A relationship is a series of trade-offs between stress and milestones. You’re nervous to approach someone, then you do it. You’re nervous for your first date, then it happens. Your heart pounds before the first kiss, before your first night together, before you make it official or meet the parents or move in together or pop the question.
And then there’s “I love you” – the first utterance of which is one of the most intimate and intimidating milestones a couple crosses. Experts have found that the surface simplicity of that short, three-word phrase belies much deeper psychological complexity. Who says it first, when they say it, and how it’s received are loaded with layers of reason and meaning.
Jenna Birch examines the subject in depth in an article for the October 2016 issue of Psychology Today. Her findings turn stereotypes on their heads.
“In heterosexual relationships, it’s commonly assumed that the woman is the one who says ‘I love you’ first,” she writes. “Yet studies show that it’s actually men most of the time, and one reason for that may be that they feel love first.”
A 2011 study published in The Journal of Social Psychology found that men reported feeling and confessing love as early as a few weeks into a new relationship. Women’s timelines, on the other hand, were substantially longer. Study author Marissa Harrison theorised that women’s slower path to love may be a protective mechanism designed to give them ample time to assess a partner’s mate value.
Does that mean men are secretly softies at heart, burying their true emotional selves under bravado and beer?
Not necessarily. Joshua Ackerman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, cautions that adaptive impulses might be behind a man’s early confession of love. “The decision to say they feel love first can make sense strategically,” he says. “Expressions of love can serve other kinds of gains, like short-term romantic relationships.” In other words, dropping the L-bomb may be a way to gain a partner’s trust and get them into bed.
Adaptive behaviour plays a role for women, too. “From an economic perspective, if you have a higher cost, you want to be choosier,” Ackerman explains. “From a parental-involvement perspective, in terms of the risk, men tend to have lower necessary investment.”
Evolutionarily speaking, men put less on the line during sexual activity, while women have the higher burden of bearing and raising children. Hearing a man declare love too early in a relationship may set off internal alarms for a woman, who interprets it as an insincere ploy for sex without a strong foundation of commitment to back it up. That same wariness could explain why women are more likely to withhold their own expressions of love while assessing if a mate plans to stick around.
Art Markman, a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, says cultural factors could also be at play. Men are traditionally tasked with taking the lead in relationships, from asking a woman out to purchasing a ring and proposing, so it makes sense that the first confession of love frequently falls to them.
Men may even have more idealistic attitudes about love than women (but shh, don’t tell whoever writes our societal stereotypes). “Men tend to have more romanticized views of relationships in general, which means they’re more likely to believe in love at first sight and that love conquers all,” explains Gary Lewandowski, a psychologist at Monmouth University in New Jersey.
So when should you say it? Psychology professor Karla Ivankovich says the timing matters less than the intention. Say ‘I love you’ when you mean it, when the emotion and the commitment are genuine, whether that happens at two months or twelve.