There’s more to saying “I love you” than sharing a powerful emotion.
Budding romantic relationships are often laced with as much anxiety as excitement: There’s the pounding heart before a first kiss, the internal calculation to share confidences and intimate revelations, the nervousness about meeting a new partner’s family.
Jenna Birch is a health and wellness journalist. Her work appears frequently in print and online in publications including Glamour, ELLE, Self, Woman's Day, Marie Claire, Psychology Today, Yahoo, and Women's Health, among many others.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Perhaps no early relationship milestone is as imbued with meaning—and trepidation—as the first utterance of “I love you.” The fear of nonreciprocation after saying it is enough to prompt many people to hold back, says Art Markman, a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin. “If one person is feeling an intense emotion and the other is not, then declaring love can create a moment of truth for a relationship, where reservations have to be discussed.” And because saying it flags not only an intense emotion but also one’s level of commitment to a relationship, experts find that the phrase is loaded with different signifiers, depending on who says it first and when, as well as how one reacts to hearing it.
In heterosexual relationships, it’s commonly assumed that the woman is the one who says “I love you” first. Yet studies show that it’s actually men most of the time, and one reason for that may be that they feel love first. In a 2011 study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, Marissa Harrison, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, found that men reported feeling and confessing love as early as a few weeks into a new relationship, while women’s timelines were substantially longer. “Women are predisposed to postpone the emotion,” Harrison says. “It’s an inherent protective mechanism, giving them time to accurately assess a partner’s mate value.”
Men, however, may also have adaptive impulses that drive them to less than truthfully say “I love you” before having sex as a way of boosting their reproductive chances, says Joshua Ackerman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ackerman and his colleagues considered the timing of declarations of love in relation to the onset of sex in relationships. They theorized that when men said it first, before having sex, it was a way to gain their partner’s trust and thus ease the way to sexual activity—an impulse that the men may not even have been conscious of. “The decision to say they feel love first can make sense strategically,” Ackerman says. “Expressions of love can serve other kinds of gains, like short-term romantic relationships.”
But women’s internal alarms tend to go off when they hear love proclaimed too early in a relationship, Ackerman found. They may rightly interpret it as an insincere ploy for sex without the commitment to back it up—a critical factor since women have the higher burden of bearing and raising children. Women felt significantly happier hearing postcoital declarations of love, perhaps because they had already incurred the potential cost of a sexual encounter.
“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.” And the same risk that makes women wary of too-early declarations of love may also be the reason they’re more likely to withhold their own expressions of love while assessing if their mate is going to stick around.
When women did declare love early on, men interested in short-term flings reported feeling happy about it even if they knew the woman was seeking more commitment than they were prepared to offer. The reasoning? Men presumed sex was on the way, though their happiness declined postcoitally. By contrast, men interested in a long-term relationship reported feeling happy when their partner declared love before ever having sex, but having even more positive feelings if she said it after they’d slept together.
It may not only be adaptive instincts that undergird expressions of love. Markman thinks men more often say “I love you” first for a cultural reason—the expectation that they take the lead in relationships. They’re the ones traditionally assumed to ask for an initial date, buy the ring, and propose marriage, so it makes sense that they should also take the plunge with a statement of commitment. “Men believe that women need to be reassured of an emotional connection,” Markman says.
It may also be that men have more idealistic attitudes about love than women. “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.
As a relationship progresses, each person should feel more at ease saying “I love you,” Markman says, adding that such “emotional expressions of commitment” are particularly important in Western societies, where romantic love is the presumed basis of relationships. But, he says, demonstrations of caring are ultimately more important than declarations. “Resource commitments demonstrate that someone is willing to sacrifice his or her own short-term well-being to invest in the relationship—that’s one of the signals that an engagement ring creates,” Markman says. The meaning of the phrase “I love you” also changes over time, he adds. After starting as an expression of intense emotion, it evolves into a commitment to keep engaging in behaviors that benefit and strengthen the relationship.
So when should you first say it? There is no hard-and-fast rule, though the unsurprising advice from Karla Ivankovich, an adjunct psychology professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield, is to say it when you really mean it and not when you don’t. That could be after two months or twelve, but the timing matters less than the authenticity of the feeling and the accompanying commitment.
“In relationships, there’s an inordinate amount of pressure to get to this stage and even more pressure to reciprocate once it’s been stated,” Ivankovich notes. “Expressing it before you actually mean it can cause the relationship to fail. But when you avoid definitively stating the emotion, you also put the relationship’s progression at risk.”