Race and Culture in Couples Therapy

by | Jun 17, 2024 | Therapy | 0 comments

While relational psychotherapy privileges the space between people, the internal experiences of those constituting the relationship is also critical to understanding dynamics. Race and ethnicity are aspects of individual identity which shape and are shaped by, interactions between people. At Psychology Training and Supervision (PTS), I work with clients from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and they each have something to teach me about a different aspect of the human condition.


While racial difference is often physical and visual, ethnicity and its related aspects such as culture, language, and history, encourage clinicians to remain mindful and curious about broader contexts which are often directly intangible and yet always present. These factors remind us that parts of clients remain embedded in their histories, even as parts of them navigate the often-unchartered territories of romance and intimacy. Questions of ‘who am I?’ and ‘what do I bring to this relationship’ take on new meaning as different racial and ethnic discourses come into contact with the dance between vulnerability and protection. The space therefore holds the potential of both catalysing growth through understanding and integration, and also conflict and rupture. The common challenges that couples experience are magnified when there is racial and ethnic difference between partners, and so it would seem to follow that understanding some of common challenges that interracial couples experience is appropriate in helping them to navigate these challenges.

There are some potential challenges that could emerge when working with intimacy with interracial couples:

Cultural Differences in Expressing Affection: Cultural norms regarding physical affection and intimacy can vary significantly between partners from different backgrounds. One partner may feel comfortable with public displays of affection, while the other may prefer more reserved expressions. Negotiating these differences and finding a mutually acceptable balance can be challenging.

Communication Barriers: Language barriers or differences in communication styles due to cultural differences can hinder intimate communication between partners. Misinterpretations or misunderstandings may arise, leading to feelings of frustration or disconnection.

Navigating Stereotypes and Prejudices: Interracial couples may encounter stereotypes or prejudices from society or even from within their own social circles. These external influences can affect their confidence and comfort in expressing intimacy openly, leading to feelings of insecurity or self-doubt.

Family Acceptance and Approval: Family attitudes towards interracial relationships can impact a couple’s intimacy. Concerns about acceptance from one or both partners’ families may create stress or tension, making it challenging to fully engage in intimate moments without feeling judged or scrutinized.

Cultural Sensitivities in Sexual Practices: Differences in cultural attitudes towards sexuality and sexual practices may influence intimacy within the relationship. Partners may have varying expectations or comfort levels regarding sexual expression, requiring open and honest communication to navigate these differences respectfully.

Navigating Racial Identity and Self-Image: Interracial couples may grapple with questions of racial identity and self-image, which can affect their sense of intimacy and connection with each other. Issues related to self-esteem, cultural pride, and internalized racism may arise, impacting the couple’s ability to be vulnerable and intimate with one another.

It would not be surprising to recognise that the factors mentioned above, although far from being a complete list, are familiar to many clinicians. The usual approaches to couples therapy that centre on process are greatly enriched by considering the value of recognising and integrating aspects of race and culture. The world is rapidly changing and clinicians are therefore required to remain curious and flexible to understanding the differences that clients bring to the therapeutic encounter, to enhance the quality of the experience. If you’re curious and want to know more, please consult with us at PTS by following the link below:https://psychologytrainingandsupervision.com.au/private-therapy/

To see our offerings of Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) training, please go to TF-CBT Australia