What Occurs in Our Brain When We Fall in Love with Someone?

The need for love is one of the most basic physiological and psychological needs people have. We need to love someone and be loved by somebody. Although people’s experiences and expressions of love may vary across cultures and situations, their basic human needs for love are still universal across the world (Karandashev, 2019).

I wrote about how our brain developed the ability to love in another article.

The activation of certain neural and physiological mechanisms in our body and brain generates the psychological experience and expression of love. These biological mechanisms for the capacity and necessity to love have developed in our mammalian ancestors throughout the course of biological evolution (Karandashev, 2022).

How Our Brain Works When We Fall in Love

Studies of the neurophysiological processes involved in our feelings of love have proliferated in the last two decades. Brain imaging techniques have been a valuable method to study human cerebral functions associated with love and romantic relationships.

Neuroscientists have traditionally investigated the subcortical structures of reward-related systems involved in the experience of love. Later neuroimaging studies showed that, in addition to these subcortical structures, different cortical networks and cognitive factors play an important role in reward-related systems associated with the experience of love.

Several scientists investigated how men and women feel in the early stages of romantic love and what occurs in their brains and bodies. Early-stage romantic love often induces euphoria.

What is happening in our brains when we are falling in love? According to Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues, the first activation of love occurs in a primitive part of the brain’s reward system that is located in the midbrain. This finding once again confirms that our ability to love stems from the long evolutionary history of our animals’ ancestors. It is possible that romantic love originated from a mammalian drive to pursue preferred mates.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Love

Lucy Brown and her colleagues studied seven men and ten women who were “in love” using the method of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Some of these participants were intensely in love, while others were moderately in love or had a low thrill for their partner.

Participants in this study alternately perceived a photograph of their beloved and a photograph of another familiar person that researchers exposed to them in the fMRI machine. When participants perceived the photo of their romantic partner, they experienced a feeling of love. What occurred in their brain? Researchers recorded brain activation in the midbrain’s ventral tegmental area (VTA). This is the part of the brain connected to meeting basic needs, such as eating when we are hungry and drinking when we are thirsty.

Professor Brown commented,

“It’s the area of the brain that controls things like swallowing and other basic reflexes. While we often think about romantic love as this euphoric, amorphous thing and as a complex emotion, the activation we see in this very basic part of the brain is telling us that romantic love is actually a drive to fulfill a basic need.”

The Hormones of Love

Stephanie Cacioppo, a professor from the University of Chicago, and her colleagues revealed more findings on how love affects our brains.

Researchers found 12 areas of the brain that are activated to release chemicals such as dopamine, the hormone associated with “feel-good,” oxytocin, the hormone associated with “cuddle hormone,” and adrenaline, which stimulates a euphoric sense of purpose. These findings also showed that the brain’s reward circuit, which includes the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex, is sensitive to behaviors that induce pleasure. These parts of the brain are active when we are talking about a loved one, and these areas have increased blood flow.

When these processes are occurring in the brain, our level of serotonin, a hormone responsible for the regulation of appetite and intrusive anxious thinking, decreases. Low levels of serotonin are common among men and women experiencing anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

“This explains why people in the early stages of love can become obsessed with small details, spending hours debating about a text to or from their beloved,”

Stephanie Cacioppo

How Our Brain Developed the Ability to Love

Love is one of our core psychological and biological needs. We need to love, and we need to be loved. These needs are cross-culturally universal, even though the way people experience and express their love may differ across societies and contexts (Karandashev, 2019).

As a cross-cultural psychological phenomenon, love stems from some basic neural and physiological processes that occur in our brain and body. The need and capability to love evolved over a long history of biological evolution (Karandashev, 2022).

The Neurophysiological Evolution of Love

The evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system (ANS) has provided a neurophysiological basis for emotional processes related to the experience and expression of love, such as reproduction, proximity, and safety (Porges, 1998). Sexual arousal, passionate sexual activities, and long-term pair bonding develop as a result of phylogenetic changes in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The vagus nerve of the mammalian autonomic nervous system (ANS) is anatomically connected to the cranial nerves that control social interaction between individuals through vocalization and facial expression. Subsequently, courting, love, and seduction behaviors develop.

Mammal Neural Systems for Love

Mammal brain systems exhibit specific neural activity patterns related to sexual behavior, affectionate emotions, and love. Several brain systems are involved in mating, including neural systems for sensory perception and cognitive and emotional responses to the object of love.

Dopaminergic reward pathways are the specific brain mechanisms involved in sexual and romantic attraction (Dixson, 1998, 2009; Fisher, Aron, & Brown, 2006; Panksepp, 1998).

Passionate attraction during courtship in mammalian species is directly associated with increased levels of central dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as decreased levels of central serotonin in the brain’s reward pathways (Fisher, 2004; Herbert, 1996).

Mammalian Human Brain

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in humans has revealed that passionate attraction and love are associated with activity in primitive brain regions (Aron et al., 2005; Bartels & Zeki, 2000, 2004; Fisher, Aron, & Brown, 2006; Ortigue et al., 2010, see for review, Karandashev, 2022). Passionate love involves the brain’s subcortical reward pathway and motivation systems focusing on a specific person. Thus, basic evolutionary mechanisms embed the basic emotion of love. This form of love could have appeared early in hominid evolution, providing people with emotional signals for mate selection (Fisher, 2004).

What Love Languages Are and Whether We Should Know Them

Over 30 years ago, Baptist pastor Gary Chapman introduced a theory of love languages, suggesting five typical ways people express and perceive love. His book “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts” has become very popular since that time in many countries around the world. Chapman’s theory suggests that love means different things to different people. The author identified 5 different meanings and corresponding ways of expressing love. These languages of love are

  • words of affirmation (giving compliments),
  • gifts (presents big and small),
  • acts of service (helping your partner with chores or in other ways),
  • quality time (doing things together) or
  • physical touch (such as hugs, kisses or sex).

Gary Chapman claims that understanding your partner’s love language is the key to a good relationship. Many people who read his book have found it to be helpful in their relationship with a partner. This competency can have a tremendous positive impact on romantic and marital relationships.

Is the Theory of Love Languages Science or Pop Culture?

A neuroscientist and journalist, Richard Sima, discusses this question in a recent article in the Washington Post, January 15, 2024. Let’s consider some evidence.

Chapman strongly believes that almost everyone has a primary love language. And this language “tends to stay with us throughout a lifetime,” he said. According to his opinion, the only people he has encountered who say all five are equally important are those who either were always loved or never loved.

Chapman admits, “I’m not a researcher.” He said that some researchers criticizing his theory of 5 love languages interpret his work too strictly.

“I was never dogmatic to say that there’s only five love languages. I’m still open, but I’m a little more confident that these(five)are pretty much fundamental to human nature.”

Chapman said.

Some researchers, however, question the scientific validity of the concept of 5 love languages. Emily Impett, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, Canada, and her co-authors Haeyoung Gideon Park and Amy Muise  recently published an article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science presenting an extensive review of the scientific literature on the topic (Impett et al., 2024). They concluded that core assumptions about love languages stand on shaky ground, unsupported by empirical evidence.

Their analysis of scientific publications has shown that there is no strong empirical support for the book’s three central assumptions that

  • (a) each person has a preferred love language,
  • (b) there are five love languages,
  • (c) couples are more satisfied when partners speak one another’s preferred language. 

Here are the main points of critiques:

1. Do People Have a Primary Love Language?

The existence of the person’s “primary” love language is a cornerstone of love language advice. So, a key assumption of Chapman’s book is that you need to know the primary love language your partner speaks. Researchers found that people tend to connect with several love languages, not one.

“In real life, we know that people often don’t need to make these kinds of trade-offs between do you want a partner who is going to touch you versus express love in some other way,”

Impett said.

“If that’s the core assumption, then everything that follows kind of falls apart in a lot of different ways,”

said Sara Algoe.

2. People Have More Than 5 Love Languages

Researchers show that people experience and express love in more than the five ways, or five key love languages, as defined by Chapman.

Other expressions of love are possible, such as the support of a partner’s autonomy and personal growth.

“We know that these things are really key for relationship satisfaction and might be more meaningful to couples with more egalitarian values,”

Impett said. 

“Just being nice to your mother-in-law, being on time for the opera, creating interests together, learning things together, doing novel things together. It’s a little different than just spending time together.”

said Helen Fisher

3. Having the Same Love Language May Not Lead to Relationship Satisfaction

Chapman’s theory of love languages implies that learning the love language of a partner and speaking the same love language as your partner’s would lead to a successful relationship.

However, studies show that partners who have the same primary love languages do not necessarily have higher relationship satisfaction compared to those who have different love languages.

According to Emily Impett, research suggests that perceiving expressions of love in any form leads to high relationship satisfaction.

Family therapist Dr. Gottman, co-founder with his wife Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute, is renowned for scientific relationship research. He expressed his doubts that learning your partner’s love language is a key to relationship happiness.

“My general conclusion is that these dimensions are not very distinct conceptually, nor are they very important in terms of accounting for variation in marital happiness and sexual satisfaction,”

said Dr. Gottman.

Gottman believes that the idea of love languages focuses on the important question of partners’ needs and their satisfaction in a relationship:

“What can I do to make you feel more loved now, and help me understand where you are right now?”

Responding to all criticism, Chapman said that

“He understands that love languages aren’t “the answer to everything in marriage, for sure. But I think it could be a helpful tool for any individual or any couple that wants to enhance their relationship and especially meet each other’s need to feel loved.”

Personal Qualities That Are More Attractive for Love Than Our Looks

Many believe that our looks are what matter most in attracting the love of a potential partner. Yes, physical attraction is what people desire in a loved one. However, desirable personality traits are what matter most.

According to the surveys of heterosexual and homosexual partners, appearance and sexiness are only in the middle of the preferred characteristics of a partner. On the other hand, such personality traits as extraversion, intelligence, and agreeableness are higher than physical attraction as the qualities that women and men in different-sex and same-sex couples look for in a partner.

As co-founder of the dating app So Syncd, Jess Alderson says, we do prefer personality over looks. For example, in the sample of more than 1,000 users, almost 90% preferred certain personality traits over looks.

Why Agreeableness Is Desired for Love

Agreeableness is among the indicators of someone’s interpersonal skills. It characterizes how compassionate and caring people are. This personal quality plays an important role for both men and women in their initial preference for a date’s desirability. This trait is also a strong predictor of current and future relationship satisfaction and durability. For men as well as for women, physical attractiveness comes together with agreeableness in their desire for a love relationship. “Agreeableness is kind of a necessity,” says Greg Webster, a psychology professor at the University of Florida. In relationships, agreeableness, combined with other attractive traits, can bring the best out of people. See more about this research here.

The factor of similarity also plays a role. We feel attracted to others who share values similar to ours.

How does it work in the case of agreeableness? More agreeable people tend to see others as kind and friendly, finding them similar. This is why we match with people who have personalities similar to our own.

Why Similarity and Familiarity Matter for Love

We tend to look for similar and familiar others in our pursuit of love, not only in agreeableness but also in other personality traits, such as openness to a new experience and conscientiousness.

Partners with high similarity in the personality traits of conscientiousness and openness to a new experience are better in their ability to solve problems and manage daily tasks.

Similarity and familiarity are important in many other things (Berscheid & Reis, 1998; Orbuch & Sprecher, 2003). We also find attractive the other person who is physically and genetically similar to us, how close they live geographically to us, whether we belong to the same social groups, and whether we approve of their friends.

Why Some Differences Are Attractive for a Relationship

Despite the importance of similarities and familiarities in traits, personality differences might also be appealing for love.

Partners with complementary traits match well with each other, according to the observations of Jess Alderson, a co-founder of the dating app So Syncd.

“It makes sense that we’ve evolved to be attracted to people who at least have a certain amount of differences to ourselves. We make a stronger team and would be more likely to survive. But again, you need that kind of intimacy that draws you together.”

“We pair couples who have just enough similarities to form a strong connection, and then just enough differences to create that spark of excitement,” says Alderson.

“If you are too similar, it can be a little bit boring. And then if you’re too different, it can just not be that fun on a daily basis.”

It turns out that similarity and equality between partners are not necessarily the best things for a good relationship. And the dominance quality of one partner can be a good thing for love.

For example, social psychologists Angela Bryan, Greg Webster, and Amanda Mahaffey looked at socially, physically, and financially dominant people and the effect agreeableness had on their appeal (Bryan, Webster, & Mahaffey, 2011).

Researchers found that social, physical, and financial types of dominance are attractive to others. Each can provide a kind of protection or access to basic needs, like food and shelter, through to more desirable needs, like lavish lifestyles.

Yet, dominance traits can be used for good and bad:

“We can think of dominance as being turned inward towards a relationship or as being focused outward away from the relationship. What people want are partners who are socially, physically, or financially dominant, but not necessarily towards their partner,”

says Webster.

When dominance is mediated by agreeableness, it is a combination of qualities appealing to interpersonal attraction. “It’s one thing if you’re able to dominate other people, but are you willing to share those resources with your romantic partner?” For attractive partners, agreeableness accentuates the benefits of other personal qualities.

How Online Dating Changed Cross-Cultural Love and Relationships

The last several decades have witnessed the emergence and extensive development of dating websites. This progress greatly changed the way partners meet, love, and how their relationships evolve.

How Dating Websites Emerged and Expanded

It may look surprising that the first dating websites came only in the 1990s. In 1995, Match.com went online. In the early 2000s, a new wave of dating sites like OKCupid came out. When Tinder came out in 2012, it changed dating even more. There are now more than one-third of marriages that begin online. This data, however, varies across cultures.

These websites have obviously had a significant influence on dating behavior. However, evidence is mounting that their impact is far more substantial. Interesting statistical data from research shows the variety of places and ways in which partners met each other over the last decades.

How Traditional Networks of Dating Work

The social networks associated with family, neighbors, friends, and acquaintances were the most prevalent sources of prospective dating partners. People are strongly connected to a small group of neighbors and only loosely connected to people who live far away. It turns out that these loose connections are very important.

Loose ties have traditionally played an important role in meeting partners. While most people were unlikely to date one of their best friends, they were much more likely to date someone from their group of friends, such as a friend of a friend. Men and women met their partners through their families, at church, through mutual friends, in bars, in educational institutions, at work, and so on.

The Modern Way of Online Dating

The networks of dating have changed with the onset of online dating. Nowadays, heterosexual couples meet through online dating, which is the second most popular method. It’s the most popular choice by far for homosexual couples.

Online dating has led to significant consequences, extending the pool of potential dating partners. “People who meet online tend to be complete strangers,” say Josue Ortega from the University of Essex in the U.K. and Philipp Hergovich from the University of Vienna in Austria, the authors of the recent study.

Online Dating Is Conducive to Intercultural Marriages

These new opportunities extended chances for intercultural relationships, love, and marriages. Some societies are more favorable for intercultural marriages than others.

The statistics of intercultural marriages in the United States of American present a good example for analysis. For instance, J. Ortega and P. Hergovich compared the rates of interracial marriages in the U.S. over the past several decades and found that the number of interracial marriages increased for some time, but the rates were still low.

However, the rates of increase in interracial marriages substantially changed at about the time that online dating became popular. The researchers say,

“It is intriguing that shortly after the introduction of the first dating websites in 1995, like Match.com, the percentage of new marriages created by interracial couples increased rapidly.”

When online dating became even more popular, this increase in interracial marriages became even steeper in the 2000s. Later, in 2014, the proportion of interracial marriages expanded again. “It is interesting that this increase occurred shortly after the creation of Tinder, considered the most popular online dating app,” researchers say.

Married Couples Who Meet Online Are More Stable

It is worth noting that, with about 50 million users, Tinder produces over 12 million matches daily. In the meantime, research into the strength of marriage has discovered some evidence that married couples who meet online have lower rates of marital breakup compared to those who meet in traditional settings.

Humor Helps Maintain Love Relationships

Men and women tend to love humorous people and perceive them as more attractive. They feel attracted to those with a good sense of humor and consider humor a desirable trait in romantic partners during the early stages of relationships.

How important is humor in a relationship over time? It is possible that we not only perceive humorous people as attractive but also tend to perceive someone we like as humorous (Li et al., 2009). For example, when we are happy in a relationship, we find our partner funny, even though she or he may not be objectively that funny in the first place.

How a Recent Study Conducted

A recent study conducted by Kenneth Tan, an assistant professor of psychology at Singapore Management University, and his colleagues Bryan Choy, and Norman Li. showed that humor also plays a role in maintaining and strengthening relationships. Partners use jokes and funny stories to signal continued interest in each other and improve their relationship.

Kenneth Tan and his colleagues conducted a study with a sample of 108 couples who were involved in romantic relationships with an average duration of 18.27 months. The researchers asked partners to complete daily assessments for seven consecutive evenings, reporting their perceptions of humor within their relationships and their levels of relationship commitment, perceived partner commitment, and relationship satisfaction.

This way, researchers investigated how humor and relationship quality fluctuate within established romantic relationships on a day-to-day basis. They found that humor functions as a means to signal and maintain the interest of partners in a romantic relationship.

The Study Found Complex Relations Between Humor and Relationship Quality

Their findings demonstrated that on days when partners reported higher levels of commitment, perceived partner commitment, or relationship satisfaction, they also more frequently used humor in communication with their partners. Furthermore, positive relationship quality between partners on one day increases the use of humor and perception the next day. Thus, relationship quality in current interactions positively influences the use of humor in subsequent interactions. This way, they use humor to express their continued interest in an ongoing relationship.

On days where partners were more satisfied and committed to the relationship, they found their romantic partner more humorous, both on the same day and the next. On days when they were less satisfied and committed to their relationship, they found their partner less humorous, both on the same day and the next.

The study did not reveal gender differences in its findings. Both women and men tend to use humor to maintain interest and strengthen their relationships.

In conclusion, one might typically think that humor is more important in the early phase of relationships to establish attraction than in the later stage of the relationship. However, the study found that humor did not show stronger effects on relationships that were shorter in length.

Humor, as well as smiling and laughter, improve our love relationship at any stage of a relationship.

Love Songs Are Not Universal Across Cultures

Music seems a universal language of love, and love songs are cross-culturally recognizable and understandable. The writer John Anderer illustrates that it might be right to refer to the iconic song “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a song by English rock band Joy Division, released in June 1980.

Is Music a Universal Language Across Cultures?

Researchers from Yale University generally agree with the statement that music is universal. Their research revealed that, with the notable exception of love songs, people all over the world can recognize the themes found in songs and music regardless of national boundaries or cultural backgrounds.

As Samuel Mehr, an assistant professor adjunct at the Yale Child Study Center and a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland, says:

All around the world, people sing in similar ways. Music is deeply rooted in human social interaction.

Researchers studied over 5,000 people from 49 nations, asking them to listen to 14-second snippets of vocals from songs originating from many cultures around the world. The participants were people from a variety of cultures around the world, including individuals from relatively small cultural communities.

Researchers asked participants to listen to the songs in 31 various languages. Then they asked to rank how likely it is that each sample of music belongs to one of four musical types: lullabies, dance, “healing” music, or love music.

The authors conclude that listeners’ ratings were largely accurate, consistent with one another, and not explained by their linguistic or geographical proximity to the singer. This result showed that musical diversity is underlain by universal psychological phenomena.”

The lead author, Lidya Yurdum, explains that

“Our minds have evolved to listen to music. It is not a recent invention. But if we only study songs from the western world and listeners from the western world, we can only draw conclusions about the western world — not humans in general.”

What Kind of Music Do People Easier Recognize?

Results of the study showed that people from various cultures around the world relatively easily recognize lullabies and dance music and, to a lesser degree, “healing” music. However, they showed the least ability to identify love songs.

These are surprising results. Lidya Yurdum, a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam who works as a research assistant at the Yale Child Study Center, explains the results this way:

“One reason for this could be that love songs may be a particularly fuzzy category that includes songs that express happiness and attraction, but also sadness and jealousy. Listeners who heard love songs from neighboring countries and in languages related to their own actually did a little better, likely because of the familiar linguistic and cultural clues.”

How Assertion and Hesitation Help Sustain Love in Bicultural Marriages in Japan

Intercultural partners experience many challenges in building and sustaining love in bicultural marriages. In the previous article, we reviewed the key problems that Japanese and American partners encounter in their bicultural marriages. We explored those cases of third-culture marriage in Japan by observing their interactions and interviewing them.

We clarify misinterpretations through the use of kotowaza, or proverbs and sayings that illuminate the values behind cultural interactions. Understanding the deeper values leads to modified interpretations of each other’s behavior that become more isomorphic and mutually acceptable to partners committed to constructing together a successful Third-Culture Marriage.

In our recent chapter 51 in the International Handbook of Love (Clarke & Takashiro, 2021), we elaborated on the eight primary qualities of third-culture marriage interactions. They are important when partners commit to constructing together a successful intercultural marriage.

Here is one more advice.

Context of the Interaction Assertion and Hesitation in Bicultural Marriages

Partners in bicultural marriages have varying degrees of action-oriented versus being-oriented inclinations (the oft-noted ‘A’ or ‘B’ type personalities). When these are not in sync they cause tension. For example, in planning everyday schedules, leisure trip activities, even with the pace in which house chores or shopping get done, and many other occasions in which joint preparations are desired.

Time Is a Key Value

Time is a commodity in both cultures however it is worshipped differently.   Preciseness of departure times or eating times or sleeping times cause communication issues when there is a significant difference between marriage partners’ commitments to preciseness or being laissez-faire toward time (letting things take their own course.) But proper timing is also important and that can vary by context and objective.  

The kotowaza, Seite wa koto o shisonzuru or ‘Hasty ones make blunders’ reminds us of the issue of proper timing, such as when to end or leave a conversation or party. This also suggests the importance of enryo or hesitation as a pause before sasshi can occur (Miike, 2003) as in giving consideration or guessing a meaning.

Necessary Elements of Place

Besides the perspective of ‘time’, there are also considerations of ‘Place’ that bicultural couples must appreciate and resolve.   There is an appropriateness of time, place, and occasion, “TPO” to speak honestly in private with honne or tactfully in public with tatemae. 

Tatemae & honne (public & private speech) create style ambiguities that result in challenging attributions that question each other’s integrity, based honesty, shōjiki, or on harmony, “Wa, as the primary value in society (Prince Shotoku Taishi, 604; Clarke, 1992; Nawano, Annikis, and Mizuno, 2006; Oosterling, 2005; Pilgrim, 1986).

Here Is an Example of One Scenario

A long-term U. S. man, a professor, complained often of his Japanese partner never having an opinion of her own, even about where to take a weekend trip or what to eat.  The American wanted her honest feeling regardless of potentially having her opinion overruled.  Having “no opinion” created comfort in the Japanese woman while not in the U. S. man. It rather limited the scope and depth of the bicultural relationship.  The man did not value awaseru, to adjust, adapt, or match, as the woman did because without ‘the truth’, her shōjiki, how could he know that he was pleasing her? 

She on the other hand was practicing enryo, hesitation, in order to let him choose.  Whatever his decision, she was sure that she was happier to awasu, to adjust to his preferences and would easily gaman, endure, the consequences.  She would be ‘the wise hawk that hides its talons’ – No aru taka wa tsume o kakusu.

Here Are the Tools for Cultural Exploration

Kotowaza (sayings and proverbs – some are the same as sayings and proverbs in English) can uncover deeper values and assumptions, which are often unknown to non-Japanese (Galef & Hashimoto, 1987).  Kotowaza, like those from Confucius or Musashi, reveal models for strategic thinking and behaviors and can provide a basis for conversations about different styles of communication. 

In this case the Japanese wife chose to enryo, hesitation, and awasu, to adapt to his expressed wishes.  The husband chose to act in a way that could have conveyed rikutsuppoi, argumentative, or display what she may have perceived as ki ga tsuyoi, strong mindedness, and jikoshucho, self- assertiveness, not characteristics admired in Japan.  

Learning Through Experimentation

Differences across these two cultures due to assumptions about integrity, honesty, persuasion, and adjustment often result in dissatisfaction within the marriage. However, just deeper understanding is inadequate without exploring the necessary changes in attitude, accepting the conflicting values, and experimenting with new behaviors.

One Pathway to Conflict Resolution

There are two social paths by which to display integrity.   One is by being honest; the other is by being harmonious.   In Japan, Prince Shotoku Taishi wrote in 604 A. D. “Above all, there is harmony” in what is known as Japan’s first constitution. 

Honesty is not as core a value in Japan as in the U.S. due to the predominance of tatemae rather than honne in the language, which enables the construction of greater harmony. 

One kotowaza shows the necessity of what Americans call lying; Uso mo hoben, similarly, ‘a white lie is a necessary evil’ teaches us that lying is sometimes expedient in order to save face and build harmony, as in diplomacy or office politics.

How Japanese and Americans Sustain Love in Bicultural Marriages in Japan

Intercultural lovers experience many challenges in attempts to build bicultural marriages. In this article, we consider the key issues that arise in the dozens of bicultural marriages we have known through observation of interactions and interviews in Japan. We clarify misinterpretations by use of kotowaza or proverbs and sayings that illuminate the values behind the cultural interactions. Understanding the deeper values leads to modified interpretations of each other’s behavior that become more isomorphic and mutually acceptable to partners committed to constructing together a successful Third-Culture Marriages.

A Third-Culture Marriage (TCM) builds upon earlier concepts of Ruth & John Useem’s (1967) Third-Culture Kid (TCK) and David Pollock’s (1999) Adult TCK.

What Is Third Culture Building Model?

Fred Casmir (1993, 1999) recognized the need for a building model or conceptual framework for individuals interacting across cultures for extended duration.  He developed the conceptual Third Culture Building Model (TCBM), which inspired Clarke & Takashiro (2019) to research and develop an applied process of communicating between Third-Cultural Marriage partners in Japan.

The Third-Cultural Marriage is defined by its process wherein two partners from different original cultures commit to a lifetime of utilizing periodic processes to investigate each other’s perceptions, values, and communication styles with approaches grounded in intercultural communication competencies. The goal of the Third-Cultural Marriage is to sustain commitment to the relationship in a way that demonstrates increasing mutual understanding, respect, appreciation, empathy, trust and love.

The Third-Culture Marriage interaction process they developed was built upon Barnlund’s (1976) holistic interpretation of intercultural communication processes and Ruben and Kealey’s (1979) augmented seven intercultural communication competencies.

In their recent chapter 51 in the International Handbook of Love, Clarke & Takashiro (2021)elaborated on the eight primary qualities summarized below.  These eight primary qualities below are not sequential steps of interaction processes but rather must be applied simultaneously with consistent awareness.

Here Are Eight Primary Qualities of the Third-Culture Marriage Interaction

  1. For Third-Cultural Marriage (TCM) creation, instead of trying to fit into others’ categories, construct together from your own experiences, with new definitions and communication scenarios, the intercultural interactions that are relevant to each partner. The ICC (Intercultural Communication Competencies) that are required is that of personalizing one’s perceptions, in other words, the ability to communicate one’s own values, beliefs, and assumptions as personal and not universally applicable and accept that personal preferences may need modification or to be changed altogether. This usually requires learning about oneself by analyzing how it impacts its new environment, the society and the marriage.
  2. TCM focuses on creating a process for communicating about any issues of your choice that you would like to create clarity around, such as making sense of each other’s attitude or approach to something or interpreting what each partner perceives as common sense in order to build common grounds. Develop mutual commitment to your communication process even as you make changes together along the way. It is this process that is your goal rather than building final unchangeable standards. The ICC skill for this process is being non-judgmental about whatever one hears from one’s partner, while seeking to understand and accept whatever that may be. 
  3. TCM is based on principles of fairness and democracy, focus on each other as equals and build an atmosphere of caring and respecting the other, avoiding confronting or trying to persuade each other. No one’s needs take priority over the other’s needs. An ICC for this quality is to communicate respect in a way that is acceptable to the other partner and that requires listening to the other’s preferred ways of receiving respect that generate happiness and self-esteem. 
  4. TCM requires a process that searches for new insights to oneself as well as the other’s including personal backgrounds, preferences, knowledge, and feelings. Think of this process as an exploration into the unknown of both parties and a negotiation that constructs shared experiences and new learnings. ICC that support this process are perseverance and patience because the end of the process never ends. For such sharing patience needs to be demonstrated and not only felt internally. Patience is required because exploring the culture that each partner brings to the relationship and then constructing together a new culture takes dedication and perseverance. 
  5. TCM processes are engaged with mutual enthusiasm and deliberateness. It requires conscious effort and discipline to establish structures, systems, artifacts, shared values, and styles of communicating that can enrich the quality of the couple’s lives together. Their process should be aimed at creating trust, respect, and meaningful interactions that both partners can understand, explain, and support. The ICC skill for this process is to show an ability to tolerate ambiguity when working together without demanding clarification or conformity to one’s own standard or common sense.
  6. TCM is grounded in proactive communication that avoids crises, conflicts, and problems because it takes a proactive problem-solving approach that can enable healthy interactions with modifications of external circumstances or ingrained cultural behaviors. The ICC skill for a proactive problem-solving approach is to display personal empathy for the partner when a situation seems to be creating a problem. The challenge is to learn how to exhibit empathy in the partner’s preferred way. That requires keen observation, trial and error, or inquiry in a way that shows appreciation for any answer. 
  7. TCM is strengthened by a striving for positive outcomes that will be beneficial and satisfactory to both partners for the present and into the future. It is designed to enable partners to build, create, and shift frameworks if needed by any situation but does not advocate any specific outcome as it is a process for constructing a new culture for a third culture marriage of partners from two different cultures. An ICC skill that suits this process is demonstrating role flexibility by the willingness to experience new roles within the marriage and the society, as an active learner eager to try new behaviors with the partner. 
  8. TCM definitely requires time because it is a communication process that serves to integrate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from two cultures into one new culture. It requires of partners considerable reflection, exploration of new information, new standards or norms for the new culture.  Expanding one’s behavioral repertoire also requires practice with mutual support. The ICC skill needed for integrating diverse thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the partners is a demonstration of perpetual reciprocal concern for each other. Concern for another is a feeling of compassion that is best communicated by action with or without words.

The foundational ICC that were mentioned in these eight steps are the authors’ modifications on Ruben & Kealey’s (1979) Intercultural Communication Competencies. (Refer to: Clarke & Takashiro, 2021)

We believe these pieces of advice and experiences about sustaining love and building bicultural marriages among partners in Japan will be helpful for partners living in bicultural marriages not only in Japan but also in other countries.

Love After Loss in Otherworldly Venice

Two loving persons, John and Laura. experienced a big tragedy—the tragic loss of their beloved daughter. Their love seems to have cracked after this tragic event. Can their love after loss still be restored?

Loss after loss can be partially healed – and intimacy restored – experiencing something unexpected and new, incorporating in a couple’s life small doses of the unfamiliar, the magical, and the primal. Don’t Look Now seems to say just this. The novella is set in Venice and it is written by Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca.

John and Laura, the protagonists of the story, experience a reawakening of the senses that brings them close to one another again after the tragic loss of their daughter. While depicting Venice as gloomy and mysterious, the lagoon city acts as a time-travel device, allowing the protagonists to go back in time and offering them, briefly, the illusion of a restored happiness. The beauty and magic of Venice give them a suspended moment of loving and sensual closeness before a tragic conclusion.

The Journal of the Short Story in English published a special issue on Daphne du Maurier’s short stories and novellas. The volume, edited by Xavier Lachazette, will be available online in June 2024. Meanwhile, readers can access the article I wrote on Don’t Look Now here:  https://asian-university.academia.edu/FrancescaPierini

The Soothing Encounter with Otherness

When John and Laura take a trip to Venice after the death of their daughter Christine, they are distant from one another. In Venice, they meet middle-aged twin sisters. One of the sisters is a psychic who tells Laura she can see and communicate with Christine. She also tells her that Christine is trying to warn their parents to leave the city at once, as she thinks they are in danger. Whereas Laura believes what she hears from the sisters, John, feeling manipulated, grows increasingly impatient with his wife and annoyed with the old ladies.

Whereas Laura is capable of contemplating and accepting a necessary dose of soothing, otherworldly reality which will help her elaborate and contain her grief for the loss of her daughter, John chooses to hide behind a veil of scepticism which will eventually lead him to ruin.

As the story unfolds, John and Laura, in spite of their opposed attitudes towards the unknown, become less estranged from one another. Venice works its magic on them, bringing them closer, renewing their intimacy. Their encounter with otherness – the lagoon city as an exotic and mysterious location and the sisters as messengers from an otherworldly dimension – generates an intense moment of happiness, acting as a catalyst of positive change in their relationship.

Otherness as Catalyst of Change

Don’t Look Now immediately introduces us to a parallel dimension of doubles and opposites: twin old ladies, the second sight one of them possesses, youth opposed to old age, innocence to corruptness, belief to disbelief. In a sense, the novella can be read as a story of descent into a maze – which Venice very much resembles – from which only those who are emotionally open to the possibility of being challenged find a way out, getting consoled for their loss and partially restored to a peaceful state of mind.

This is why Don’t Look Now is very much representative of an Anglophone literary tradition depicting the South of Europe, and Italy in particular, as a space in which manifestations of the magical, the supernatural, the unorthodox, and the regressive are still present, and there to challenge the British visitor. In other words, Italy has been depicted, for a long time, as the ideal stage for tales that centre on a rational British self who finds himself/herself challenged by a parallel world in partial discontinuity with the contemporary one.

Hence Venice is depicted as a counter-site, a place that represents the ordinary by projecting its counter-image, a microcosm that is in appearance in continuity with the contemporary world, but where ordinary rules can be momentarily suspended in order to make space for a tale of fated ineluctability.

Don’t Look Now places at its centre northern European protagonists constantly challenged by the city’s reiterated foreign character, its web of alleys and the largely incomprehensible behaviour of its natives. In order to navigate the city and to make sense of their journey, the British protagonists need someone situated half-way between their world and Venice’s parallel reality: the psychic twin sister personifies this state perfectly, as she is a medium between two worlds.

Why Italy Is Such a Special Venue in Du Maurier’s Novella

Du Maurier’s novella is a fascinating narrative centred on an ideological mystification. By making use of Italy as the cultural polar opposite of England, as a trope for healing, salvation, sensual renewal, and ultimately damnation, the story consigns the country – which Venice epitomises – to a particular role, relegating it to a magical space outside “real” space and real time, a mirror reflection and a dimension outside history that serves the double function of challenging the symbolic order of the self and reiterating its normative value.

Francesca Pierini, Asian University for Women