course meal.”

You’ve got to see the long game (past the even longer sentence) here. Figure out your priorities, then hold whatever ground you must.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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