In London, it is predicted that by 2030, 50% of people will be foreign born, suggesting that multiculturalism in couple relationships is a trend that is set to rise in the nation’s capital and beyond.

At the launch event on May 16th 2016 an invited audience of clinicians, academics, researchers and media gathered to celebrate the launch of the London’s Intercultural Couples Centre and to hear a distinguished panel of speakers talk about the challenges facing couples and families in London in the context of multiculturalism and its challenges, risks, discontents and opportunities.

There was considerable anticipation on the day following a full page story in the Observer the day just before which was shared over 1,000 times, generating a flurry of interest on Twitter and Linkedin.

Dr. Reenee Singh, the centre’s director, introduced the audience to the new centre’s research program and services which have been designed to help London’s burgeoning population of global families and couples meet the complex challenges of living in our 21st century global city.

Dr. Barry Mason, former Director of the Institute of Family Therapy, spoke on the theme of ‘Exploring the Unsaid: creativity, risks and dilemmas in working cross culturally.

Dr. Sunand Prasad co-founder and senior partner of architectural practice Penoyre & Prasad, spoke on the theme of ‘Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism, Race and Inclusion’ as these issues relate to the both the theory and practice of architecture and offer some intriguing hints as to what a post-colonial London might look like from an architectural point of view.

Professor Valeria Ugazzio, Clinical Psychologist and Coordinator of the Clinical Psychology Doctorate program at the University of Bergamo, Italy and Scientific Director of the European Institute of Systemic-relational Therapies spoke on the theme of ‘Semantic Cohesion in Intercultural and Monocultural Couples.’


DR. REENEE SINGH talks about why London needs an Intercultural Couples Centre.


Reenee introduces the work of the new Centre to the audience.

Just as Dr. Sunand Prasad calls attention to the lack of diversity in the theory and practice of the institutions of architecture so, Dr Singh says, the institutions of psychotherapy have failed to adapt their theory and practice to the 21st century realities of religious, cultural and ethnic differences.

She tells the audience that the centre will help to redress this imbalance and go further by becoming a place, which positively celebrated 21st century differences.

She contrasts the situation in the UK, where there is little research and an impoverished evidence base, with that of the US where there is already a well -established and advanced research and evidence base with regard to intercultural couples and families.

She acknowledges that the cultural and political climate in the US and the UK are very different and tells the audience that in some states in the US, intercultural couples still can’t even sit together in the same train carriage for fear of being lynched.

She calls for more research in the UK and describes the research program that the Centre is to undertake in conjunction with Professor Valeria Ugazio of the University of Bergamo and Dr. Lisa Fellin of the University of East London.

The research program will record and audit sessions with intercultural couples to discover and compare the effectiveness of a range of clinical interventions and how these are experienced differently by mono-cultural and intercultural couples.

The findings derived from the research program will inform the way that the centre’s clinical services are designed and delivered.

These service include couples and family therapy for intercultural couples and families, family mediation and premarital and pre-nuptual groups for intercultural couples and families to help them think about what may lay ahead and to help them anticipate and navigate conflicts and difficulties especially with regard to parenting.

She says that the centre will provide not only clinical services but also generic educational and support services to the general public as well as consultation to professionals who’re struggling with intercultural puzzles and problems as well as media and policy consultation and events which will aim to attract a wider audience.

She tells the audience that this wider, public facing educational program is sorely needed, citing as evidence her experience of intercultural couples in her therapeutic practice and her recent participation in an all party parliamentary group consultation (APPG – a party agnostic blue skies policy making forum) on strengthening couple and family relationships where issues of diversity, race and culture where strikingly absent from the discussions and presentations.

She shares her dismay at this with the audience and tells them the centre is a space where anyone who is stuck with a cultural dilemma can come and that she and her fellow directors will do their best to design new services which will help those struggling with a range of intercultural issues.


DR. BARRY MASON speaks on the theme of ‘Exploring the Unsaid: creativity, risks and dilemmas in working cross culturally. ‘


Barry talks about exploring the unsaid and taking risks in cross- cultural therapeutic work and how aiming for inclusivity shouldn’t mean shying away from exploring difficult areas.

The aim of cross- cultural psychotherapy, he says, should be to provide ‘clients with a safe place without playing safe’.

He talks about the downside of multiculturalism: how white people who play safe run the risk of becoming emotionally disconnected from those with whom they don’t share the same cultural background and how they need to take more relational risks if they want to establish cross cultural intimacy.

He’s says he’s discovered that, even if finds he’s said the ‘wrong thing,’ if he makes mistakes from a ‘position of integrity’ this mistaking can, paradoxically, serve to prevent emotional disconnectedness and can even ,counterintuitively, enhance and promote cross cultural intimacy because people appreciate the fact that he’s speaking from a position of integrity.

He takes issue with the orthodox multiculturalist view that we ought to respect others’ beliefs now matter what they may be.

He believes that this is a form of dishonesty and that if we should admit to ourselves that there are some beliefs and practices that we simply don’t respect and, furthermore, that we oughtn’t expect others to respect all of our beliefs and practices either.

He recommends instead that we acknowledge the beliefs and practices that we don’t agree with. We can still ‘join’ with our clients, he says, by taking an inclusive stance; but at the same time we can take the risk of not going along with them by ‘respecting’ everything that they say and do.

He talks about how this impacts his clinical work and offers some poignant, striking and funny vignettes to illustrate this.

He speaks about a client who is was an ultra-orthodox Jew and describes how he challenged his client’s beliefs and practices about gender and persuaded him to experiment with difference and to take a risk in relation to his own cultural beliefs and practices and how this intervention pleasantly surprised both Barry and his client.


DR SUNAND PRASAD speaks on the theme of ‘Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism, Race and Inclusion.


Sunand talks about multiculturalism from his perspective as an architect whose family emigrated from India to England in 1962.

He tells the audience how, at that time, he was the first foreign student in his new English School.

He says that the former colonies are already multicultural and not just by virtue of the experience of colonization; Sunand’s mother, who was from Kerala, married his north Indian father and he describes how his mother’s extended family and friends in Kerala wanted to excommunicate their daughter and her new family.

In his talk he draws on his doctoral thesis on Indian architecture and the impact of colonization which examined how Indian architecture lost its confidence after colonization by the British in 1858.

He went back to India in 1986 to discover how a form of urbanism, a ‘vernacular architecture,’ which had grown up in India over a 5000 year period, was abandoned after and during the process of colonization by the British in just 50 years and how this urban tradition returned to the Indian architectural scene only after independence in 1947.

He talks about how he later returned once more to the subject of multiculturalism and diversity in 1991 on the occasion of a new book on the subject of ‘accommodating diversity’ in modern architecture.

It was at this point, he tells the audience, he realized that at the centre of all the western discourses about diversity in architecture was an idea of the family which was entirely unrealistic for the modern world and inappropriate to the multi-cultural society in which we now live.

Sunand talks about his belief that inclusivity in architecture isn’t just for ‘minorities’ but about making better places for all of us.

He decries a lack of plurality in London’s architecture and argues that although multiculturalism imprints the city with a surface that’s superficially very different from its past, an archeologist excavating London in a hundred years time to look for traces of a multicultural London would find very few such traces.


PROFESSOR VALERIA UGAZIO speaks on the theme of ‘Semantic Cohesion in Intercultural and Monocultural Couples.’


Valeria speaks about her concept of ‘semantic polarities’ according to which conversations within the family are organized between opposing polarities of meaning such as just/unjust, good/bad, closed/open, attractive/repugnant.

Valeria talks about how couples from different cultural backgrounds can struggle to manage the ‘semantic gaps’ which aren’t experienced by ‘mono-cultural couples’ who inhabit the same culture.

She offers the case study of Victoria and Alfonso to illustrate her point.

Victoria is a young Finnish woman of 27 and Alfonso is an Italian male aged 22.

Victoria is depressed and Valeria traces her depression to the semantic gaps between her and Alfonso.

Victoria feels happy and secure in her relationship when it’s completely inclusive and all the family members are gathered together whilst Alfonso only feels happy and secure when he feels able to exercise his freedom and independence from his family.

He is committed to defending his independence from his family and from Victoria whom he experiences as suffocating. At the beginning of their relationship he was attracted by her independence but now he experiences her as dependent.

Their two semantic worlds have become distant – semantically polarized – and the couple is locked in misunderstandings.

Valeria speaks about how Victoria’s depression was occasioned by her encounter with Alfonso and Italian culture which positions Alfonso as a child and therefore offers her the profoundly unattractive identity position of a ‘child snatcher.’

She goes on to unpack some of the cultural context which generates the ‘semantic polarity’ that is the basis of the couple’s experience of one another.

She tells the audience that, in Italy, 18 or 20 year old males are still regarded as children who ought to remain at home with their families for guidance.

She contrasts this with the case of Finland where it’s normal for children to leave home in their 20s and to get married when they’re still students.

Valeria asks the audience to reflect on the fact that this semantic gulf, which seems so marked, is still between two Europeans and invites them to imagine what might happen when one partner hails from a Western country and the other from Africa, India or Latin America.

What, she conjectures, might we learn about the semantics of culturally distant couples?

She goes on to describe the multi-site research project which she’s undertaking in conjunction with the London Intercultural Couples Centre and the University of East London.

She concludes by offering some insights from her own clinical practice into semantic patters in mono-cultural couples.

Unlike inter-cultural couples, Valeria believes that mono-cultural couples are at risk of too high a level of ‘semantic coherence’ because they share the same cultural background.

Paradoxically, it’s the fact that mono-cultural couples understand each other too well that leads them into trouble.

The lack of conflict in their relationships means that their lives together become a nightmare and yet they don’t realize it’s the fact that they understand one another so well that’s the real reason for their unhappiness.

She describes how the task of the therapist is very different in the contrasting cases of inter-cultural and mono-cultural couples with the therapist playing the part of ‘bridge-builder’ with the former and ‘detective’ with the latter.


More about the centre

London’s Intercultural Couples Centre will be the first centre in the UK dedicated to providing research-led, specialised therapeutic services for couples who hail from different backgrounds.
The co-directors of the Centre are Professor Janet Reibstein, Consultant Couple and Family Systemic Psychotherapist and Mr. Adrian Clarke, mediator and psychotherapist.

Multi-site research project into intercultural couples

In conjunction with the launch of the new centre, Dr Singh is co-directing a multi-site European research project with the Italian psychologist Professor Valeria Ugazio, Scientific Director of the European Institute of Systemic-Relational Therapies in Milan.

The research project will investigate intercultural couples, their relationships and evolving communication styles across Europe.