Christian Pre-Marital Counseling, Asian-American Style

(The following was originally posted on The Good Book Blog in four parts by Dr. Benjamin Shin. It is presented here in its entirety with minor edits for flow.)

Unique Cultural Needs of an Asian-American Couple

Recently, a friend contacted me and asked for a resource in pre-marital counseling that would be specific to some of the unique cultural needs of an Asian-American couple. I thought about this for a while and realized that I was not familiar with such a curriculum. I explained to him that I typically use material by Family Life’s Dennis and Barbara Rainey and add my own insights on some of the challenges for Asian-Americans in preparing to get married.

Simply put, the biggest difference in counseling an Asian-American couple in pre-marital counseling boils down to issues related to family relationships, especially in regards to parents and in-laws. This will be examined in light of some well-known passages that address this topic. Typically, this begins with the passage in Genesis 2:24 which states, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” This idea has been termed by Christians as the concept of “leaving and cleaving.” In other words, the newly married couple leaves the comforts, financial support, and authority of his/her respective parents and then cleaves to one another as they start a brand new family entity. This allows for growth, maturity, responsibility, independence, and a future lineage to begin.

In light of this biblical idea, there is a difference of interpretation between Western and Eastern interpreters, not necessarily on the concept itself, but more on the duration of this principle. Specifically, the “cleaving” part is not a problem for most Asian-American parents of the newly married couple. It is the “leaving” part that is debated and in some cases even rejected. When can “children” leave the authority of their parents? How should they continue to honor them? What obligations do they need to practice continually? Here are some of the possible challenges to this discussion along with a few biblical passages that are interpreted differently.

This discussion begins with a familiar passage from Ephesians 6:1 which states, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” The debate focuses on the meaning of the word “children.” Most likely, Westerners, who are time oriented, would emphasize the age of the child in question. So this person would cease to be a child, for example, at the age of 18, when he becomes more independent, being able to sustain his own income and take care of his own bills and financial responsibilities. An Eastern mindset, which places much more emphasis on status, rank, and relationship would see a child as a child from a parent’s perspective potentially as long as the parent and child are alive. In other words, no matter how old the son or daughter is, the Asian parent will see them as their child even with the change in marital status.

This perspective thus includes the expectation of complete obedience and even life-long care from their children. The reason is that most Asian-American cultures are extremely hierarchical in nature largely due to Confucian influences that emphasizes filial piety. Filial piety and Confucianism emphasize five different relationships, one of them being between parents and children.

As a result of this differing perspective on “children” coupled with the influence of Confucian filial piety, the duration of loyalty towards Asian parents is extended. This adds to the difficulty to “leave” parents in the traditional Western manner that is often understood. So although the “children” may be able to physically “leave” the home, they are still culturally bound by their parent’s authority. In addition, yet another passage is also used to preserve this idea of life-long care and provision. The passage is 1 Timothy 5:8 that says “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he had denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” While the specific context of this passage seems to apply mainly to widows, the passage is often used in a way that would include both parents until their passing.

Culturally and practically, this plays out in the following ways: Traditionally, it was the responsibility of the oldest child, typically male, to take care of the parents in their older age. The way that this was shown practically was that they would take them into their homes and watch over them in the same way that their parents took care of them when they were younger. As a result, a rest home or convalescent hospital would have been out of the question. The duration of the reciprocated relationship basically extended over a lifetime. This trend has been changing though over the last few decades as more and more Asian-Americans are following more Westernized practices of having their parents put into such institutions.

I do personally believe that there are merits to both the Western and Eastern perspective here.  Obviously, caring for aging parents is a great virtue and would be a part of honoring them (Eph. 6:2). On the other hand, it would be important for the newly married couple to be able to grow and establish themselves well for not only their future but also for their children and the following generations. And I would simply stress the point that these differences need to be brought out and discussed in the pre-marital counseling time so that there would be no surprises in the future for the marrying couple. My goal in this article is not to make a judgment of what is right or wrong in these concepts, but rather to show the difference of perspectives in practice.

In summary, I have discussed the concept of how the parent-child relationship is viewed differently from an Eastern Asian style than a Western American style. With this difference comes the difficulty of “leaving and cleaving” as found in Genesis 2:25. This also relates to obedience from parents for a lifetime since being a child is viewed more as a permanent status rather than an age range. This is also coupled with a long-term care of the parents supported by passages such as 1 Timothy 5:8 which states that if one does not care for his family that he is worse than an unbeliever.

In the next section, I will give some suggestions on how Asian-American couples can honor their parents in a biblical manner that is also culturally appropriate.


Asian-American Wedding Dynamics

I want to examine two Asian dynamics that influence the upcoming wedding ceremony that is often discussed as a part of the pre-marital counseling. These influences are the honor-shame dynamic and the concept of collectivist thinking. Both of these ideas will be explained and then they will be demonstrated specifically in terms of booking a site for the wedding ceremony.

The practice of honor-shame is a prevalent part of Asian culture. Simply put, people need to honor others especially those who are older.  As a result, they need to do everything possible not to shame them or their family. This cultural practice is prevalent not only in different Eastern cultures today but was also prevalent during biblical times and seen in many occasions. For example, we see this dynamic in the Joseph and Mary narrative in Matthew 1:18-25. Mary was engaged to Joseph yet was with child by the Holy Spirit. We are told in Matthew 1:19 that “Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.” He did this because it would have shamed Mary to be with a child during their engagement period. It was only through the divine intervention of an angel in a dream that Joseph realized that there was no sin or impropriety involved but rather a special divine appointment by God for a virgin birth.

So within this honor-shame practice, it is imperative that parents be honored in some meaningful way in and through the whole wedding ceremony process. This may be carried out typically through two different means: 1) through the location of the wedding and 2) through the guest list and invitation of people close to the family of the bride and groom.

In terms of the location of the wedding site, there is an implied idea of a “sacred” or more “honorific” place for a wedding than what younger couples prefer today in wedding ceremonies. For this reason, many older Asian-American Christian parents would prefer for their “kids” to get married in a church rather than in a hotel or outdoor venue. Part of this may be the influence of the traditional religious value (i.e. liturgical background) but there is also an honorific cultural portion to this as well.

The concept of a “sacred place” is rooted in ancient Jewish thinking as well. A biblical example of the “honorific site” manner of thinking may be found in Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritan women in John 4:19-24. Jesus had just confronted this woman concerning her multiple husbands in John 4:18. She acknowledges him as a prophet.  She goes on further to say in vs. 20 that “our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” For this woman, there was a fixed, sacred place that constituted “honorific” worship. This is the same kind of thinking that current, older, Christian, Asian-American parents have. This may even be found in groups today such as Presbyterian or Reformed traditions due to their value of a higher liturgy. Jesus amazingly responds back to this woman by stating that “an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” Instead, Jesus speaks about a time when the true worship is not bound to a specific place but rather to a specific focus of worshiping in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). This example illustrates the two different kinds of thinking related to an “honorific” place of worship.

This idea is also coupled with the collectivist cultural principle that is also at work. The best way that I try to explain this mindset is by stating that while a Western thinker may focus himself on the idea of “me” the Eastern thinker sees things in terms of “we.” In other words, the idea is on the group or community rather than on the individual. This is certainly a huge difference between the two cultures. As the honor-shame dynamic is at work, the addition of this collectivist mindset is also very active. The Asian-American culture is very inclusive. To leave someone out of the group would shame them. This doubly puts pressure on the marrying couple to invite more people to the wedding in order to honor their parents through this wedding ceremony.  The reason is that these guests have a relationship with the parents of the bride and groom. To not invite them would shame the parents. This would be accentuated even more if the parents were leaders or long tenured members of the church.

This may appear unreasonable to the couple because in many cases, they may not even know these potential guests personally. But this is the cultural dynamic that is at work here. A possible solution to the growing guest list and the limited budget may be simple. The newly married couple just needs to make a “cameo” appearance at the parent’s church the next day just to honor and appreciate the church community for the support of the family as a whole. Another possible solution is to provide a special meal for the church on behalf of the family.

For some, both of these ideas may seem trite or unimportant. But from a cultural and generational standpoint, they may be huge points of contention. Again, this is a general stereotype that may or may not apply to all due to the different degrees of Westernization of parents. It is just a possible insight that may prove to be helpful in the future in order to avoid conflict in the planning and preparation of that special day. In the next blog, I will discuss the idea of differing family dynamics within the Asian-American culture and how to offset the differences and possible clashes.

These are just some of the key differences of the dynamics of Asian-American weddings specifically in relationship to “honoring” the parents and their guests at the wedding ceremony.


Relational Dynamics of Different Asian-American Families

I’d like to discuss some of the challenges related to the relational dynamics of the different families prior to marriage. This will include “family matching,” approval of different vocations, and the transfer of authority from the father/mother to the husband and bride.

One of the significant markers that is involved in “family matching” has to do with the level of where each family stands in terms of education, socio-economic status, and even if the family unit is intact or not. What this means is that often times, the parents of the marrying couple will examine the other family to see if there is a sense of equality in all of these variables or not. And if they are not at equal levels or close to it, there is often disapproval for marriage. This is unfortunate and perhaps even unreasonable at times, but this is the reality for a culture that is greatly based on a hierarchical strata due in large part to Confucian influence. Each family needs to be approximately at the same level in order to be considered compatible.

Hopefully, if the family members are committed followers of Christ, this can be overlooked. But in my experience, even some of the most committed, older Christian parents still hold on to these values. And I do believe that the intention for this is pure. The parents who hold to this simply want their “children” to have something better than what they themselves had when they were growing up. For in cases such as if either the groom or bride-to be comes from a divorced family, the fear that the dissenting parents may have is that this may be repeated in their children’s behavior. This may or may not be true, and it would be difficult to predict this with great accuracy consistently. Hopefully, with good pre-marital counseling, a good community and church for support, and a strong personal commitment to Christ from the couple, this will not be a problem.

Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles in Asian-American couples getting married has to do with the approval of different vocations. Here are some of the scenarios that may pose difficulty in getting approval from the parents for marriage: 1) if the woman makes more money than the man, then he is viewed as a poor provider; 2) if the woman has more education and a more “prestigious” job- i.e. lawyer, doctor, executive, and the man is maybe just a high school teacher; 3) if the woman is marrying a pastor or missionary.

This last scenario by far is the biggest hurdle to overcome. I have seen more situations like this than I can count! The main concern from the Asian parents is that the man in particular would not be able to provide for the daughter/wife. And so the concern is that they will be poor all their lives and eat only at McDonald’s each night while living in a rundown rented single-bedroom apartment. Happiness is not valued as much as the social aspect of security here.

The solution to this challenge is simple: the husband just needs to demonstrate a long-term, loving commitment to the wife and her family. This doesn’t necessarily mean only in financial terms (although that can’t hurt!). It means that the husband will always work hard, provide for food and lodging, and is saving to prepare for a family in the future. Whatever may be lacking financially can be compensated for by a strong commitment of love paid out in full by action. That is the proving ground that parents are looking for in future son-in-law. As long as the groom can communicate this assurance to the parents, this may prove to be the turning point towards marriage.

The last challenge to overcome has to do with the transfer of authority from parents to the marrying couple. In my first blog, I explained how the practice of “leaving and cleaving” from Genesis 2:24 may be a little trickier in an Asian-American context because of the difference in viewing a “child” from a Western and an Eastern perspective. Specifically, I’d like to demonstrate how the implications of “leaving,” and more so “cleaving,” are worked out in an Asian-American context.

We know the teaching of Ephesians 6:1-2 which exhorts “children to obey their parents” and to “honor their father and mother.” While this is a transcultural command that begins in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:12) and certainly extends into the New Testament (Ephesians 6:1-2), the understanding and interpretation plays heavily in regards to the transfer of authority. The tension comes in that when a young woman gets married, technically and biblically, she is no longer under the authority of her father but now under the authority of her husband.

This idea if affirmed in passages like Ephesians 5:22 which calls “wives to be subject to their husbands as unto the Lord.” As this command is given, the authority of the father is no longer mentioned once this new union has formed through marriage. The problem arises now in that culturally, this may not be the understanding of the father especially in the expectation and practice of the relationship post-marriage. It may be that the father continues to expect complete submission as long as she lives. This may not be a problem if the husband and the father-in-law are in general agreement. But what if there are differing ideas and values that could lead to tension as well as a potential clash? This is where the clear transfer of authority is necessary in order to prevent this potential problem.

It would be important to mention here that this teaching of the transfer of authority is widely held throughout many different cultures and not limited only to Western culture. While this is true, it may be difficult for this to be practiced within an Asian cultural circumstance. This is where the hybrid idea of an “Asian-American” perspective may be valuable to embrace. For a more Westernized Asian-American, this concept would make total sense. But for an Asian of an older generation, this idea may be unheard of.

This idea of transferred authority not only affects the daughter in relationship to her husband and father but there is also a parallel that sons may face between their mothers and their wives. Again the issue comes down to authority. In this situation, the mother obviously was the caretaker of the son/husband for many years dating back to childhood. But when the son becomes of age to marry, there is now a dilemma that he must face in terms of allegiance. When conflicted, should the son/husband side with his mother or with his wife? I believe that the clear answer is for his wife. This may prove difficult to do initially but it is the wisest thing to help preserve the peace in the marriage. In order to do this effectively, it will be necessary for the husband/son to explain this to his mother so that she would understand. He needs to affirm his love and thankfulness for the years of care but at the same time needs to let her know that he now needs to build up his own wife and live with her in an understanding and caring manner (1 Peter 3:7).

These challenges will be fairly typical in any courtship situation not only with couples but when whole families begin to interact with each other. Prayer, love, and perseverance are keys to helping make this process more bearable and ultimately resolvable. It may be the case that some Asian-American couples face none of these challenges at all. God bless you in that! And some couples may face all of these obstacles as well. God bless you in that as well as the Lord stretches you and grows you in and through this process.

The next section will deal with more specifics of the actual wedding day and ceremony. God bless you as the Lord grows you in His loving and merciful way!


Practical Advice for an Asian-American Wedding

We have previously been working through some of the unique and distinct challenges that Asian-American couples face in regards to preparing for weddings and marriage (Part OnePart Two, and Part Three).This article has raised some of the issues that typically come out during pre-marital counseling sessions. The goal has been to try and understand some of these cultural dynamics that may be vastly different from the many books that are out there on the subject of pre-marital counseling and marriage that may be written from a Western perspective. Some of these differences include dealing with parents, setting up appropriate wedding venues and services, transfer of authority between parents and spouses, guest lists for the wedding, and other potentially shame based challenges.

This section will now give some general and practical advice on how to resolve some of these tensions.

The first advice that I would give to the couple would be to prioritize what aspects of the wedding are negotiable and what are non-negotiable. In other words, the couple needs to carefully choose their battles in regards to their preferences when they discuss the wedding plans with their respective parents. This will especially be true when dealing with parents and in-laws who have differing cultural preferences from the typical Westernized Asian-American couple. The big question then to ask is “which issues or hills should a couple ‘die on’?”

The first important piece of advice that I would give is to not die on every hill. It simply is not worth it. When a couple cannot agree with older parents who may represent either a different cultural or even generational custom, they will find tremendous hardship and stress. The better attitude would be to have the following simple slogan: give and take. What this means is that the couple needs to figure out what are the most important non-negotiable parts of a wedding for them and which are not. Once this decision is made, then the parts that are not so significant can be given up to the favor of parents and older generational preferences. This advice can certainly be helpful across all cultures not just Asian ones.

For example, a discussion of who may perform the wedding may be an issue. The parents may favor their own pastor versus a pastor that the couple knows well. In this case, the couple can allow the different pastors to participate in different parts of the wedding ceremony. The parent’s pastor may do the homily or the benediction while the couple’s pastor may oversee the vows. The issue is more that the respective pastors be represented on behalf of each family. This is another aspect of the whole honor and shame dynamic. As long as this can occur, there should be peace and mutual agreement.

Another issue that often becomes difficult is the allowance of guests to be invited whom the couple may not even know. This often happens because these guests may actually be friends of the respective parents. In this case, the issue is both the Asian dynamics of collectivist inclusion and honor and shame. To not allow these friends of the parents to attend would shame the parents especially if the parents are well-known figures or they may serve as leaders in a church. So it is helpful to know that the mindset of the parents is that the bride and groom are extensions of the represented families and for this reason, the inclusion of these guests are considered necessary in order for harmony to be maintained. One extra benefit that may also encourage the couple is that many of these guests will be very generous to the couple often giving large amounts of cash as gifts as they honor the respective parents.

The final advice for the couple is to simply sit down in advance of the wedding and figure out what parts are negotiable to allow for the parent’s prerogative and what parts are non-negotiable for the couple. This will be very strategic for the benefit of everyone involved. Because of the tendency to “keep score” due to quantified aspects of the Asian culture, it would be to the advantage of the couple to give up lots of smaller parts of the wedding in order to retain the larger parts or personal preferences. Some of these smaller parts may include the flowers, the reception food, the cake, different formal ceremonies- i.e. bowing, the pastor adorning a formal robe as part of his attire, and different parts of the ceremony being spoken in the respective mother tongue. This can be used in exchange for who will marry the couple and how to format the actual wedding ceremony.

Remember, give and take, plan ahead, be strategic, and honor and respect the parents of each side. One last thought, that is advisable, is for the son or daughter of each family to deal with their own parents in the negotiating process rather than allowing the future son or daughter-in-law to do the talking. Each son or daughter probably knows their own parent better than the other and will have a better chance in convincing their own parents if necessary. This will also help ensure a better future relationship as things get started.

I hope this advice has been helpful to all who read. I pray that in this wedding season that this counsel will help lead to peaceful and enjoyable wedding ceremonies as well as to joyous and godly marriages.

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