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date: 27 May 2017

Cross-Cultural Romantic Relationships

Summary and Keywords

Romantic relationships are an essential part of human experience. As the world becomes more integrated, people from different cultural backgrounds and traditions unavoidably meet and fall in love. An understanding of the role that culture plays in how we fall in love and stay in love is not only relevant, but also necessary in promoting healthy development of romantic relationships. Cross-cultural romantic relationships refer to romantic relationships across national boundaries, such as romantic relationships in China and the United States.

Keywords: intercultural, cross-cultural, romantic relationships, love, dating

Cultural Differences

Culture influences many aspects of a person’s life. Romantic relationships are no exception. The impact of culture on romantic relationships is well documented in research. Individualism and collectivism are major value dimensions that have been widely used to understand, explain, and predict similarities and differences between cultures. People in individualistic cultures tend to emphasize self-actualization and individuals’ initiatives and achievements, and they focus on an “I” identity. In collectivistic cultures, in contrast, people stress fitting in with and belonging to the in-group, and they focus on a “we” identity (Hofstede, 1980). In romantic relationships, romantic love is more likely to be considered as an important basis for marriage, and psychological intimacy and independence are deemed to be more important for marital satisfaction and personal well-being in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures (Dion & Dion, 1988, 1993). Furthermore, a person’s support networks in a collectivistic culture consist of not only one’s intimate relationships, but also one’s in-groups. The strong bonding with one’s in-groups contributes to diffused intimacy in loving relationships. In contrast, in an individualistic culture, a person’s support networks include only intimate relationships, and as a result, intimacy tends to be more intensified (Dion & Dion, 1988, 1993). Examples of individualistic cultures consist of countries such as the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and France. China, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea are examples of collectivistic cultures. The value that is placed on the self vs. the group has significant consequences in how romantic couples self-disclose (e.g., Kito, 2005), with whom they prefer to fall in love (e.g., Kline & Zhang, 2009), how they love (e.g., Neto, 2000), and the degree of felt love over the course of a romantic relationship development (e.g., Sternberg, 1986, 1988).

Love Styles

Love style is a widely used schema in the study of romantic relationships across cultures. Lee (1973, 1977) developed six love styles that characterize people’s romantic experiences. Among them, eros is passionate love, and it describes a secure desire for affective and sexual intimacy that is highly emotional and intense. “My lover and I were attracted to each other immediately after we met” is an example of eros. Ludus describes non-committed and game playing love, as illustrated in “I enjoy playing the ‘game of love’ with a number of different partners.” Storge refers to friendship love and a desire for stability and companionship based on common interests. “It is hard to say exactly where friendship ends and love begins” typifies this love style. Pragma is practical love, and it emphasizes compatibility and criteria. “I try to plan my life carefully before choosing a lover” is an example of pragma. Mania describes possessive and dependent love that is insecure, obsessive, and very emotional. The desire for intimacy is quick and intense. “Sometimes I get so excited about being in love that I can’t sleep” typifies this love style. Agape refers to altruistic and selfless love that is both supportive and tolerant without a need for reciprocation. An example of agape is “I would endure all things for the sake of my lover.”

In the study of love styles, many cross-cultural variations were found. Americans reported the highest mean score for eros (passionate love), followed by the Russians and the Japanese (Sprecher et al., 1994). Asian students scored relatively low on passionate love (eros), but higher on friendship love (storge) and practical love (pragma) than Caucasian students (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1986). Indians reported higher scores on pragma (practical love), mania (possessive love), and agape (altruistic love) than their counterparts in Britain and Portugal. Indians scored lower on ludus (love as a game) than the British, and scored higher on storge (friendship love) than the Portuguese (Neto, 2007). People seem to place a much higher value on practical considerations in the selection of a love partner in Asia than in Europe.

More recent research on love styles has reached other geographical locations. Eros was the main predictor of subjective well being for Mozambicans, whereas attachment security was the main predictor of subjective well being for participants in the United States and Portugal. Storge love predicted subjective well being in US and Portuguese samples, whereas mania love (possessive or obsessive love) was a predictor in Mozambique (Galinha, Oishi, Pereira, Wirtz, & Esteves, 2014). In another study, Turkish participants were higher on ludus (love as a game), storge (friendship love), mania (possessive love), and pragma (practical love) than their British counterparts. Furthermore, rural Turks were among the highest in their endorsement of storge, pragma, and agape, whereas eros was highest among the rural British, which highlights the importance of regional differences within a cultural milieu (Sanri & Goodwin, 2013).

The Triangular Theory of Love

Sternberg’s (1986, 1988) triangular theory provides a developmental approach to the study of love, and it has found cross-cultural applications. In the triangular theory, love consists of intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment components, and these components vary from one stage of relationship development to another. The intimacy component involves the emotional investment partners have in a relationship. Intimacy may include such qualities as experienced happiness with the loved one, mutual understanding, intimate communication, and emotional support. The second component, passion, refers to internal forces that lead to romance, physical attraction, and sexual satisfaction. The cognitive decision/commitment component is defined as a short-term decision to love someone and a long-term commitment to a loving relationship.

Sternberg predicts changes in intimacy, passion, and commitment over the course of a relationship. Specifically, the level of intimacy is assumed to decline as a relationship develops over time. Intimacy is also assumed to take manifest or latent forms. In a successful relationship, latent or hidden intimacy continues to grow, even though overt or manifest intimacy declines. An initial high level of passion often ends with habituation. On the other hand, commitment increases gradually, accelerates as the relationship strengthens, and eventually levels off.

In the study of the triangular theory of love, research shows that romantic couples experience an increase in intimacy, passion, and commitment as they progress from “casual” to “serious” and “engaged” relationships in both China and the United States (Gao, 2001). These predicted patterns appear to generalize across cultures. Furthermore, a greater degree of passion was revealed in American romantic relationships than in Chinese romantic relationships. In a related study, Chinese relationship satisfaction was significantly influenced by intimacy and commitment, but not by passion. A partial mediating effect of intimacy and a full mediating effect of passion on commitment was found (Ng & Cheng, 2010). The triangular theory of love was predictive of commitment among Cypriot dating couples (Panayiotou, 2005).

The Passionate Love Scale

Hatfield and Sprecher (1990) designed the passionate love scale (PLS) to measure an emotional state of intense romantic love, infatuation, or obsessive love often experienced in the beginning of a romantic relationship. The passionate love scale consists of three components: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Cognitive components include “intrusive thinking, idealization of the other, and desire to know the other and be known.” Emotional components involve “positive feelings when things go well, negative feelings when things go awry, longing for reciprocity, desire for complete and permanent union, and physiological arousal.” Behavioral components consist of “actions toward determining the other's feelings, studying the other person, service to the other, and maintaining physical closeness” (Hatfield & Sprecher, 1990, p. 235). The passionate love scale was found to be multi-factorial, and the structure of the factors varies by culture, suggesting culturally distinctive properties of the passionate love (Landis & O’ Shea III, 2000).

Other Dimensions

Cross-cultural studies of romantic relationships reveal both cultural universals and cultural specifics in other aspects of romantic relationships. Research in communication has contributed to our understanding in this area. Self-disclosure (i.e., the extent to which one shares personal information with one’s partner), an important communication concept, is found relevant. For example, individuals who stayed as couples reported greater self-disclosure compared to those who became apart (Berg & McQuinn, 1986; Hendrick, Hendrick, & Adler, 1988). Greater self-disclosure was associated with greater relationship satisfaction (Hendrick, Hendrick, & Adler, 1988). Japanese tend to have a lower level of self-disclosure across relationship types compared to their American counterparts. Japanese and Americans, however, engage in a higher level of self-disclosure in romantic relationships than in friendships (Kito, 2005). In both cultures, self-disclosure is a defining characteristic of romantic relationships. In another qualitative study, the open channel of communication and shared nonverbal meanings were contributors to stability in cross-cultural romantic relationships (Gao, 1991).

Americans and French reported significantly more desire, higher pride, more curiosity, and more affection than did Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan (Tzeng, 1993). US respondents perceived lover relationships as more intimate than best friend relationships, whereas the opposite was true for Japanese respondents (Gudykunst & Nishida, 1986). Japanese report the lowest level of feelings of attachment, belongingness, and commitment (love) toward their relational partner, followed by the French, and Americans reporting the highest (Ting-Toomey, 1991). Chinese Canadian men who identified strongly with the mainstream Canadian culture, as opposed to the heritage Chinese culture, indicated greater intimacy in their current romantic relationship. Chinese Canadian women who identified more strongly with the heritage cultures, as opposed to the mainstream Canadian culture, indicated greater commitment (Marshall, 2010).

In mate preferences, social status was more important to Chinese women than to Chinese men or American women and men. Steadfast support received a higher rating in American women compared to American men or Chinese men and women. Filial piety (devotion to one’s parents) and popularity (social acceptance) were much more highly valued among Chinese, whereas romantic, interesting to talk to, and affectionate were more desirable traits to Americans (Kline & Zhang, 2009). In a more recent study of self-perceived mate qualities across cultures, Chinese, Ghanaians, and British Asians (i.e., collectivists) put less emphasis on passionate romantic and socially attractive attributes. On the other hand, white British, Portuguese, and Spanish respondents mentioned socially attractive and passionate romantic more frequently as attractive traits (Goodwin et al., 2012).

A committed relationship embodies different meanings, and the level of intensity varies across cultures. In the Chinese culture, love often is one among other considerations such as obligations to the parents and family that individuals consider when searching for a mate. Consequently, affective experiences such as love are shared in a broader social context and are not prioritized within a given relationship (Hsu, 1981). A major source of intimacy throughout life comes from individuals’ bonds to their families. To the Chinese, the term “romantic relationship” or “dating relationship” contains the elements of necessary seriousness and long-term commitment. A romantic relationship often is perceived as one step before marriage (Hsu, 1970). Thus, feelings of commitment are perceived to be stronger among Chinese than among Americans (Lin & Rusbult, 1995). A committed relationship in American culture, in contrast, is formed on the basis of strong emotional experiences (Dion & Dion, 1988, 1993). As expected, feelings of love tend to be highly concentrated within the dyad. Love is everything to Americans, and it is the major precondition to marriage (Dion & Dion, 1993; Hsu, 1970). Intimate relationships are important social support networks for Americans, and the formation of intimate bonds with others is encouraged (Dion & Dion, 1988). American romantic partners report a greater degree of perceived similarity than do Chinese romantic partners. Furthermore, in the United States, a romantic relationship is not necessarily perceived as a long-term commitment or a prelude to marriage (Gao & Gudykunst, 1995).

Intercultural Communication and Intercultural Romantic Relationships

Intercultural and cross-cultural are the two terms that have been used or misused interchangeably in research and everyday conversations. An intercultural romantic relationship involves two individuals from two countries, as opposed to two individuals from two ethnic/racial groups within a country. These two individuals are commonly referred to as a mixed couple. Even though the term “intercultural” appears in many titles in a key word search, most studies, if not all, focus exclusively on cross-cultural or interracial/interethnic romantic relationships. The scant research on “true” intercultural romantic relationships is a gap that needs to be filled and it merits special attention. There is abundant research in intercultural communication that could potentially inform the study of intercultural romantic relationships. Research on various aspects of intercultural communication and relationships (both conceptual and empirical) has much to offer because it can shed light on topics that are not only relevant, but have important implications to intercultural romantic relationships. Intercultural communication is an essential component of intercultural romantic relationships.

Anxiety and uncertainty (i.e., emotional and cognitive responses) are two important concepts in the study of intergroup communication and intercultural adaptation (Gudykunst, 2005). Experiences of anxiety and uncertainty characterize all human interactions in initial encounters, and intercultural romantic relationships are no exception. Furthermore, intercultural romantic relationships tend to experience more intensified anxiety and uncertainty. In intercultural adaptation, knowledge of the host culture, shared networks, intergroup attitudes, favorable contact, stereotypes, cultural identity, cultural similarity, and second language competence were contributing factors to reduction of anxiety and uncertainty (Gao & Gudykunst, 1990). These factors can be readily applied to the reduction of anxiety and uncertainty in intercultural romantic relationships. The finding, that members of a collectivistic culture often rely on others’ social information (e.g., group membership, work unit) to make predictions while members of an individualistic culture tend to utilize others’ attitudes, behaviors, emotion, and values to make predictions, is useful in understanding the source of information in intercultural romantic relationships (Gao & Gudykunst, 1995).

Oetzel and Ting-Toomey’s (2011) review of intercultural interpersonal relationships notes that intercultural romantic relationships pose more challenges because of communication difficulties within the relationship and societal barriers such as prejudice and discrimination outside the relationship. Managing multiple identities through mindless or mindful intercultural communication practice, for example, is a challenge that intercultural couples face. Miscommunication, resulting from messages that create discord in couple and family relationships due to differences in cultural norms or issues of power and authority, poses another challenge. Research on intercultural romantic relationships should consider cultural identity salience factors, language interaction issues, and intercultural competence/incompetence factors.

Oetzel and Ting-Toomey (2011) propose that a social scientific approach to the study of intercultural relationships would apply the identity negotiation theory in the development of competent intercultural relationships. Competent communication is key to a satisfying relationship. An interpretive approach would hone in on different speech communities that the partners were from as the source of difficulties and the confounding effect of culture differences in interaction patterns. They suggest that a critical perspective could look at power relations, subordination and domination, and their association with facework orientations and conflict communication styles (e.g., avoidance and/or integrative facework strategies).

Chen’s (2002) review of different phases of intercultural relationships—such as initial, formation, sustenance, progression, and relational maintenance—reveals specific relational dynamics. Explicit message input, adaptive verbal strategies, and topic sharing are necessary in facilitating and sustaining initial intercultural encounters, for example, because intercultural encounters are less perceptive and responsive than intracultural encounters. Strength of ethnic identity, personal preference for intercultural contact, group membership (dominant vs. non-dominant), diversity of friendship circles, and perceived similarity in language, attitudes, and communication styles influence formation of intercultural relationships. Respect and acceptance of differences, seeking support to overcome social stereotypes, shift and intensity of cultural identity, power and status, and social disapproval are issues that intercultural relationships need to contend with. Given the intricacies and complexities of intercultural relationships, Chen (2002) proposes a dialectical lens in studying the push-and-pull factors such as openness and closedness in information sharing, autonomy, and connection, as well as separation and integration in management of interdependence.

Communication difficulties were prominent findings in interviews conducted with intercultural couples. For example, intercultural couples may receive oppressive messages such as “Why do you have to rebel by being with someone we do not approve of? You know this will make your mother only sicker” (Molina, Estrada, & Burnett, 2004, p. 140). Some messages could be gendered messages that are derived from religious and cultural beliefs. A shared understanding of each other’s culture and communication styles, such as high-context (implicit and indirect) and low context (explicit and direct) communication, is essential to sustaining an intercultural love relationship. In another study, intercultural relationships were found to be more likely to report conflict related to cultural differences than intracultural relationships, and the discussion of cultural differences contributed to the growth of the relationship. Open communication about culture was a relational maintenance strategy (Reiter & Gee, 2008). Through interviews with Russian and Israeli couples, it was found that expressing and discussing emotions, managing anger, and solving conflicts were difficult due to cultural differences. Russians were more reticent and held back negative feelings compared with their Israeli partners, as expressed in I often sense that Nina [his wife] is sulking about something I said or did, but it's not easy to make her talk about it. As I am a very open person, it often frustrates me that I cannot understand her feelings (Remennick, 2009, p. 727).

Discussion of Literature

Research on cross-cultural romantic relationships has employed the survey method almost exclusively, since its beginning. Other methods, such as interpretive and critical methods, are rarely seen in this line of research. The sampling population consists of predominately college students in urban areas. One issue that has been called into question is the generalizability of the research findings, because it is difficult to gauge the extent to which college students represent the general population, or urban populations represents rural populations on the topic of love. As we know, past research suggested regional differences in self-perceived mate qualities. In addition to regional differences, gender differences across cultures have not been adequately addressed. How the prescribed gender roles and different levels of gender equality affect romantic relationships across cultures is an important question to investigate. “Does gender role difference override individualism and collectivism in the domain of love?” remains an open question.

In earlier days, research typically compared romantic relationships in a small number of cultures (e.g., U.S., Japan, China). The United States represented an individualistic culture, whereas Japan or China represented a collectivistic culture. Little was known about other cultures or the comparability of those findings. In more recent years, there have been an increasing number of studies that explore the topic of love in untapped territories such as Mozambique, Cyprus, Portugal, Poland, Turkey, and India.

Cross-cultural studies of romantic relationships continue to employ theories or schemas that originated in the United States. The majority of the studies have focused on application and validation of those theories or schemas, or on the reliability and validity assessment of existing love scales in cultures outside of United States. Research continues to address the question “What is cultural universal and what is cultural specific?” Cross-cultural research unavoidably involves translation. To achieve true measurement equivalence remains a formidable challenge.

Mate selection preferences research is an area of exception in which native concepts are considered in cross-cultural comparisons. One good example is the inclusion of filial piety (devotion to one’s parents), an indigenous notion in the Chinese culture, when comparing traits in mate preferences in China and the United States. The use of yuan (destiny) in the initiation and dissolution of romantic relationships is another example of how this line of inquiry could prove to be fruitful. There is a call for more research, to explore the cultural specifics that enable us to garner an emic understanding of the phenomenon of love and the development of derived etic measures of love in each native culture. Researchers urge caution against applying factors derived from the U.S. data to other cultural groups without knowing if a construct is universal (i.e., etic) or specific to the culture (i.e., emic). Many studies tend to assume that a construct used is etic, and single dimensional and cultural differences remain quantitative. Therefore, it is essential to differentiate what constructs are etic that can be applied across cultures and what remain emic.

Cross-cultural studies of romantic relationships are cross-sectional and thus limited to investigations at one specific point in time. Cross-sectional studies are unable to capture how love varies across cultures in the process of its development and at its critical junctures. Therefore, longitudinal studies, though difficult to conduct, are critical in advancing the field. For example, intimacy was found to be present in romantic relationships across cultures, but more research is needed to examine if intimacy is a universal dimension in relationship development (e.g., Gao, 1991; Gudykunst, Gao, Sudweeks, Ting-Toomey, & Nishida, 1991).

The vast majority of cross-cultural studies of romantic relationships have utilized participants’ native culture as a measure of their individualistic vs. collectivistic tendencies. An individual-level measure of individualism vs. collectivism, such as independent and interdependent self-construals, will be able to account for individual differences that do not represent culture-level tendencies. Earlier studies focused on cultures and the countries that they represented at the both ends of the individualism/collectivism continuum, whereas more recent studies also explore cultures and countries that fall in between.

Research on cross-cultural romantic relationships provides an important knowledge base for understanding intercultural romantic relationships. The challenge now is how to take stock of this and move forward so we can begin to fill the gap in the study of intercultural romantic relationships.

Further Readings

There is not one dominating theory or taxonomy in the study of cross-cultural romantic relationships. For an understanding of the underpinnings of romantic love and sexual desire, consult Hatfield and Rapson (2005), Love and Sex: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. The edited volumes of The Psychology of Love (Sternberg & Barnes, 1988) and The New Psychology of Love (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2008) are good sources for an overview of theories of love and types of love. Hofstede (1980), Cultural Consequences, and Markus and Kitayama (1991), “Culture and the Self” provide a general understanding of individualism and collectivism on both cultural and individual levels.

The vast cross-cultural empirical research on romantic relationships is easily searchable in the EBSCOhost database using the key words cross-cultural love. You can also perform a journal search. The majority of the peer-reviewed articles in English are published in psychology journals. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Social Indicators Research Journal, and Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology are some examples whereby you can find those articles.


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