The past few weeks, I have been gearing up to teach my course about culture, families, and diversity at BYU again in the fall (hopefully in person and not just online!) Through reviewing my materials from last year and thinking about how I want to teach going forward, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of culture.
What is culture? We’ve heard about it and talked about it throughout our lives, but what does it really mean? Culture can be succinctly defined as the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, roles, etc. acquired by a group of people (Samovar & Porter, 1994). Another way to describe culture is simple: culture is the way people do things.
There are several different types of culture. For example, in the business world, companies and organizations often talk about creating a culture for the employees and consumers. Ethnic groups from around the world have distinct cultures that govern their ways of life. In difficult times, we often turn to our culture, whether it be religious, ethnic, corporate, etc., as a way to cope. Leaning on cultural values and ways of living give individuals direction and comfort in uncertainty. For example, a company may lean on its cultural values when faced with a global pandemic as they decide whether to lay workers off or cut pay. A family might lean on their religious culture as they lose a loved one. When faced with oppression or discrimination, an ethnic group may lean on their ethnic culture as a way to make sense of their pain and gain strength.
The same way various types of culture can provide coping during difficult times, the culture of our relationships and families can do the same. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown suggests 10 questions that really help us understand culture. As you read through them, think about your family and relationship culture. How do these questions help guide your understanding of your own family and relationship culture? How does your culture help or hinder your individual coping?
- What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
- Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
- What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
- Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
- What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
- What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
- What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
- How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
- How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
- What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?
As a marriage and family therapist, I frequently get asked questions about challenges that may arise in marital relationships. A few common questions that I hear are, “What if my partner goes back to compulsively viewing pornography?” “What if my partner slips back into eating disorder behaviors?” “What if my partner’s anxiety becomes unmanageable again?” These are painful and difficult questions that can invoke a lot of fear and anxiety in those asking them. The unknown, especially in a relationship, can feel threatening and scary. Instead of giving a protocol, a solution, or advice, I typically like to reflect my client’s question back to them. What if that does happen? What will you do? How will you handle it together? In what ways are you building your relationship now to be able to deal with the difficulties that will come later on?
Here’s where the idea of relationship culture really becomes important. It’s not so much about what to do in each scenario, but how your relationship tolerates difficulty. When those difficulties come, are you open and honest with one another? What boundaries are set in place about what is appropriate to share outside of a marital or familial relationship? How do you handle emotional disclosures in your relationship?
As a marriage and family therapist I have seen ways in which relationship cultures lift heavy burdens off of the shoulders of individuals, heal broken hearts and wounded minds, and allows individuals to be the most authentic versions of themselves and loved for it. On the other hand, I have seen the culture of relationships inflict pain, multiply shame, and stunt individual growth and vulnerability. The culture of our relationships impacts all individuals involved in those relationships and is vital to consistently work on.
Relationship Culture is Important…Now What?
Now that we’ve discussed relationship culture and why it is important, you may be wondering how to build a healthy, open, and resilient relationship culture within your marriages and families. I think the first step is to get honest with yourself about what your relationship culture really looks like, perhaps by asking yourself the ten questions listed above. As you do so, think about the following: what do you like about the culture of your relationships? What’s not working for you? What have you observed in other relationship cultures that you’ve been a part of that you admired? That hurt you? Next month I will dive into more practical ways to build up a healthy, supportive relationship culture in your marriages and families.
Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham Books, 2012.
Samovar, Larry A and Porter, Richard E.,1994: Basic Principles of Intercultural Communication. In Larry A. Samovar and Richard E. Porter: Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 7th ed., Wadsworth, Inc., CA:USA.