Cultural differences provide novelty, excitement, curiosity and the possibility for personal growth and enrichment as human beings learn more about a perspective that is different from what they know. Difference also provides challenges as the possibility to misunderstand when you are hearing someone talk increases. 

This challenge doubles when you consider that you might also say or do something that is again misinterpreted by someone whose culture, personal history and perspective is very different from yours. Working with racial differences can be an enriching and rewarding experience yet at the same time it is also a complex and delicate process that requires collaboration, an openness to difference and willingness to reflect, research and learn, here is why…

Times Are Changing

If you went to a Maltese school twenty or thirty years ago, children would be mostly white, Roman Catholic Maltese children and difference in race and ethnicity would be minimal. Nowadays Maltese children grow up with children coming from different countries who might speak a different language, have a different culture and a different skin colour. As these children play, fight and make friends with peers, it becomes natural for them to understand that their friends have a different perspective of the world, because they might have faced war, famine, and discrimination just because of their family’s birth place or the colour of their skin. They might also have different festivities and traditions and relate in a way which is completely different to theirs. 

Moulding Cultural Norms

These differences grow deeper when we consider that even if a family has the same ethnicity, every family will give their children their own cultural norms. If you just think about how loud and boisterous a typical Maltese family is, when compared to different ethnicities, these cultural differences become obvious. This scenario becomes much more complex when we consider a couple of mixed ethnicity and how the different backgrounds increase the richness and complexity when working with these multicultural families in a therapeutic setting.

How does it translate to the therapeutic setting?

When it comes to family therapy there has been research on how cultural differences, race and ethnicity affects the process when working with couples and families.  Research has provided empirical evidence that being culturally responsive is crucial when working with ethnically diverse clients and that it clearly affects the way these clients respond to services.

A therapist who is responsive to culture must also focus on cross-cultural research and reflect on the difference and similarity between the self and the clients and thoroughly assess what strengths and challenges these connections and differences in culture bring to the clients’ story and the therapeutic process.

Combatting Assumptions

Gabb & Singh (2014) highlight the need for a therapist to engage in a deep reflection about the assumptions they use when working with these couples and families and consider differences in depth. Burnham (2012) adds that anything from gender and religion, to employment and spirituality adds to the highly rich, complex, and unpredictable relationship between the different aspects of a person’s experience within the complexity of social relations. Research pushes us to move to a position that embraces complexity and difference in order to understand and effectively work systemically with couples. The result of this process as we discover, reflect about, and absorb new perspectives and different realities is oftentimes a journey that challenges and enriches deep personal growth. 

 If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Sonya Galea is a family therapist with Willingness Team. She works with families and couples experiencing couple relationship issues and parenting struggles.


Burnham, J. (2012) Developments in the social GRRRAAACCEEESSS: visible-invisible and voiced-unvoiced. In I.-B. Krause (ed.) Culture and Reflexivity in Systemic Psychotherapy. Mutual Perspectives (pp. 139– 160). London: Karnac

Gabb, J. & Singh, R. (2014) Reflections on the challenges of understanding racial, cultural and sexual differences in couple relationship research Retrieved from:

Meyer, O. L., & Zane, N. (2013). The influence of race and ethnicity in clients; experiences of mental health treatment. Journal of community psychology41(7), 884–901.