Relationships are full of milestones and saying “I love you” is a big step for any couple. Those three simple words transform what might be a causal arrangement into something much more serious. “I love you” suggests a higher level of dedication and greater commitment to the relationship’s future. Saying “I love you” is also romantic. It’s a sweet and loving phrase that communicates how strongly you feel toward your partner.
In heterosexual relationships, who says “I love you” first? Men or women? Research in the United States has consistently found that the answer is men (Ackerman et al., 2011). A bit surprising, right?
Like it or not, most of us hold gender-based stereotypes, especially when it comes to relationships. In this case, we often think of women as more emotional and loving, while men are more reserved and logical. With that in mind, how could men possibly be more romantic?
Researchers theorize that this “male confession bias” exists because the stakes are higher for women in relationship because of the potential for pregnancy (Ackerman et al., 2011). Thus, women need to be pickier and need to see more from their partner before they’re willing to commit long-term. Men, on the other hand, are able to more freely express their feelings with fewer consequences.
A team of researchers put the male confession bias to the test by examining data from 3109 participants in 7 countries (Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, France, Poland, United Kingdom), across 3 continents (Watkins et al. 2022).
Who Said “I Love You” First?
Men. In 6 of the 7 countries, men were the ones who said “I love you” first (France was the only country where there was no difference). Interestingly, there was no difference between men and women for how long into the relationship it took them to think about confessing love. That is, men and women both thought about saying “I love you” at around the same time, but men were more likely to take the plunge and actually say it first. The data is clear: Men consistently say “I love you” first. But why? The researchers followed up on two possibilities.
The Number of Women Vs. The Number of Men
One reason for men’s earlier confessions has to do with the sex ratio, or the number of women in the country relative to the number of men. When there were more women than men (i.e., the men had more women from which to choose), the men were more likely to say “I love you.” That may be because men have less to lose by making a mistake. If a woman fails to reciprocate the man’s love, he can more easily find another partner. In contrast, when there are relatively fewer women, men may feel the need to be more careful in their proclamations.
Reactions to Love Confessions
Researchers also asked participants how they felt about their partner saying “I love you.” They found that how participants generally approached relationships, or their attachment style mattered. As the researchers predicted, those who were more avoidant (i.e., more worried about getting hurt) were less happy to have their partner confess their love. In contrast, those who were more anxiously attached (i.e., more worried about their partner leave them) were happier about their partner saying “I love you.”
As is often the case in relationships, what we assume to be true is wrong. It’s only when we look at the research and challenge our assumptions that we begin to see relationships more clearly.
Ackerman, J. M., Griskevicius, V., & Li, N. P. (2011). Let’s get serious: Communicating commitment in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(6), 1079–1094. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022412
Watkins, C. D., Bovet, J., Fernandez, A. M., Leongómez, J. D., Żelaźniewicz, A., Corrêa Varella, M. A., & Wagstaff, D. (2022). Men say “I love you” before women do: Robust across several countries. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 39(7), 2134–2153. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075221075264
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