Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Who Says ‘I Love You’ First? Unexpected Findings

If you were asked whether you think men or women are the first to say, “ I love you” in romantic relationships, what would you say?

Most people – both men and women – believe it is women.  Such beliefs are congruent with those who have studied gender differences. For example,

  • Women are generally thought to be more interested in and willing to express love and commitment than men.
  • Women are considered to have an easier time than men expressing vulnerable emotions such as love.
  • A content analysis of emotional expression in Valentine’s Day cards, for example, found that women were more likely than men to express love and fidelity.
  • A questionnaire study of 55 men and women walking across a college campus which asked, among other questions, “Who normally says they are in love FIRST in romantic relationships?” found that both men and women believe that women are more likely to be the first to confess love in relationships.

REALTY suggests something different. MIT researchers Joshua Ackerman, Griskevicius & Li (authors of the questionnaire study above) found across a series of studies that what men and women believe and what they actually do is quite different.

Both in a recalled reality study in which participants were asked about their present or prior relationship and in a current reality study in which the responses of partners were matched for veracity, individuals and couples agreed that men confessed love first in their relationships.

Can this be?

In their attempt to explain this discrepancy, the researchers added an important variable – first sexual encounter.

Their findings reveal:

  • Before there is a sexual encounter in a relationship men are the first to say, “ I love you.”
  • Both men and women are pleased with affirmations of love before sexual activity.
  • Women are more pleased to hear “ I love you” after the sexual activity.
  • Men are less pleased with affirmations after than before sex.

On first glance, this might confirm the stereotypes of men’s insincerity and sexual motivation and women’s fear of being taken advantage of. There are certainly men who live up to the stereotype and women who have reason to doubt. More likely, as the researchers suggest by posing an evolutionary-economics model, it is far more complex.

Other Possible Explanations

  • With reference to the mix of emotions that men and women have, could it be that some men feel love and in addition want to move a relationship to include sex?
  • Could it be that despite genuine feelings, men might still be anxious about the commitment implied in affirmations after sexual connection?
  • Could it be that women are pleased with the loving affirmation before sexual activity, actually enjoy the sexual connection, but nonetheless want more affirmation and commitment afterward?

Does Sociosexual Orientation Matter?

In an era of seemingly broader sexual mores, it is interesting that to further expand understanding, Joshua Ackerman and colleagues added the variable of sociosexual orientation.

They compared those with unrestricted sociosexual orientation i.e. interest in novel sexual relationships without strong prior feelings of closeness and connection and those with a restricted sociosexual orientation i.e. an interest in long-term relationships in which closeness and commitment are prerequisites for sex.

The only difference found by adding this variable is important. It reveals that compared to all other combinations, when both partners have a restricted sociosexual orientation such that commitment and closeness are prerequisites for sex, both report feeling more happiness when receiving a confession of love after as compared with before sex.

It would seem that when the questions of commitment and sexual connection are mutually set, the affirmation of love after sex becomes one that is prized by both. The belief that one is sexually loved and desired is clearly not taken for granted.

What Can We Take and Consider in Our Relationships?

  • Contrary to public belief, men in romantic relationships risk the expression of “I love you” before women. It may be that men are more emotionally expressive than is realized.
  • No matter what the nature of the relationship, both men and women feel positive about affirmations of love before sexual connection.
  • No matter what the nature of the relationship women feel even most positive about affirmations of love after sexual connection.
  • In a mutually committed relationship both partners find happiness in affirmations of love after sexual connection.

Who said the first “ I love you” in your relationship?

Who is still saying it?

How is it expressed?