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A culture is a powerful tool that affects different aspects of human life. However, its influence on human relationships is profound. Zimmermann (2015) defines culture as “the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts” (p. 2). These definitions show that culture has a strong impact on people’s attitudes and behaviors. Conversely, these attitudes and behaviors affect people’s perception of love and intimacy. Indeed, around the world, people have different perceptions of love and relationships. For example, the relationship between mothers and their daughters often vary across different cultures. Similarly, the relationship between fathers and their sons vary in the same way.
Understanding cultural variations and their influence on human relationships are interesting in today’s society because different minority groups are struggling to find their identity in today’s complex modern society. This study argues that culture is the key to understanding people’s varying perceptions of love and intimacy. It further goes ahead to state that human relationships are products of cultural perceptions. This way, this paper suggests that cultural differences explain variations in intimacy and human relationships.
These insights come from an assessment of the role of culture in influencing people’s attitudes and beliefs towards love, sex, and intimacy. Since culture is diverse, the focus of this study is on people’s social habits as the main cultural tenet that affects human interaction. This way, we exclude other aspects of culture, such as cuisine, language, music, and arts (based on the characteristics of culture as defined by Zimmermann, 2015). However, before delving into the details surrounding this paper, it is important to understand the theoretical background of this topic.
When comprehending the role of culture in human relationships, it is important to investigate the triangular theory of love, as explained by a psychologist, Robert Sternberg (cited in Sternberg and Weis, 2006), because he investigated this issue when explaining the role of love in intimate relationships. According to Yiu (2015), the triangular theory of love has three main components – intimacy, passion, and commitment. These different types of love evolve through different stages that involve the evolution of love through the non-love stage, liking/friendship stage, infatuation stage, “empty love” stage, romantic stage, compassion stage, fatuous stage, and consummate stage (Sternberg & Weis, 2006). Therefore, a variation in any of the three components of love translates to variations in love. However, a significant criticism of this theory is the failure of Sternberg and Weis (2006) to explain when the different stages of love start.
In an unrelated sphere of analysis, some researchers believe that self-disclosure is an important component of understanding human relationships (Marshall, 2008; Yiu, 2015). Although most of them believe it is an important aspect of understanding relationships in the western culture, some researchers believe other aspects of relationships, such as empathy, support, and affection, are more important in understanding the nature of intimacy and love in human relationships (Zimmermann, 2015; Yiu, 2015).
They say so because intimacy and love are transactional components of human relationships (Zimmermann, 2015; Yiu, 2015). Marshall (2008) also believes that they are motivational and temporal aspects of human relationships. These heterogeneous conceptualizations of intimacy and love mainly derive their authenticity from the interpersonal intimacy model, which describes intimacy and love as the closeness that human beings feel when two (or more) parties interact in “transactional” ways (Zimmermann, 2015; Yiu, 2015).
For this reason, Marshall (2008) says, “when an individual perceives that his or her personally-relevant disclosures have been responded to with concern and support of a partner, he or she may feel understood, validated, and cared for, and therefore more intimate with the partner” (p. 147). These intrigues emerge when understanding the influence of culture on human relationships by understanding the influence of collectivist and individualistic cultures on intimacy.
Collectivist vs. Individualistic Cultures
Many studies have used Eastern and Western cultural differences to explain the influence of culture on human relationships. For example, Yiu (2015) says East Asian cultures value responsiveness as an important component of intimacy. In the same analytical space, Yiu (2015) says self-disclosure is not an important component of intimate relationships in these cultures. Researchers have also used differing conceptualization and expressions of intimacy across both cultural cohorts (East and West) to explain the influence of culture on human relationships (Zimmermann, 2015; Yiu, 2015). Past researchers have often suggested that Eastern cultures prefer to express less intimacy compared to their western counterparts (Doherty et al., 2004). Particularly, they have used the culturally conservative Middle Eastern Cultures and the liberal western culture to explain the cultural differences between both groups.
A study by Doherty, Hatfield, Thompson, and Choo (2004) investigated the influence of culture on human relationships by sampling the views of 300 people from western and Asian cultures. They found out that European-Americans were individualistic (they also had fragmented relationships), while Asian-Americans were collectivists. The collectivist culture allowed Japanese-Americans and pacific islanders to have social relationships that thrived on the principle of collectivism (Doherty et al., 2004). This analogy meant that their relationships were intermediate in individualism. However, Chinese-Americans were collectivist.
Independent studies by Marshall (2008) and Yiu (2015) also affirmed the same relationship after investigating the influence of gender ideologies on intimacy in human relationships. The researchers came up with these findings after sampling the views of European-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian citizens (Marshall, 2008; Yiu, 2015). Here, they found out that the cultural practices of the two groups varied across an individualism-collectivism cultural continuum (the Chinese-Canadian citizens were more cognizant of the collectivist culture, which prompted them to have a lower intimacy level compared to their American counterparts) (Marshall, 2008; Yiu, 2015). Comparatively, gender-role traditionalism mediated the intimacy levels of the European-Canadian cultural group. Therefore, their individualistic cultural inclination did not affect them in this regard.
In the same analysis, Marshall (2008) found a strong association between lower self-disclosure and gender-role traditionalism. These factors ultimately led to low intimacy levels among the respondents sampled. Their findings also revealed that the lower intimacy levels among Canadian-Chinese people mediated their lower relationship satisfaction levels. This relationship contributed to their high rates of relationship termination (Marshall, 2008).
Markus and Kitayama (cited in Yiu, 2015) also affirm the cultural differences between Eastern and Western cultures by investigating how culture influences both cultures, Similar to the above-mentioned findings, they agree that the different perceptions of both groups stem from their inclination towards individualism or collectivism (Yiu, 2015). However, beyond this representation, both authors presented a theory that showed that “people from a Western culture value the self and individual expression more so than do people from Asian cultures, which place higher importance in interpersonal relationships and social situations” (Yiu, 2015, p. 2).
We can interpret this statement to mean that there is enough evidence to affirm the role of culture in human relationships. We could use this same analogy to say that since love is universal, culture is the main factor that prompts people to express it in different ways. Accordingly, Yiu (2015) theorized this statement by stating that culture is the main factor that dictates how different cultures understand and express the concept of romantic love. Nevertheless, since love is more of an individualistic concept, as opposed to a collectivist expression, cultures that value individualism are bound to express it better than those that subscribe to the collectivist approach (people from western cultures are bound to accept it more than those who subscribe to the collectivist approach) (Yiu, 2015).
Since few people could disagree with the cultural differences that characterize Eastern and western cultures, we find that culture plays an instrumental role in how people relate. The influence of the media is pivotal in supporting this cultural inclination because it promotes existing beliefs, values, and norms in society. For example, the media have played an instrumental role in changing the cultural influences of the North American people. The same understanding is true for Western Europeans. Therefore, most western people look for intimacy in sexual relationships. In fact, in most western societies, intimacy could be a synonym for sexual relationships. The same image exists in the media because intimate human relationships mainly exist among couples and people who have a sexual relationship. If intimacy emerges in other types of unions, people tend to feel “awkward” about it. Cultural interpretations of intimacy and human relationships have spurred this ideology.
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Gao (2001) used the triangular theory of love theory to explain the effect of culture on the nature of romantic relationships, across people of different cultures. Using intimacy, passion, and commitment to explain romantic relationships, the author found out that people’s love stage often affected their expressions of the concept (Gao, 2001). This finding was true across multiple cultures. Similar to other researchers mentioned in this paper, the author also found that Eastern cultures often supported a higher level of commitment to relationships, compared to western cultures (Gao, 2001). Although I support this assessment, Gao’s (2001) evidence only partially supports this assertion.
Through this evidence gap, easily, one could deduce that culture has a minimal influence on romantic relationships. However, to explain this discrepancy, some researchers claim that most western societies are highly diverse (Yiu, 2015). Therefore, what we may initially think of as “western” may not necessarily be so (because of an amalgamation of different cultural ideologies). Furthermore, ordinarily, although society may have different cultural practices, they are bound to adopt the same cultural norms over time (through modernization) (Yiu, 2015). Therefore, albeit traditionally, people who subscribe to western and eastern cultures may adopt individualistic and collectivist cultural practices differently, both cultural groups are bound to adopt each other’s cultural practices through constant interaction (Yiu, 2015). Therefore, the Chinese may adopt individualistic cultures, while Americans may adopt a collectivist culture.
Nevertheless, based on the details highlighted in this paper, we find that cultural differences play an instrumental role in defining the nature of relationships and intimacy. For example, western cultures associate high levels of intimacy with improved wellbeing. This is why Marshall (2008) says, “Within the Western psychological literature, intimacy is often conceptualized as resulting from self-disclosure – revealing personal feelings, thoughts, and experiences to another person” (p. 3). Excerpts from Marshall’s (2008) study also affirm the same relationship by showing that this cultural cohort associates intimacy with enhanced psychological and physical development. Collectively, these factors could reduce the rates of relationship termination among these cultures. Ironically, in a society that values high levels of intimacy, researchers report the highest rates of divorce (Marshall, 2008; Yiu, 2015).
The theoretical underpinning of this paper shows that there are many types of relationships. Relative to this fact, this paper has shown the views of researchers who have investigated the impact of culture on human relationships. Their analysis comes from findings that have spanned across the Eastern and Western cultural divide. Evidence shows that culture has a strong impact on intimacy. A noteworthy observation is the expectation of intimacy in friendships among Eastern cultures. Conversely, people from western societies expect intimacy only in romantic relationships (usually those that involve boyfriends and girlfriends). These findings are a true reflection of my experience living in America because few people expect intimacy in friendships (or relationships that are outside the purview of a boyfriend-girlfriend, or spouse to spouse).
Nevertheless, people’s characters, motives, and needs often affect how they interpret other people’s behaviors and whether they would reciprocate their relationships. Culture plays a critical role in shaping them. For purposes of future research, researchers should investigate if culture affects wellbeing because findings from this paper affirm that western cultures associate intimacy with improved physical and emotional wellbeing. However, there is little evidence to prove that the same relationship is true in East Asian cultures. Therefore, it is pertinent to understand this relationship in future studies because both cultural groups have different points of convergence and departure.
Doherty, W., Hatfield, E., Thompson, K., & Choo, P. (2004). Cultural and Ethnic influences on Love and Attachment. Personal Relationships, 1(1), 391-398. Web.
Gao, G. (2001). Intimacy, passion, and commitment in Chinese and US American romantic relationships. International Journal of Intercultural Relation, 25(1), 329-342. Web.
Marshall, T. (2008). Cultural Differences in Intimacy: The Influence of Gender-Role Ideology and Individualism-Collectivism. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25(1), 143-168. Web.
Sternberg, R., & Weis, K. (2006). The New Psychology of Love. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Web.
Yiu, H. (2015). Culture’s Effect on Romantic Relationships. Web.
Zimmermann, A. (2015). What is Culture? Definition of Culture. Web.