Cultural variations in relationships

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Brief introduction ...

Within psychology, there has been much research into the formation, dissolution and benefits of relationships. However, the majority of research has been done in western societies, such as Europe and the USA, where the focus has been on voluntary romantic relationships.

However, globally, such relationships are by no means the dominant type. Data and theories from western studies may not necessarily be applied cross culturally. Therefore, it is important to investigate other cultures, to seek both similarities and differences in romantic relationships.

Hofstede (1984) drew a distinction between individualistic cultures, where the emphasis is on self-interest and independence, and collectivist cultures where the importance of interdependence and doing what is best for the group is stressed. Typically, Western nations are individualistic, whereas Eastern cultures tend to be more collectivist.

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Important differences (a02)

Evidence suggests that there may be important differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures in terms of the importance of romantic love. Shaver, Wu and Schwartz (1991) studied the differences in attitudes towards romantic love in different cultures. Whereas in individualistic cultures, romantic love is seen as vital ingredient for a happy relationship, in China, romantic love is associated with pain, sorrow and unfulfilled affection.

The western notion that marriage should be based on romantic love is seen as unrealistically optimistic by Chinese people. This link between individualism and the importance of romantic love is supported by Levine (1995) who found a correlation of +0.56 between a culture’s individualism and the perceived necessity of love for the establishment of marriage. In other words, the more individualistic the country, the more important love was perceived. These results may be due to the fact that arranged marriages are more common in collectivist cultures and so love is seen as less important than social status or family compatibility.

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No universal view of love (A02)

Both Shaver et al (1991) and Levine (1995) seem to suggest that there is no universal view of love, and your perception of love can be shaped to an extent by your culture. This is an important factor for relationship psychologists to take into account when carrying out research. It suggests that research which takes place in an individualistic culture may not necessarily be generalisable to collectivist cultures and vice versa, particularly if the dominant type of relationship in a culture is non-voluntary.

(Synoptic) However, it should be taken into account that this research is about 20 years old. Increased globalisation and the advent of the internet might mean that western/individualistic notions of love become more common in eastern/collectivist cultures.

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No difference in happiness levels...

It would be easy to take an ethnocentric standpoint, and argue that the individualistic concept of romantic love is better, and that marriages based on free choice are happier and longer lasting than arranged/involuntary marriages.

However, the research does not support this. Yelsma and Athappily (1988) found that there was no discernible difference in happiness levels between arranged and non-arranged Indian and American marriages. Gupta and Singh (1982) similarly found that while levels of love in arranged marriages started off significantly lower than levels of love in non-arranged marriages, by 10 years of marriage, levels of love were about the same; love had dropped in the non-arranged marriages, and climbed in the arranged marriages.

Anecdotally, it has often been stated that arranged marriages are happier, because the divorce rates for these types of relationship are much lower.

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Synoptic evidence continued ..

Both of these studies suggest that there are more similarities than differences in arranged and non-arranged marriages. However, there are some methodological issues with both pieces of research. Firstly, the research depends upon the quantitative measuring of both love and happiness. Such measures may lack validity, as these concepts may elude measurement, and the terms love and happiness may mean different things to different people. Another issue is with social desirability.

There may be social pressure to over-emphasise the happiness and love in a marriage, particularly in arranged marriages. This could also explain why arranged marriages have a low divorce rate, as social exclusion may act as a large barrier to leaving (Levinger 1976).  Thirdly, both studies depend upon self-report measures. An individual may not necessarily have sufficient insight into how happy or in love they are. Similarly, love and happiness may not be static, and may fluctuate over time.

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Much of the research into cross cultural variations into relationships is hampered by a number of issues. Much of cross cultural research is time-sensitive. Social changes such as the internet mentioned above may be having a great effect on people, allowing individuals to be exposed to other ways of life, leading to cross cultural “contamination”. 

Research carried out 20 years ago may already be out of date. Even within our own western culture, attitudes towards sex, sexuality and relationships have altered drastically within the last few decades.

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You can't be certain your sample is representative

It is easy to accept that there are great differences between cultures, but it is often overlooked that there are many more variations within a culture. This is an issue when choosing a sample for a cross cultural study, as you cannot be certain that your sample is representative of the whole culture.

For example, Buss (1989) carried out a famous piece of cross cultural research which suggested that there are universal standards of attractiveness, and that mate selection is determined not by culture, but by evolutionary pressures. While Buss’s research took place in dozens of different cultures, the sample sizes were often small, and unlikely to be representative of the entire culture. This raises the question of the use of carrying out any sort of cross cultural research into relationships.

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Conclusion ....

However, while cross cultural research may be hampered by methodological issues, it is important to investigate the similarities and differences between how relationships are carried out in other cultures. Doing so not only allows us to look for universals of human behaviour, which may point to an evolutionary or biological cause, but also allow us to look for differences which allow us to gain more of an insight into the role our own culture has on shaping our romantic relationships.

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Great A02 points and synoptic ideas, thanks 

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