What’s Love Got to do With it

I held imprinting sessions all over the country searching for the Code for love. During these sessions, I asked participants to focus on the word “love” without specifying whether I meant romantic love, parental love, sibling love, love of country, love of pets, or even love of a sports team. When I guided participants back to their first imprint though, a vast majority of them went to the same place.

“My first experience with the word love, or related to love, was when I was four or five. In the kitchen, mother was preparing a cake, my favorite cake, a cheesecake. The smell was the smell of love. She opened the oven and I told her, ‘I love you!’ She closed the oven, came to give me a kiss, and told me, ‘I love you, too.’ Then she gave me a big portion of the cake and I knew she really meant it when she said, ‘I love you’.”
— 40-year-old man

“Mother loved us so much, she cooked all Thanksgiving day. She was so happy to see her family all together again, around the table, eating . . . so much love around the table, so much food. We could not stop eating.”
— 36-year-old woman

“When you are little, parents are there to care for and protect you. You have no care or worries. If something bad happens, your family is there for you. I miss this protection.”
— 58-year-old woman

“The best way to describe my parents’ room is a nest. The carpet was light brown and the walls were blue. The bed was in the center of the room and had a huge white comforter. It was on this bed that I sat with my mother as a child and asked her about the world.”
— 21-year-old man

“I remember lying in my mother’s lap in my early years. I remember talking with my mother and sharing caresses.”
— 65-year-old man

Consistently, participants related their first experience of love to their mother’s care — feeding them, holding them, making them feel safe. This is entirely understandable. After all, for nine months, our mothers provide us with the most perfect “resort hotel” imaginable. The room service is first-rate and available immediately upon demand, the space is neither too hot nor too cold, transportation is free, and there’s even a musical backdrop (her heartbeat) for entertainment. And even though we ultimately must leave this vacation paradise, our mothers are there for us to guide us through the transition, feeding us with their bodies, keeping us coddled and warm, taking us out to see the world, and providing numerous ways for us to occupy our time and delight in the act of learning.

The nature of these responses was very consistent with the thinking of an adolescent culture. Adolescents, after all, flit from pressing for independence to acting like children throughout this period of their lives. When in the latter mode, they seek the succor (inwardly if not outwardly) of their mothers, the safe harbor provided by that all-encompassing love.

Then there is the former mode, the mode that demands a rejection of home and the right to make one’s own mistakes. When I asked participants to recall their most powerful memories of love, different stories emerged.

“I went to college. I was so happy. Free at last. But it did not go so well. First time I started drinking, I could not stop. Then I don’t know what happened next, I was so sick. None of the boys who were after me the night before were there to help me.”
— 50-year-old woman

“I was 13 and I liked a boy but he liked someone else. This taught me a big lesson because I thought that I was prettier than her and she was fat, but I was spoiled and sometimes mean.”
— 24-year-old woman

“My most powerful experience is when my parents decided to separate. I found out eavesdropping on their discussions late at night. Things were tense, but everyone wanted to be normal.”
— 37-year-old man

“I have an image of a white beautiful horse and a blonde beautiful woman in a flowing crepe-like dress with a lush green forest and waterfall and a handsome man meeting and embracing her. I long to be that woman.”
— 38-year-old woman

This was a different component of the adolescent experience: the part where experimentation leads to exhilaration and disappointment, to success and failure. The vast majority of these stories expressed some level of discomfort, of uneasiness with the events described, much in the way an adolescent describes experiences he doesn’t like and doesn’t understand. Remember, these stories were about the most powerful memory of love.

Perhaps the most significant element of the adolescent experience, however, is the loss of innocence. There comes a point in every adolescent’s life when he realizes his ideals aren’t as gilded as they once seemed. This realization usually leads to new maturity and the acquisition of new coping tools. It also often comes, though, with a sense of disillusionment. When participants wrote of their most recent memory of love, they repeatedly told the story of lost ideals.

“I know what boys want. They say they love you, but I know what they want.”
— A 35-year-old woman

“I have three children from three different fathers who died in drive-by shootings. Before I die, I want once again to have a baby, to feed him, to love him, and to be loved unconditionally.”
— A 15-year old woman

“I purchased a diamond for my girlfriend. I recall her taking it off in the car while we were arguing and I became infuriated. I took the ring and threw it out the window. I told her since it meant so little to her I threw it away.”
— 31-year-old man

These three sets of stories — the first imprint, the most powerful memory, and the most recent memory — revealed a distinctly American pattern. Participants spoke repeatedly about the desire for love, the need for love, the belief in something called “True Love,” but they also spoke consistently about being disappointed in this quest. A very large percentage of the “most recent memory” stories spoke of loss, bitterness, and sadness. When it comes to love, Americans — regardless of their ages — view love the way an adolescent views the world: as an exciting dream that rarely reaches fulfillment.

The American Culture Code for love is FALSE EXPECTATION.

Without question, losing at love is an international experience. Even in cultures where marriages are arranged and courtship is rare, there are tales of forbidden love and the sad consequences when that love dies. In older cultures, though — ones that passed through adolescence centuries ago — the unconscious message about the expectations for love are very different.

In France, the concepts of love and pleasure are intertwined. The French consider the notions of true love and “Mr. Right” irrelevant. The refinement of pleasure is paramount and romance is a highly sophisticated process. Love means helping your partner achieve as much pleasure as possible, even if this requires finding someone else to provide some of this pleasure. French couples can of course be devoted to one another, but their definition of devotion differs greatly from the American definition (fidelity, for instance, is not paramount) and their expectations are set accordingly.

The Italians believe that life is a comedy rather than a tragedy and that one should laugh whenever possible. They expect love to contain strong dimensions of pleasure, beauty, and, above all, fun. If love becomes too dramatic or too hard, it is unsatisfying. The Italian culture centers very strongly on family and Italians put their mothers up on pedestals. To them, true love is maternal love. Therefore, their expectations for romantic love are lower. Men romance women, but seek true love from their mothers. Women believe that the best way to express and experience love is by becoming mothers. A man is “Mr. Right” as long as he provides a child.

The Japanese offer perhaps the best illustration of the differences in attitudes toward love between an adolescent culture and an older culture. Japanese men and women often ask me to describe how westerners marry. I tell them that a young man meets a young woman (often one younger than he is himself) and they begin the process of getting to know one another. If he happens to fall deeply in love, the man will ask the woman to marry him, and if she loves him as well, she will say yes. (Obviously, it’s more complicated that this in practice, but I get the main points across this way.)

Stunned expressions always meet this description. “The man is young?” the Japanese questioner will say. “If he is young, how can he possibly have enough experience to make a decision of this type? Only his parents can know what kind of marriage is appropriate for him and will allow him to raise the best family. And you say the woman is younger. That means she is even less experienced than he is!”

They save their greatest contempt, though, for the notion that westerners marry for love. “Love is a temporary disease,” they tell me. “It is foolish to base something as important as the creation of a family on something so temporary.” This is still the prevalent sensibility in Japan today, even though the “content” of the Japanese culture has changed. While Japanese teens might date more often than their parents did and might spend more time meeting up at clubs, most marriages are still arranged, and few have anything to do with romance. While this all might sound terribly harsh to American ears, there is at least some logic in this sentiment. While nearly half of all American marriages end in divorce, the Japanese divorce rate is less than 2%.

This is not to suggest that older cultures automatically have a clearer vision of the world. In fact, as you will see over the course of this book, there are many instances where the “adolescent” approach is the more effective one. When it comes to love, however, it is obvious that the American culture is currently in an uneasy place. A woman searches for “Mr. Right” because she believes the stories she reads in books or watches at the movies, finds someone she believes she can “change” into her ideal man, and disappointedly sees her efforts fail. A man searches for “Ms. Perfect” for many of the same reasons, finds a woman who excites him, believes it will stay this way forever, and becomes disappointed when motherhood takes her interests elsewhere.

This quest for perfection is, of course, on Code — our cultural unconscious compels us to have unrealistically high standards for love. However, as that 50% divorce rate indicates, the Code isn’t making our lives easier. Here is a case where an understanding of the Code can help those frustrated by love to go off Code in a productive manner. If you realize your unconscious expects you to fail, you can begin to look at love with more sensible goals. While understanding and respecting the tug to find “Mr. Right” or “Ms. Perfect,” one can look for someone who can be a partner, a friend, and a caring lover who can’t possibly fulfill all of one’s needs.

A prominent diamond company deals with the Code in a distinctive fashion. One component of its marketing focuses on the “false expectations” the American subconscious feels about love: its ads feature couples using diamonds to profess their forever love or to confirm their commitment after years together. Another component of its marketing, however, deals with the consequences of false expectations in a clever manner: highlighting the investment and re-sale value of diamonds. Both campaigns are strongly on Code, addressing our undying belief in the permanence of romantic love and providing a useful benefit when that belief fails to pan out.

Excerpted from The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille Copyright © 2006 by Clotaire Rapaille. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Clotaire Rapaille is the chairman of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide and has used this decoding approach for thirty years.. He is the personal adviser to ten high-ranking CEOs and is kept on retainer by fifty Fortune 100 companies. He has been profiled in many national media outlets, including 60 Minutes II and on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Styles section. He lives in Tuxedo Park, New York.