When Cultural and Neurological Diversity Meet

An encounter between people from diverse cultures frequently involves failures in communication that are caused by having different native languages, different traditions and different customs. Social interactions are prone to be interpreted differently by people from different origins and it is well known that cultural diversity may lead to a lot of confusion.

Israel, the country where I live, is a country of immigrants. As such, all Israelis are educated from a very early age to help new immigrants integrate into the Israeli culture and to show tolerance towards different cultural norms and language deficits. Moreover, most native Israelis, like me, have parents who were born elsewhere, so different cultural backgrounds are very common.

As we all know, love crosses all boundaries and when love hormones are intensely activated, cultural differences can be easily ignored. Misunderstandings and failures in communication are attributed in the beginning of mixed relationships to cultural diversity, whereas both intimate partners are aware of their different backgrounds and the foreign habits they bring with them to the relationship, so they are very tolerant towards each other’s behavior. However, as time goes by, the same conflictual issues that were tolerated when the spouse was a young new immigrant, cannot be excused or explained anymore by cultural diversity 20 years later…

In my clinic, I get to meet many culturally mixed couples, where one of the intimate partners is Israeli and the other is an immigrant from a different country and sometimes, they both immigrated to Israel from different countries of origin. Women often complain about their husbands’ ‘primitive family’ and the chauvinistic education he received, or about the ‘aristocratic family’ their spouse was brought up in, with an emphasis on exaggerated manners that are more appropriate for the British royal family…  In many of these cases though, it appears that there is a hidden neurological disability behind the obvious cultural differences.

Each one of us has been raised in a different family, with a different atmosphere and different values. This difference is of course accentuated when there are substantial cultural differences. Still, autism is primarily a genetic and hereditary disorder that contributes its influence in addition to cultural influences. All these factors are interwoven, as parents educate their children according to their own traits and personal preferences, as well as according to their cultural background and values. All of this makes it very difficult to draw the line between culture and neurology.

In fact, what I’m saying is that if you experience extreme communication failures in your relationship and if you feel that the misunderstandings between your intimate partner and you are far beyond what can be explained by cultural differences, then you are probably right and there is more going on. It may well be the case that high- functioning autism that was never diagnosed is hiding behind your different cultural backgrounds and is responsible for the confusion and the hardship in your intimate relationship.

Dr. Pnina Arad

Consulting and Coaching




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