Monday, July 30, 2007

Spousal culture curiosity

This past year was very educational for me in a number of respects. Among these experiences was my assignment as a seminarian to a staunchly ethnic Jordanian church. Although I had my issues with the way the church ran and prioritized at times (and who doesn't), I must say that in general I appreciated the assignment and grew from it in a fairly painless way.

Among the many things I learned was that Arabs don't vary much in relations between the sexes, whether they are Muslim or Christian. Generally the sexes are very much segregated in public. Now I do not mean that iron walls are constructed to enforce this separation, nor does anyone think of legislating this traditional arrangement. The entire thing is one large tacit assumption of how men and women interact.

Oddly, though it grates on modern sensibilities on some sectors, I think that this model has a lot to teach us. I bring it up because of issues a good friend of mine is having (ok fine, and I have had similar issues in the past) with considering whether or not he can be with a girl from a vastly different background.

It's odd, because those of us who feel frequently alienated by our surrounding culture, often find that different cultures promote certain values that we appreciate far more than most of our peers. Therefore, we are naturally attracted to those women as potential spouses. Unfortunately there is a drawback: The same framework that ensured a girl who is different than those we are accustomed to also places a wall of disconnect between the two people as if it was a spell cast by an evil wizard.

Seriously, it's difficult to understand a person cross-contextually. What motivates them? Why was this or that joke funny? What are the archetypal characters used in the language of a culture that simply don't translate? (for instance, try explaining "hippie" to someone outside of a context where the 60's, pot, rock, and the sexual revolution were earth shaking events.) I had this experience on a small scale with a girl I liked quite a bit. We had the same value system, but the similarities stopped there. We tried desperately to find connection, because we admired each other (I might even use the word enomored), but ultimately we have to face the fact that the paradigmatic themes, images, and even vocabularies that we existed in were difficult to transcend.

I would say that's the #1 hangup people have about seriously pursuing cross-cultural relationships. No matter how similar a belief system and how intact a person is emotionally, cultures take enculturation, and it's difficult to appreciate a person's full personality if you're removed from a similar enculturation.

But back to the Arabs, I wonder if this wasn't always the case? I mean, men and women weren't always equally educated, nor were they taught to value and appreciate the same aspects of the family. I am wondering if the latent divide isn't the more normal arrangement.

If you are at all aware of internet dating sites, look at a profile. Chances are, one desire that the person will express is that they want to marry "someone who is [their] best friend" and not "just a spouse". Somehow this seems corrupted to me. It seems to me that the Arab method is more natural. Can your spouse really be expected to be a best friend as well? Is it fair to put that on them?

I think perhaps not. Maybe we have taken too much emphasis off of spousal relations that relates to men and women giving one another precisely what cannot be had from the same-sex: fulfilling sexual relations, titillating physical affection, physical and emotional support, and the joint production and love of children.

I wonder when this language of the "best friend spouse" crept in? I'm sure a century ago that such poppycock was not as common. My guess is that it has to do with a more mobile society. Often the spouse is the only person that can be presumed to be willing to move for their other half. It would be deemed societally unacceptable for friends to plan their long-term living arrangements around one another. Imagine telling someone that you had recently moved in because your homies had moved, and so naturally you came along as well! Where it would be considered mildly abnormal for a spouse not to accommodate their other's moving needs. And the constant shifting of locations therefore means that the spouse is the only reliable friend. Whereas once, your relationships with others of your own sex was the primary basis of friendship and social connections. Each sex tended to the family prestige in certain "areas" of life.


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