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Cultural Influences and Heteronormativity on Experiences in Romantic Relationships

Romantic relationships are influenced by various concepts, including the dominant discourses in society, cultural norms, and heteronormativity. One’s interpretation and connection to their significant other is informed by their childhood and family influences, the historical context and geographical location of their upbringing, along with the persistence of religiosity and the corresponding practices. Considering religion, heteronormativity plays an integral role in informing what the rules and regulations of a romantic relationship looks like. This in turns excludes all other expressions of gender and sexuality, subsequently reinforcing homophobia and adhering to, oftentimes, destructive messages and norms. Considering the growing numbers and outward expression of an individual’s personal experiences (gender and sexuality) – cultural influences and heteronormativity is challenged and encourages the embracement of a new normal.

Romantic Relationships

Romantic Love

When thinking about relationships, love is often considered. According to Fehr and Sprecher (2019), love consists of the attitudes that predisposes an individual to think, feel and act towards another person or loved one. Other researchers have noted their own take on what it means to love, and this includes definitions surrounding the mixture of lust and friendship. Needs driven by sexual and emotional desires, including passion, exhilaration and excitement all encompass what it means to experience romantic love (Karandashev, 2015). Falling in love is said to be a universal human response and behavior, and research conducted has further expanded on this concept (Fehr & Sprecher, 2019). For instance, when university students in Canada, who recently fell in love, reported their experience – the majority described “indicators of the other person’s attraction to them,” for example, the other person making prolonged eye contact (Fehr & Sprecher, 2019). Readiness for the experience was also an influencing variable among these university students (Fehr & Sprecher, 2019).

Romantic love has shown impacts on the brain, where reward circuits, dopamine levels and various hormones have responded in positive ways. Schwartz and Olds (2015) article have discussed the regions of the brains that show activity in response to love. The brain’s reward circuit is primitive in its association to love and has contributed to physical and emotional responses. For example, it is connected to responses such as racing hearts, sweaty palms, feelings of passion and anxiety and flushed cheeks. The amygdala, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are also huge components associated with the reward neural network. These areas reinforce behaviors that induce pleasure, for example, sex (Schwartz & Olds, 2015). Falling in love has initiated high levels of dopamine, which serves as a function in mood and pleasure, and research has indicated that its activation helps to enhance pleasurable experiences and euphoria. Chemicals at work include oxytocin (which have roles pregnancy, nursing and attachment) and are released during sex, and heightened skin to skin contact (Schwartz & Olds, 2015).

Understanding the pleasurable effects of romantic love, if one experiences heartbreak, then the effects can be damaging. Verhallen, et. al., (2021) study focused on experiences in a relationship breakup is associated with working memory alterations and whether it relates to the severity of depressive symptoms. The findings highlighted that a breakup can be accompanied by working memory alterations (work-load dependent; Verhallen, et. al., 2021). Other areas in the brain which have shown increased activity and alterations are the cerebellum, anterior temporal cortex, anterior temporal cortex, and prefrontal cortex, after researchers explored grieving women after a romantic relationship break up (Najib, 2004).

Cultural Influences

Culture plays an integral role in understanding how people interpret love and romantic relationships. Considering this statement from Dr. Victor Karandashev (2015) “A Cultural Perspective on Love:”

“Love is a universal emotion experienced by a majority of people, in various historical eras, and in all the world’s cultures, but manifests itself in different ways because culture has been found to have an impact on people’s conceptions of love and the way they feel and behave in romantic relationships (p. 3).”

This notion speaks to the differences in culture and how it informs ways in which adult intimate relationships are perceived. Further exploration of factors such as individualistic cultures versus collectivistic cultures is significant in its contribution to romantic love and relationships. Historical context and proximity (geographical location) also contribute to how an individual interprets romantic connections. Another aspect is religion and how its theology has impressed upon norms in romantic relationships. Each area will be further explored in their respective subheadings.

Individualistic versus Collectivistic Cultures

Dion & Dion (1993) article highlighted the differences in individualistic cultures and collectivistic cultures, and their study aims to look at how the influence of these cultures inform love and intimacy in marriage (romantic relationships). The researchers focused on individualistic countries, that is the United States and Canada, and collectivistic countries, that is China, India, and Japan (Dion & Dion, 1993). Their findings suggested that romantic love is more likely the basis of marriages in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures (Dion & Dion, 1993). The research also indicated that satisfaction within marriage is associated with intimacy in marriage and this was often noticed in individualistic cultures. Some implications in the study focused on deciphering the rationality of love (Dion & Dion, 1993).

Considering the impacts of love and romantic relationships on the brain discussed previously, Dion & Dion’s (1993) study may support these topics, along with suggesting that culture does have a major role in explaining how romantic relationships unfold. The research further discussed some implications, noting that in individualistic cultures, individuals are more likely to marry out of love - but are more likely to experience unhappiness in their marriage and romantic relationships (Dion & Dion, 1993). This is based on the rationale that people do not think logically when they fall in love (Dion & Dion, 1993). Meanwhile, individuals in collectivistic cultures, where individuals typically marry through arranged marriages, are more likely to be happy (Dion & Dion, 1993).

This notion of long-term marital satisfaction in arranged marriages was not supported by articles exploring this topic after the nineties. For instance, Olcay, et. al. 's (2019) article discussed how Turkish husbands and wives in arranged or self-selected marriages differed. This study reported results consistent with cultural influences that most align with individualistic cultures (Olcay et. al., 2019). That is, spouses in self-selected marriages reported more expression of love, in comparison to arranged marriages, and that wives in arranged marriages reported significant gaps in partnership than in self-selected marriages (Olcay et. al., 2019). With Turkey being a relatively collectivistic culture (Halub et. al., 2012), this information surrounding marital satisfaction challenges old norms, and begins to hold space for the development of new practices and perspectives, and further questions historical or inherited procedures.

Historical Context

The constant change in society has shifted prior definitions of love, connection, and romantic relationships, and depending on one’s geographical location and the associated historical context, the definitions of love can either positively or negatively construct what it means to love. China’s population, for example, has dealt with several shifts in their community and within the culture (Karandashev, 2015). Early Chinese history has evidence positive attitudes towards passion, love, and sexual desire, until Neo-Confucian’s (rationalists who imposed and exercised strong influence on Chinese thoughts and perception) gained power. Attitudes toward love, romance were altered and subsequently became more repressive towards these topics. What was most important (during the ruling of the Neo-Confucians and influence of Neo-Confucianism) was procreation and there was little to no emphasis on sexual attraction between couples. There was the expectation of the women, during this time, to be faithful to their husbands, despite non-reciprocity (Karandashev, 2015).

The People’s Republic of China during the late 1940s also imposed strict rules and controls on love. For instance, when the puritanical morals became firmly established within the society, this assumed denial of romantic love, and affirmed collective over individual needs – and one should place all their efforts and ‘affection’ towards the collective (Karandashev, 2015). Since the early 1990s, as increased influences of individualism and consumerism begin to dominate Chinese society, it is now the norm for Chinese youth to mimic beliefs and behaviors of the Western parts of the world (Blair & Madigan, 2016). Young Chinese women and men have expressed desire to date more frequently, and there has since been a progressive stance of love and romance (Blair & Madigan, 2016).

Religion

Religiosity is an important factor as it relates to an individual’s understanding and interpretation of the world. Religion serves as both a protective and risk factor, depending on the population being assessed. There are several protective factors when looking into one’s identity with their faith, and Petts’ (2014) research have highlighted positive impacts among youth’s psychological well-being in relation to family structure, parent-child relationship quality and religious attendance. Findings suggested that youths raised by married parents received greater social and financial support and were exposed to fewer disadvantages in society (Petts, 2014). The study also revealed that youth who attend religious services with parents were more likely to experience higher psychological well-being throughout adolescence. This has been said to provide and increase feelings of integration and social support. The youth’s beliefs may not necessarily align with that of the practiced religious beliefs; however, there is a feeling of connectedness to their parents and the religious community, and this assists with better coping mechanisms when the youth is faced with stress (Petts, 2014).

Considering the positive effects of religion on one population (as mentioned above), on the other spectrum, there are individuals who struggle with coupling their outward expression (particularly sexual orientation) of them self with their spiritual beliefs. Youth or young people who often identify as of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) do not have access to support within their faith communities and this impacts mental health, and contributes to interpersonal conflict (Subhi & Geelan, 2012). Researchers conducted a qualitative study of 20 participants, (including 10 males and 10 females) who identify with the Christian faith, and also identify as LGBT+, to further explore the conflict between religion and sexuality. Findings were consistent with conflict between faith and sexuality – and the negative effects that individuals experienced included depression, guilt and anxiety, suicidal ideation and alienation. The conflict is also said to increase if the individual comes from a close-knit family with strong religious backgrounds, which speaks to the influence of parent’s religiosity regardless of age and life course (Subhi & Geelan, 2012).

Heteronormativity

Descriptions of how individuals operate in their respective cultures, is influenced by cultural perspectives: individualistic versus collectivistic, historical context and religion. These perspectives inform the pervasive construct known as heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the understood as the pervasive norms of heterosexuality (“Heteronormativity,” 2008). It is the default expression of sexuality and serves the gender binary (either male or female). With this norm, traditional gender roles and birth-based identity are expected, monogamy, and homophobia are reinforced and, whether overtly or subtly – race becomes a driving factor in the representation of heteronormativity. Understanding these topics will further explain how romantic relationships are influenced.

Gender Roles

Heteronormativity sets the standard for gender roles and there is the privilege for individuals who identify as heterosexual, as this is understood as the standard” and is the “natural” way of being (Kowalski & Scheitle, 2020). Considering how gender roles have affected sexual minority groups, research has shown that lesbian women and gay men are less likely to endorse traditional gender role attitudes, in the household, around their own families (private settings); however, gender roles in public settings (e.g. women in political office), it is seen where gay men opinions do not differ from the opinions of heterosexual individuals. Researchers discuss how this narrative may be influenced by the heteronormative patriarchal structure that still exists (Kowalski & Scheitle, 2020), and it imperative to understand how this may also influence romantic relationships.

Monogamy

Jacquot’s (2009) description of monogamy notes “… is characterized by two adults sexually committed solely to one another for a prolonged period of time or for life” (p. 577). Rothschild’s (2018) article discussed the examination of monogamy as a social institution, and how the concept was constructed as a part of mono-normativity. The article held Freud accountable in his early writing versus his later work, noting that Freud had considered monogamy as “an oppressive sexual norm, a neurosis for both men and women” (p. 34). Freud then retracted his statement, identifying that the modern world could not have existed without monogamy, and that social functions and culture relies on monogamy (Rothschild, 2018). The article further explored the normalization and naturalization of monogamy as the healthy and moral way of functioning and, most importantly, the only way to maintain a romantic relationship (Rothschild, 2018).

“White” Heterosexuality

Deliovksy’s (2009) article discussed the desires and power of European (White) women and men engaging to establish and maintain their existence. This is seen at the reproductive level, where historically, sexuality was regulated for the reproduction of whiteness, as White people and “bodies” were needed for domination (Deliovsky, 2009). This continues to inform the norms of romantic relationships, and what the general public is exposed to. The privilege of whiteness also tends to dominate other groups, as seen in child-rearing choices of white lesbians (Ryan & Moras, 2017). These individuals would choose white donors, subsequently making choices about the race of their potential children. Though there were no overt conversations in the qualitative analysis (i.e. not explicitly saying, ‘I want a white child’), there were preferences in terms of skin color, eye and hair color, and ethnicity.

Deconstructing Cultural Views and Heteronormativity

Identity and Same-Sex Relationships

In 2020, authors at the University of California’s School of Law outlined the estimated number LGBT+ adults in the United States (U.S.). They found that 4.5% of the U.S. adult population identified as LGBT+, that is 11,343,000 people in total (Conron & Goldberg, 2020). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019) noted that there are 980,000 same-sex households in the United States. These households (couples) are more likely to be unmarried and have a smaller share of children, in comparison to opposite-sex couples (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021).  It is also typical for same-sex couples to have both people employed. With the increase in diversity of household types, it is imperative to understand how same-sex couples navigate their romantic relationships in a predominantly white, patriarchal, and heteronormative informed society.

Establishing New Norms in Romantic Relationships

Lamont’s (2017) discusses how queer relationships (LGBTQ+ identified couples) have challenged the notions and norms of conventional relationship practices. The research focused on how these individuals navigate culturally dominant gendered dating and courtship practices (Lamont, 2017). The findings noted that queer individuals actively rejected heterosexual norms and worked to create new norms and egalitarian ways of establishing their own romantic relationships. It was important for the respondents to acknowledge flexibility and non-gendered care work in their committed relationships, and essentially setting and asserting the tone in their own lives (Lamont, 2017).

Another study focused on the demographic characteristics (gender identity, gender expression and sexuality) of individuals who are willing to, or have considered to,  date transgender individuals (Blair & Hoskin, 2019). These demographics included cisgender men, cisgender women, trans men, trans women and gender queer individuals. Cisgender refers to an individual’s gender identity matching their assigned sex at birth; transgender refers to one’s gender identity and expression not aligning with their assigned sex at birth, and; gender queer explains individuals who do not conform to gender distinctions (Blair & Hoskin, 2019). Researchers found across the sample that, mostly heterosexual men and women, indicated no consideration to date trans people, and that individuals identifying as bisexual, queer, trans or non-binary were most likely to date a trans person (Blair & Hoskin, 2019). This reiterates the community creating their own narratives of romantic relationships despite majority ruling.

Though there is research acknowledging the onset of deconstructing hetero-norms, two-spiritedness has historically held space in the Native American community as a respected and traditional identity. Through disruptions for power and conquest, these communities were oppressed and eventually ‘eradicated.’ Two-spirit people in Native American communities celebrated people, whether male, female or intersex (“Two-Spirit,” 2015). Within these communities, employed and specialized work roles did not discriminate by gender - for instance, men and women would work as healers, which is considered a male role, and females could also participate in hunting and warfare, eventually becoming leaders or chiefs (“Two-Spirit,” 2015). Considering romantic relationships, two-spirit people formed sexual and emotional relationships with non-two-spirit individuals. Love was associated with luck in these communities and one’s ability to bestow luck onto others.

Complexities in Other Communities

Heteronormativity has raised complexities in other communities and their own romantic relationships. Leiser’s (2018) article highlighted the impacts of the media on the perceptions of the bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism (BDSM) and kink communities. Due to (often not accurately depicted) popularization, there is an influx in the BDSM community that has shifted the dynamic of this once queer-influenced space. These inaccurate descriptions of sexual practices are problematic, as it demonstrates harmful ways of operating in the community, and perpetuates discriminatory actions against individuals who actively and intently express themselves in these communities. With the ‘normalization’ of incorrect and harmful sexual practices, it in turn causes additional stigma to the queer and leather communities and their perceptions on relationships (Leiser, 2018).

Non-monogamous romantic relationships are also impacted as they are often not considered in conversations outside of the hetero-norms. Ling, et. al. (2022) article discussed non-monogamy as a consensual relationship “characterized by the understanding that one or more individuals in a romantic relationship may also have other sexual and/or romantic partners” (p. 1075-1076). With this, non-monogamous relationships do not benefit from opportunities that are afforded to monogamous partners. For instance, marriage is limited to monogamous relationships, and “plural” marriages are prohibited and often still criminalized (in the United States; Ling, et. al., 2022).

Conclusion

Cultural influences and heteronormativity have influenced many nations and have subsequently influenced romantic relationships. Considering how people interpret love based on the individualism and or collectivism of their culture, their historical context and their own religion and relationship with a Higher Power, speaks to the diverse nature of how romantic relationships are interpreted and understood. On the quest for power, it is understood how heteronormativity was used as a catalyst for segregating other communities, and still informs some of the ways in which the world operates today. It is important to understand the positive impacts of love on the brain.  Different communities have begun their own work to reclaim their communities, identities and (traditional) norms. This then creates a sense of unity and belongingness within these communities, and especially in their romantic relationships, as opposed to feelings of restrictions due to conforming to what is considered ‘normalcy.’

 

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Cite This Article

Smith, K., & Joshi, S. (2024, January). Cultural Influences and Heteronormativity on Experiences in Romantic Relationships. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 59(1), 19-25.

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