Why Your Interracial/Multinational Couples Might be Dropping Out: A Self-of-the-Therapist Exploration of Critical Factors


Why are your interracial/multinational couples dropping out of therapy?

Navigating interracial relationships is hard and, from our insider experience in the United States (U.S.), we have found that marriage and family therapists (MFTs) could benefit greatly from applying a special approach with these couples to help them succeed. We consider interracial to mean the historically Black-White couple dyad in addition to overlooked interracial combinations, including multinational couples (inter-ethnic couples where one partner is a U.S. immigrant). In this article, we describe two types of interracial experiences: what it may be like to be in an interracial relationship, generally, and being in an interracial relationship while navigating the immigration system, specifically. We then offer suggestions for clinical practice with interracial and inter-ethnic couples based on a self-of-the-therapist approach.

The basic facts about interracial couple relationships

For the majority of U.S. history, engaging in an interracial relationship was looked down upon and discriminated against. It was also illegal. It was only recently, on June 12, 1967 (i.e., later termed “Loving Day”), that the U.S. Supreme court effectively struck down all state laws against interracial marriage in the U.S. Now, a little more than 50 years after Loving v. Virginia (a Black-White couple), one-in-six newlyweds are married to someone of a different race or ethnicity (Pew Research Center, 2017). We see this as a positive trend, and we are also concerned about the stressors interracial/inter-ethnic couples experience. Though interracial marriage is now legal in all U.S. states, interracial couples face many challenges that same-race couples do not face, such as discrimination and racism, antagonism and dealing with outsiders, increased resistance from family, and an acculturation process (Seshadri & Knudson-Martin, 2013). Given that interracial relationships are still somewhat politically and socially controversial and experience multiple unique hardships, it is unsurprising that the rate of divorce among interracial couples is higher than for same-race couples (Bratter & King, 2008).

For example, in my (SS) case, our courtship and marriage brought about unfortunate experiences with explicit and implicit biases and stereotypes. My husband is North African and technically racially White and ethnically Arab/North African, with a rich cultural and religious identity. However, he is largely considered a Person of Color and spoken to slowly when out and about. He is also commonly ignored in social situations and asked about by others who appear to feel entitled to learn about him without directly speaking to him. I, a European American and Arab/West Asian, White woman, often feel put on the spot and uncomfortable when others, often perfect strangers, ask invasive questions about our interracial/multi-national relationship. And I believe attention to and understanding the nuance of one’s multifaceted identity and the hardships faced in their social structure are critical in the therapeutic realm.

Discrimination and racism

Having more contact and opportunities to interact with diverse individuals from
other cultures have created increased levels of openness to the experience of dating other cultures (Fiebert et al., 2000). However, although some feel additional openness to engage in interracial relationships, positive attitudes and acceptance towards interracial relationships are limited by stereotypes and social messages (Bratter & Eschbach 2006). Media perpetuated myths, varying acceptance in different racial groups, and higher divorce rates all contribute to a negative attitude regarding the subject (e.g., Bratter & King, 2008; Killian, 2003).

Further, in the past, discrimination towards those in interracial relationships was more visible, whereas now, the manifestation of prejudice may be hidden and covert (Nemoto, 2004). For example, in my (SS) case, whether my partner and I are alone or with our same-race/ethnic friends, complete strangers, service providers, or even healthcare specialists, consistently ask us where we are “really from” and how we “really met.” This boundary crossing is unnecessary, inappropriate, invasive, and highlights entitlement others have to our stories, as well as the emotional labor interracial/multi-ethnic couples are forced to experience, which are exacerbated by common daily relational struggles, in comparison to same-race/ethnic peers. Additionally, and related to covert prejudice, issues of invisibility vs. visibility for interracial couples still occur, which is mediated by public places or other discourses: (e.g., affection vs. pretending to be friends or only believing that the public sphere is unsafe. See Karis, 2011; Sullivan, 2005; Steinbugler, 2005).

Antagonism and dealing with the “outside”

Growing up, and even when I (GS) am in different personal or professional circles, whenever the topic of interracial couples is broached, there is usually a negative response that I hear, such as “Oh, that is a problem,” “I couldn’t deal with that,” or “my family wouldn’t approve of that/I don’t want my child choosing that” or “I’m open,” yet when amidst it, biases and inflexibility abound. Having worked with interracial couples in my clinical practice and having the experience of being in these types of relationships enables me to have both an inside and outside perspective. It is also important to note that interracial couples not only often have to deal with cultural differences (e.g., practices and traditions), but also how their visible racial differences (e.g., variances in skin tone/color, body shape/features) impact the outside world, including their families. For example, a couple with differing skin tone and color would get a different emotional and physical reaction just from others observing them, because they are seen as “different” and their couplehood is not part of the societal norm.

Acculturation and bridging cultural differences

As part of the acculturation process, interracial and inter-ethnic couples must also bridge cultural differences to establish and maintain a secure couple identity. Before getting married, interracial couples are probably aware of at least some differences between them. But they may be surprised with just how deep some differences run and how many assumptions they may hold about their similarities, which can produce relationship dysfunction that is difficult to manage without professional help. For example, before getting married, my (RO) husband and I thought we had identical faith/belief systems given we were both raised in conservative, evangelical Christian homes. Then, we discovered overlaps between our faith backgrounds, gender roles and expectations, and how our gendered expectations were deeply rooted in cultural values.

Stressors for interracial couples navigating the U.S. immigration system

We also want to make space in this article for multinational couples, in this case, interracial couples who are navigating the U.S. immigration system. In addition to the usual family life cycle change stressors that same-race and interracial couples experience after getting married, inter-ethnic couples seeking U.S. permanent residency experience a few unique, culturally based stressors. While they navigate early married life and begin learning how to develop a shared couple identity, they also must tackle permanent residency applications. The immigration process in the U.S. is anything but short, simple, and easy.

There are a few different paths to citizenship, one of which is seeking permanent residency vis-a-vis marriage or family sponsorship. Going through the marriage sponsorship route, couples must file the permanent residency paperwork themselves, either alone or with an immigration lawyer, and the process is long, daunting, tedious, and stressful. If even a single detail is out of place, the application is returned and several more weeks (at least) are tacked onto the process. After a usually long wait, and one that typically involves the U.S. citizen over-functioning in the relationship due to minimal resource access for the applicant, couples with successful applications receive notice they have been approved for the immigration interview. Immigration interviews are intensely scrutinizing, and stress can be high for both partners, knowing their future in the U.S. is in someone else’s hands. Once an application is approved, it can still be another six months before the immigrant partner receives their permanent residency card, and a 2-year follow-up is scheduled where couples must prove their relationship is “legitimate.” All this places incredible amounts of stress on interracial/inter-ethnic couples, which can make the early years of marriage more difficult, less like a “honeymoon” phase, and increase inter-ethnic multinational couples’ risk for divorce and intimate partner violence (IPV) as compared to their same-ethnic counterparts (Chartier & Caetano, 2012).

Intimate partner violence among interracial/multinational couples

All types of relationships, including interracial couples, can experience both uni- and bi-directional IPV. Though a study of dating college students of Black-White interracial couples in the U.S. suggested there is no difference between interracial and same-race couples’ risk for IPV (Field et al., 2015), multiple other studies with married and cohabiting couples suggested interracial couples in the U.S. may be at increased risk. Specifically, interracial couples appear twice as likely to experience bidirectional violence than same-race White couples and 1.5 times more than same-race global majority couples, with the exception of same-race Black couples where mutual violence appears similar (Fusco, 2010; ). Though no overarching theory exists to explain why interracial couples face an elevated risk of IPV (), sociocultural stressors discussed in the present article may partially explain why interracial couples in the U.S. reported similar relational violence as same-race Black couples and more violence than same-race White couples (Martin et al., 2013). Indeed, interracial couples appear to experience unique cultural and racial stressors that may lead to struggles with communication and conflict resolution and often set them up for failure in their relationships. Additional stressors such as these may increase the risks of violence in comparison to same-race couple relationships (Fusco, 2010; see also Bratter & Eschbach, 2006). We suggest the added stress involved with U.S. immigration processes can exacerbate conflict between interracial/multinational partners who may already be struggling to communicate in healthy and effective ways with each other and result in more instances of violence.

With the increased risk of interracial IPV, but so little research available on why it occurs, we urge clinicians to thoroughly assess interracial couples for the historic and current presence of IPV and their patterns of conflict escalation. During assessment, we suggest areas of exploration such as assessing known cultural and racial differences when approaching and managing conflict as well as times when conflict unmanageable. We also suggest assessing for IPV in long-term, non-cohabiting couples in addition to married and cohabiting couples, with the latter often represented extensively in the literature. Clinicians may also find it helpful to provide: 1) psychoeducation and skills training around physiological self-soothing during conflict; and (2) an exploration of how the aforementioned socio-cultural stressors might be influencing a couple’s violence, such as by affecting partners’ abilities to emotionally regulate or the likelihood of seeing one’s partner as a threat.

Access to interracially competent therapists

There is a difference between being multiculturally sensitive and being able to work effectively with interracial couples. In reality, some models, theories, interventions, and ways of being, are ineffective, insensitive, and simply don’t work for interracial couples despite adding a multicultural lens to them. The gap here often relates to the unspoken dynamics between couples and therapists, not to mention legal and ethical concerns such as crisis situations related to high conflict couples and IPV. This means there are often added difficulties interracial couples face when finding a good fit with a therapist. Finding a good therapeutic fit can be further complicated by being limited to seeing a therapist within their state due to licensure restrictions and lack of licensure portability. Further, if one partner is in another state or country, therapy can be impossible because of this restriction, which can heighten an already rocky dynamic due to race/ethnic/cultural dynamics, long distance, and immigration procedures. Despite lobbying on licensure portability, interracial couples (and MFTs) are still in a bind, further increasing the oppression of this already oppressed group.

Coming together as a unified couple and bridging incredibly different lived experiences into one family, couples may experience a lot of heartache and increased attachment insecurity. For example, even though I (RO) am a therapist trained in emotionally focused therapy, an attachment-based treatment for couples, I discovered it was quite difficult to implement my professional knowledge into my personal life. As therapists everywhere can attest, we are much closer to our own relationship challenges than we are to those of our clients, which can make “practicing what we teach” much easier said than done. Combined with our (RO, GS, & SS) firsthand experiences and interracial couples’ constant difficulties, the rising divorce rate and increased risk of for interracial couples underscored for us the vital importance of having access to MFTs who understand inter-ethnic/interracial relationship dynamics and challenges. Unfortunately, as we searched directories of the MFTs in our areas who might be a good fit for interracial couples, beyond those who advertise attention to this topic such as ourselves, we were unable to locate any who demonstrated that they specifically understood the nuances of this topic. Further, it may also be pertinent to mention that this may be the case because it is not even offered as a category of service on many therapist directories, beyond ‘diversity’ or ‘racial identity,’ leaving it on the therapist to emphasize this in their written sections if they choose.

Finding a good therapeutic fit can be further complicated by being limited to seeing a therapist within their state due to licensure restrictions and lack of licensure portability.

Strengths and resources of interracial couples

Interracial couples who have or are navigating the immigration system display an incredible amount of resilience, hope, dedication, initiative, and perseverance. Intercultural couples, regardless of racial combination, may also have more experience developing cultural sensitivity and humility and discovering what their relationship uniquely needs that might be different from the couples around them who have not experienced the stresses of immigration. Drawing on these strengths in therapy can increase their hope for change and be channels through which MFTs can effectively deliver interventions.

Some of the things that have helped us (RO) begin to bridge the gap created by our cultural differences have been our children and finding common ground as parents. Another helpful strategy has been seeing the value in making sure our children grow up with a clear understanding of both cultures and have a clear bi-cultural identity. For us, this means being more intentional about ways we display West African culture in our home alongside U.S. culture, regularly eating both U.S. and West African cuisine, and playing music we both enjoy. We also share each other’s traditions during religious holidays and life events.

Even interracial couples who do not have to navigate the stressors of immigration also still benefit from creating a shared culture or celebration of their backgrounds and values. For me, (GS) making space for both my own traditions and my partner’s, includes eating South Asian foods, wearing South Asian clothing, playing South Asian classical music, and practicing U.S., Japanese, South Asian, and interreligious traditions during life events.

Improving retention of interracial couples in practice

Race and culture can be central issues for interracial couples and is another set of added layers on top of the other relationship issues that same-race couples bring into our offices that are often unacknowledged by each of the partners and the therapist. From common factors research, we know that the therapeutic alliance is crucial to the success of therapy and to the prevention of dropout; this is even more so the case with interracial couples; often this is the case because of the oppression that they have had to either face or internalize.

  • We now invite you to consider yourself as the therapist as one of the greatest factors that will either help an interracial couple engage fully in the therapeutic process or send them out the door. Take a moment to consider these questions:
  • How much are you aware of your own thoughts, feelings, and postures around your own social locations (including race, ethnicity, nationality, and U.S. citizenship)?
  • In what ways do you consider it your responsibility to bring up race/ethnicity with interracial clients? Or other social locations? If this makes you feel uneasy, what are some ways you can lean into discomfort and create opportunities for deeper engagement around race/ethnicity in therapy?
  • How comfortable are you bringing race and ethnicity into the conversation during assessment and treatment? Are these specific to certain racial or ethnic groups? If you are not comfortable with bringing it up in general or it’s specific to certain groups, what do you think blocks you from doing so? How is it shaped by today’s socio-political environment? We do not assume that you must align politically with every interracial couple you have; however, we are asking you to consider how the socio-political dynamics, including immigration issues in the U.S., affect you as the therapist and your interracial/multinational clients.
  • How aware are you of how partners of color can potentially be measuring parts of themselves and feeling unsure whether they can bring those parts into the therapeutic relationship? If you’ve never considered this dynamic, how can you better attune to your clients in this way?
  • How often, if ever, do you think about what interracial couples may fear about couples therapy based on your racial/ethnic identity? How ready are you to have conversations where you can acknowledge how this may influence the treatment process and the related layers of experience for the couple? For example, in a case with one Black-White heterosexual couple meeting with a Black male therapist, the wife (White) confessed she had been afraid the therapist would align more with her husband since they were both Black males.
  • How readily are you able to admit when you are wrong or have your own biases in front of your client? For example, when hearing a client’s cultural, racial, or ethnic experience, how are you able to admit when it does not match what you have heard from others you know with that same background? If not, what is the block for you? How can you address this with the client in a way that is supportive of them?
  •  As you attune to your couples, how do you take the interracial combination into account when considering each partner’s experience of the relationship or other details? For example, the experience of a Black-White couple is going to be different from a Latinx-Black couple and even more different than a South Asian-White couple. These dynamics become even more nuanced when exploring differences across genders with these combinations or other varied social locations.
  •  As you attune to your couples, how do you factor in cultural and racial differences to expressions of anger and discord to distinguish between situational couple violence and culturally acceptable expressions of anger and conflict? How might your racial biases related to intense emotional expression and exhibited conflict influence how you assess for IPV? How might you navigate personal values about what behaviors constitute IPV when working with a couple whose cultural backgrounds might sanction their “violent” behavior?

These are just a few of the questions that can get us to consider how well we are positioned to attune to and develop/maintain a strong therapeutic alliance with our interracial couples as well as ethically navigate issues of safety and culture when IPV is present. As with all couples, the therapeutic alliance is not established at the beginning of treatment, never to be revisited. It is dynamic and goes through multiple ruptures and repairs throughout the course of successful treatment. Lack of attunement to racialized, ethnic, cultural, and contextualized experiences and their nuances may also be common sources of alliance ruptures. With interracial couples, we are suggesting that attention to race/ethnicity as a relationship dynamic, both between partners and between the therapist and couple, is crucial in forming the alliance, repairing it when it is ruptured, and improving therapeutic engagement and retention.

Dr. Rachael A. Dansby Olufowote, LMFT, is a Texas native living in the Midwest in a multinational and interracial marriage and has navigated the immigration system with her husband who is from West Africa. The couple have two daughters and are the Co-Founders and CEOs of MixedMessages Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm established to help interracial couples/families, and institutions create a third culture at home and in the workplace. Dr. Olufowote is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and Professional Member with the Clinical Fellow designation and serves on the board of the Indiana Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. She is an Assistant Professor and the Online Program Director at Alliant International University in the Couple and Family Therapy MA program. Her research and clinical interests include adult attachment change, interracial/multinational couples and families, Emotionally Focused Therapy, and qualitative research.

Dr. Gita Seshadri, LMFT, is a California native living in California and is in an interracial/multiracial, interethnic, interreligious, and intercultural relationship. Dr. Seshadri is also an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and Professional Member with Clinical Fellow designation and held previous positions within the Board of AAMFT-CA. She is an Associate Professor at Alliant International University in the Couple and Family Therapy program. Her research and clinical interests include process-based research, trauma, interracial/intercultural couples and families, and qualitative research.

Dr. Sarah K. Samman, LMFT, is a binational (U.S and West Asian), bilingual (Arabic and English) therapist in a multinational, interracial, and intercultural marriage. She has navigated the immigration system with her spouse who is from the Middle East/North Africa. The couple have two wonderful children. Dr. Samman is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and Professional Member with the Clinical Fellow designation and is an Associate Professor at Alliant International University in the Couple and Family Therapy program. Her interests include a focus on multiculturalism, gender and power in couple and family relationships, influences of spirituality and chronic illnesses on couples and families, student clinical/therapeutic and research preparedness, and qualitative research.


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