Who says “I love you” first and why?

MIT Sloan Asst. Prof. Joshua Ackerman

Generally speaking, most people feel happy when they hear “I love you” from their romantic partners. But our research shows there is a discrepancy in how men and women react to those words depending on whether or not they’ve had sex. In our studies, if a couple had not yet had sex, men tended to respond more positively to hearing “I love you” than women because they heard it as a indication that sex was going to happen. Once the couple has had sex, though, it’s women who experience elevated happiness upon hearing “I love you” because they take the confession to mean that their partner is committed to them.

But we also found that not everyone is the same when it comes to this: there are some men who experience less happiness when they hear “I love you” after sex has occurred.

What gives? When we consider these findings from an evolutionary-economics perspective, it is possible the pattern reflects the different strategic romantic goals of certain men–the concept of “happiness” means different things to them. In other words: a chronic short-term mating strategy often associated with – but of course not exclusive to – men drives responses to and judgments of love confessions as a function of whether sex has occurred.

We looked at personality factors of our study participants and found there is a cohort of men who are primarily interested in short-term relationships. They are willing to have sex without strong prior feelings of closeness and commitment. We found these men tend to get really happy when they hear ‘I love you’ before sex because they (consciously or unconsciously) interpret it as a promise of sex. But they get much less happy when they hear ‘I love you’ after sex because the confessions is no longer attached to the possibility of initial sexual activity. Instead, it could be perceived as a signal that the woman wants a long-term commitment, which is not something they necessarily want too. This explains why they feel less happy.

Our study is not necessarily setting up a ‘cads versus dads’ equation with one group of men who are eager for commitment and “until death do us part,” and the other group who are only seeking no-strings attached sex. But our findings do suggest there is a divide between short-term oriented men and those with long-term mating strategies in how they respond to love confessions.

Our research has established that in the economy of long-term romantic relationships, women incur heavier costs than men do because of the potential to get pregnant, have children, and spend more time raising those children. In light of that, they are already predisposed to be choosier than men when it comes to selecting a romantic partner.

These short-term oriented men present an even bigger motivation for women to be skeptical. Women need to pick up on the signals that short-term oriented men are sending out and view their confessions of love with more suspicion. Whether or not women are properly, over- or under-skeptical remains an open question.

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