Magazine article Psychology Today

Magic Words

Magazine article Psychology Today

Magic Words

Article excerpt

BUDDING ROMANTIC relationships are often IS 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.

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 butalsoone'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 ofPersonality 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. …

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