Family and parental influence in intercultural relationships

Many people I know say that in an intercultural relationship you can’t underestimate the importance of keeping good, close relationships with your partner’s parents.

In a marriage or relationship with someone from Asian culture, parents are often very involved in the relationship.

In the west, we view that in a healthy marriage, parental loyalty should never exceed spousal loyalty but I would say that in south-Asian setting, that view is fundamentally challenged in society.


It’s very common for a couple to have to get the family’s acceptance of the marriage or relationship which is why we hear so many stories of western women being kept a “secret” for many years in intercultural relationships.

And there are reasons for that- there have been countless stories of parents threatening their children that if they marry a foreigner (or even a Nepali from another caste!) then they are disowned from the family.

This concept that “parents need to approve” of the relationship is widespread in South Asian culture where arranged marriage is the norm.

The definition of marriage in Nepal varies widely compared to the West.

Things like social status, family reputation, caste influence, education levels and advancing a family’s financial interests are all considered when deciding on whether a family approves of a relationship.

In western culture, we do not need to get our parents explicit approval of our relationship- decisions are much more independent and it’s not common to cast our family’s views before seeing if they approve of the relationship.

You would be hard pressed to find an Australian, European or American person who will get their parents’ “approval” of their partner.

In an intercultural relationship with an Asian, it’s important to understand how much parents and wider family members are going to be involved in your life and in all kinds of decision-making.

I would say this is not the case for every Asian family but, yes, the vast majority. Interference with extended family is also very common.

You may or may not have heard of the influence of “Filial Piety” . It’s a Confucian philosophy which is a huge influence  in Asian culture.

Filial Piety regards respect, obedience, and care for one’s parents and elderly family members as the most important duty in life.

This influence cannot be underestimated in Asian culture and it impacts relationships and families.

As a result, there are strong expectations that you must live with parents and look after ageing parents (especially in much of Nepali culture it is the oldest son’s responsibility to look after his parents and please them/make them happy).

In Western culture, while respect for parents and grandparents is important, it’s not engrained so wholly into our culture.

The rules about living together is also influenced by this philosophy.

It’s a social norm to have four or five generations of families living under the same roof in many Asian cultures.

Big, joint families are common in Nepal and India and also China and Japan.

In South Asian culture, it’s the norm for the sons and the son’s wives to stay living with their parents their whole life under the same roof.

So if you were in a relationship with your Nepali partner it would usually be expected that if you were living in Nepal with your husband you would also be living with his parents, his grandparents, his brothers, his brothers, their wives and their kids.

As we know this is so different in Western culture. Who you live with is really a non-question- you live with your husband/ wife and your kids only.

A reader of my blog, a European lady, got married to a Nepali man and it wasn’t until later when she was planning to move to Nepal with him that she told by her husband she would have to live with his entire family permanently and if she didn’t it would be considered so rude because his family could never get over it.

She was shocked because she didn’t know enough about these expectations of Nepali society and he didn’t trap her because he genuinely thought it was so normal that you don’t even ask questions about it. It ended up in divorce.

These examples go to show how important cross-cultural communication is in a relationship.

I also often get asked by white women: what should I do if my partner is keeping me a secret from his family?

I was also a ‘secret’ for many years and it caused a lot of angst in our relationship as I thought he was not serious about me as a partner. I did not want to be a secret.

At the beginning of a relationship, I believe you should understand the cultural differences of why he can’t tell his parents.

He is still getting to know you and wants to be sure you are the right person for him (as I have explained before on this blog, Nepali and Indian men usually do not introduce their boyfriend or girlfriend to their parents).

But as time goes on, and the relationship progresses, it’s time to start pressing him more.

If you are clearly in an intimate relationship and if you are thinking about marriage and children, I think you should give him the ultimatum and ask him to tell his parents about you.

I have seen far too many examples of men who will not fight for their foreign girlfriend when it comes to their parents and the poor girl has ben strung on.

Just because they know there is some hesitation to the relationship from his parents or family though doesn’t mean you have to put up with being treated as the ‘secret’.

Don’t be afraid to talk about it with your partner- you have every right to know where you stand in the relationship.


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6 Responses to Family and parental influence in intercultural relationships

  1. hungrydai says:

    I’m a westerner but I prefer the Nepalese way of taking care of elderly parents. I regard the western way of keeping the parents separate and/or in a care home, amazingly selfish. It’s just one way of thinking.

  2. Bibi says:

    No way in HELL would I live in my husband’s ‘family compound’.
    I’d certainly take care of his elderly parents.
    But putting up with the constant fighting between his family members & the lack of privacy- NO!
    My husband was terrified to introduce me to his father. When I finally did meet his father, it was no big deal. My father in law told my husband, “Keep her, she is good, never leave her. If you leave her you will be in hell forever!”

  3. Ah good explanation. I was also a secret for a while. The first time he told his parents about me, they cried. They told him to leave me, and that I was just a phase he was going through.
    They ignored him for almost a year following, when he decided to talk to them again about it.
    I pressured him to talk to them a second time, because I was tired of coming and going from India. I was the only one working for our relationship. I came to India twice at this point, just waiting for him to marry me. I was losing hope. So he finally told his family.
    They were still upset, but they begrudgingly accepted and began planning for our wedding.
    Which happened this June.

    Now I have a great relationship with my in-laws! 🙂

  4. pooja says:

    I have also seen many Nepali guys hiding their relationship with Western women to their families, in one or two cases, until they had children even! I agree with you that after some time, depending on the seriousness of the relationship, the man should tell about his relationship to his parents and the woman has the right to ask. That’s the least he can do.. It’s very odd, otherwise.

    My parents know about my boyfriend and they have even met each other. I’ve never asked them if they ‘approve’, They know that I haven’t given a serious thought to this relationship already(cuz we’re both too young), yet they don’t object. I guess they know that I know what’s the best for me and respect that. I am sure they have some sense of disappointment in my decision, but that’s mostly because they would have preferred their daughter to live close to them. I think that it’s somewhat easier for the women, because parents have no expectations from them (about taking care of them in the old age, bringing home a good daughter-in-law etc). Since sons are the one who do all the taking care in the old age and carry tremendous amount of expectations, the parents want to have a greater control over their sons’ (adult) lives. That is why many Nepali men can’t muster the courage to tell the parents about the relationship I think.
    I think Nepali men should start standing up for themselves. It’s about time..

    I would have even given a thought to why Nepali way of old age care might have been better than the Western way IF only the parents of sons weren’t entitled to that. But that just kills it for me. If a couple has only daughters, there is no way they would ever get the same amount of care, love and societal respect during old age since they literally have to give away their daughter to her husband and his family. So to me, this system is hugely flawed because it only glorifies the sons more.

  5. Siobhan parr says:

    Long time reader, first time poster.
    I can’t say my husband ever hid our relationship from his family. Although, its possible they were just happy he was marrying at all haha. In fact I was the one that took some time to tell my family, not wanting them to worry about a foreigner marrying me for some ulterior motive. Once my family got to know him he has become a proud member of the family and a real Aussie.
    Yes, my husband’s Nepali family would have had prejudices about myself and my culture…but those have been broken down as they have got to know me. I think it was eye opening for them to realise we are not as different or strange as they might of thought and we do in fact have family values, a moral system and fun celebrations. I have also made efforts to bridge the gap and learn the Nepalese way of doing things. I am now a loved and respected member of the family and the village 😉

  6. Raj Dhamala says:

    Its amazing the way you have portrayed the way Nepalese culture is ..amazing article. Keep it up!

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