Romeo and Juliet around the World: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Romantic Love and Mate Selection


Any observer of American culture can easily see the emphasis we seem to place on romantic love. Nearly all of our movies portray some sort of romantic relationship. Daytime talk shows and soap operas often revolve around this obsession. Women's magazines make promises about how to get the man of your dreams. Even research on love appears to be primarily a western phenomenon (Levine, Sato, Hashimoto, and Verma, 1995). Recent research, however, indicates that romantic love is experienced in all cultures, though its relative value may differ between cultures.

Early Conceptions of Love

Research into the history of romantic love has generally portrayed it as a European invention. Book titles such as Medieval Misogyny & the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Bloch, 1991) give us just such an impression. Researchers who hold this belief see romantic love as a “creation of the courtly love tradition that emerged in thirteenth-century Europe” (Shaver, Hazan, & Bradshaw, 1988).

According to Hendrick & Hendrick (1992, p. 38-39) this courtly love, promoted by the troubadours, was a combination of aesthetic love and selfless love that had five accomplishments (Singer, 1984b, in Hendrick & Hendrick, 1992): (a) heterosexual love is a worthy ideal, (b) love is “ennobling” for men and women, (c) love has ethical and aesthetic rules, (d) love, courtesy, and courtship are intertwined, (e) Love is intense and passionate and is characterized by a desire to “merge” with ones partner. This conception of courtly love led to the romanticism movement in the 18th century. During this period increased emphasis was placed on the feeling of love. The works of German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were particularly influential during this time.

Modern Conceptions of Love

Modern western psychologists have proposed a number of models of love. Many models differentiate between liking and loving, between passionate and companionate love, while others attempt to trace the development of love relations using attachment theory (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1992). Other models propose up to eight or more types of love. Sternberg (1988) presents a three component model of love that consists of intimacy, passion and commitment. He theorized that there are various types of love that can arise as each of these three components is added into the mix. These range from non-love (an absence of all three) to consummate love (the presence of all three). Lee (1998) presents a model of “love styles” that range from Ludus (playful, noncommittal love) to Mania (dependent, infatuated love). Knee (1998, in Medora, Larson, Hortacsu, & Dave, 2002) identified five components of romanticism: (a) love can conquer all, (b) the belief that each person has only one true love, (c) the beloved will live up to the ideals of the lover, (d) love at first sight is possible, and (e) it is better to follow your heart than your mind when choosing a partner.

The Universality of Love

Although some researchers still believe in the western invention ideas, there is increasing agreement that romantic love can be experienced universally (e.g. Hendrick & Hendrick, 1992; Munck & Korotayev, 1999; Shaver et al., 1988). As Buss (1988) points out, the fact that a label for something may exist in one culture but not another does not mean that the behavior is restricted to the culture with a label for it.

Buss (1988) proposes an evolutionary theory of love and mate selection. According to this theory, love functions to: (1) attract a mate, (2) retain that mate, (3) reproduce with the mate, and (4) invest parentally in the resulting offspring (p. 101). The ultimate goal of these acts is to increase reproductive success.

Attracting a mate is accomplished through resource display. In order for a male to be reproductively successful he must have, or be able to acquire, the resources necessary to protect and provide for the female and for offspring. This can include such things as earning capacity, social status, possessions, etc. For the female to be reproductively successful, she must be reproductively capable. Female reproductive capability can be predicted by cues such as youth, beauty, etc. Thus, males should prefer youth and beauty in potential mates, while females should prefer status and earning capacity in potential mates. Evidence for these gender differences in mate preference have been found consistently across cultures (Buss et al., 1990; Medora et al., 2002).

Retaining the mate can be accomplished through exclusivity, commitment and marriage. Females attempt to maintain exclusivity by becoming jealous if the male engages in emotional attachment with another female: a signal that he may leave with her and take his resources with him. Males attempt to maintain exclusivity by becoming jealous if the female has sex with another male: a signal that he might have to provide resources for another male’s offspring. Commitment and marriage serve to enforce exclusivity.

The third major goal, reproduction, is accomplished through sexual intimacy. In this case, we would expect that males would be more preoccupied with sexual thoughts than females because of the relative reproductive advantage. Since females are limited in the number of offspring they can have in a given period of time while males are not so limited, we can expect they would spend less time thinking of sexual acts.

Parental investment in offspring increases fitness. Thus, the strong bonds between parents and between parents and offspring serve to help ensure continued parental investment.

From the evolutionary view, then, love serves to ensure that all of the requirements necessary for successful transmission of genes are met. Further, we would expect these evolutionary predictions to be universal, and that various cultures will provide functionally equivalent behaviors in order to ensure that the end goal of reproductive fitness is met.

From Human Universals to Cultural Manifestations

There are several theories about how love manifests itself in different cultures. Goode (1959) proposed that since love could disrupt lineage and “class strata,” it must be controlled. According to Goode, control could be exercised over both the occurrence of love and the influence of love on action. He proposed several “love patterns” that ranged from child marriage on one end of the spectrum, to encouraging free choice in love relationships. In between these extremes are various degrees of control placed upon who individuals are allowed to love and marry. Thus, in cultures with extended family ties love will be more controlled and there will be less individual choice. We can also propose that given the relative importance of family ties in collectivist compared to individualist cultures, that collectivist societies will attempt to place tighter controls on love. Given the evolutionary theories, we would also expect that love would play a greater role in societies that provide less structural support for the initiation and maintenance of love relationships, i.e. individualistic societies.

Lee & Stone (1980) found support for this hypothesis. Data analyzed from 117 societies found that 89% of societies with autonomous mate selection scored high on love scales, compared with 20% of societies with arranged marriages. Medora et al. (2002) compared romanticism scores between American, Indian and Turkish subjects. The American sample scored higher than the other samples, while the Indian sample scored the lowest.

Other similar studies comparing the US with Europe have found that European samples score higher on romanticism scales than the US samples (Simmons, Vom Volke, & Shimizu, 1986; Simmons, Wehner, & Kay, 1988). They also found that US subjects scored higher than Japanese students did.

Given the importance of maintaining exclusivity in evolutionary theory, societies in which marriage is not arranged must find some other means of creating and sustaining those relationships. We might expect that in these societies a greater emphasis is placed on love as a precondition to marriage. Further, as economic status increases we would expect to see a decline in the number of marriages pursued for economic reasons, and a corresponding increase in those afforded the luxury of marrying for love. Levine, Sato, Hashimoto, and Verma (1995) found a strong correlation between individualism and the belief in love as a precondition for marriage. They also found a strong correlation between economic prosperity and the belief in love as a precondition for marriage.

Comparison of North American and Chinese subjects revealed that the Chinese subjects ranked higher on practical love and possessive, dependent love than American subjects (Sprecher & Toro-Morn, 2002). This is what we would expect to see in a highly collectivist culture like China.

Further differences that appear to coincide with the previously mentioned results were found by Buss et al. (1990). In their study, collectivist/traditional societies placed a high emphasis on the importance of chastity, desire for home and children, etc. in a potential mate. Western European countries placed very little importance on these, and the US subjects fell between the two extremes.


Given the high ranking of the US on measures of individualism, the consistency with which the US seems to fall between Europe and collectivist cultures seems to indicate that factors other than individualism/collectivism are contributing to the importance of romanticism in Europe. Whether it has to do with Europe’s history of literary romanticism and courtly love or some other variable remains to be seen.

Although many of the aforementioned results are based primarily on western conceptions of love, I believe they do reflect actual cultural differences. The evolutionary perspective that posits reproductive success as an ultimate goal of human mate-selection would seem to indicate that arranged marriages and love as a precondition for marriage can be considered as functionally equivalent. Where marriage is not arranged, some other means of attaining that goal must be present: increased emphasis on love and emotional attachment.

Finally, love in individualist cultures should provide the additional function of creating and maintaining what is probably the most important social support network. A network that is already fairly strong in collectivist cultures.


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