Whether it's said before or after sex makes a big difference.
You’ve been seeing someone recently, someone who’s a bit of a game changer in your world. Everything is brighter and clearer, you can’t stop smiling, you can’t stop thinking about this person, and you don’t want to stop; he or she is your favorite pastime. The more time you spend together, the more you discover that all your thoughts and feelings are pointing towards love. It’s more than just liking and this is more than just a short-term connection.
Is it time to say “I love you”?
Why hesitate? Well, there’s risk involved: How will the other person react or respond? Will he say “I love you, too”? Will she say, “I’m just not there yet” or worse, will you simply hear, “Thanks”?
In new relationships, commitment, exclusivity, and degree of intimacy are not often spoken of right away, and initiating these conversations can place someone in a vulnerable space. Saying “I love you” could be an important turning point in the progress of a romantic relationship. It might create greater intimacy and bring to light a shared vision of a future together; it might also be a breaking point or stalling point for a relationship. If one person says “I love you” but the other is interested only in a casual connection, highlighting the discrepancy in feelings might trigger a conversation that ends the relationship altogether.
So, who takes the plunge, and when?
Believe it or not, men are more likely than woman to say “I love you” first (Harrison & Shortall, 2011). Yes, while people think women are more apt to say these words first, the actual empirical evidence, shows that men do it first—at a rate of about three-to-one. This rate has been corroborated in other work exploring this same question: Men confess their love first much more often than women (Ackerman, Griskevicius, & Li, 2011).
Men also report knowing their feelings of love sooner than women (Harrison & Shortall, 2011). While women suggest it takes a couple months, men report it takes less time, but more than a few weeks. Some evidence suggests that men start to contemplate declaring their love 42 days sooner on average than women (Ackerman et al., 2011).
Although men might voice “I love you” first more often, cross-cultural research suggests that women are consistently more emotionally invested in their romantic relationships than men, especially in more gender-egalitarian societies like the U.S. (Schmitt et al., 2009). This motivates a question: When women and men say “I love you,” do they mean the same thing? Are women saying “I love you” in reflection of their emotional engagement, or something else? Are men saying these words as a sign of their devotion, or do they have an underlying motive?
Relationship experts have studied people’s underlying intentions by looking specifically at the timing of saying “I love you” relative to the timing of sexual activity in a relationship (Ackerman et al., 2011). This is a compelling way to look at intentions. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s more risky for women than men to engage in sex (their minimal investment in a child is larger), so women tend to be the “gate-keepers” while men tend to actively pursue sex. If the timing of “I love you” and sex are linked, it’s possible that a man's saying “I love you” could be a strategic tactic: From an evolutionary perspective, men might strategically use confessions of love to imply long-term commitment when what they really want is sex.
Attuned to this possibility, women tend to be skeptical of early confessions of love, interpreting them as insincere attempts to gain sexual access (Ackerman et al., 2011). However, men saying “I love you” after sex is viewed as honest and, accordingly, women are happier in response to post-sex declarations as compared to pre-sex statements.
Many men, however, are happiest when women say they’re in love before sex occurs—particularly when all they really want is a short-term sexual fling. This is because they often interpret pre-sex confessions of love as signs that more sexual activity is on the horizon (Ackerman et al., 2011). This unconscious assumption is at work even if men say that women’s early confessions of love are simply signs that they want more relationship commitment.
The best time to say “I love you," then, may come down to what you and your partner want in a relationship. When men are in it for the long-haul, they are happy with pre-sex statements of love, but feel happiest when women say “I love you” after sex (Ackerman et al., 2011). It's the same for women.
Taken together, when "I love you" is on the table, it seems useful to evaluate if you and your partner are on the same page about what these words mean. Are you or your partner pursuing a greater emotional or physical relationship or both? By considering the motives at play and each of your goals, you could be in a better position to understand what this transition point might mean in your relationship.