“I love you.” The power of those three words to transform a casual relationship into something more meaningful is unparalleled. But what does “I love you” really mean?
Men tend to be the first to say “I love you.”
In 2007 researchers from Pennsylvania State University published the results of an online survey involving 171 college-aged participants which sought to identify how quickly members of both sexes fall in love, and who is most likely to say “I love you first.” About 90% of the respondents believed that women would fall in love faster, and 70% thought that women would be the first to say “I love you.” However, male respondents reported falling in love within a few weeks or a few months, while women reported that it takes them a few months of dating to fall in love. More importantly, men were about three times more likely than women to be the first to say “I love you” in a relationship.
Why are men so quick to say “I love you?” There could be a number of reasons for this tendency. One theory is that men are motivated to tell their partners that they love them because they are eager to have sex. The desire to have sex may or may not be a motivator for men to profess their love, as the authors of the study found that respondents of both genders reported that they wanted to wait to have sex until they were certain that their feelings of love were reciprocated. Another theory is that men tend to say “I love you” first because they are socialized to take the lead in advancing the relationship from one stage to next, and saying “ I love you” is one means of signaling a willingness to make a commitment to his dating partner.
Though women tend to wait longer to say “I love you” for the first time, they do tend to say it more often than men later on in the relationship. This may be because it is more socially acceptable for women to freely express their feelings than it is for men to do so. The tendency of women to express their love for their partners so openly reinforces the widely-held, but mistaken notion that women are “more romantic” than men.
What “I love you” means before and after sex.
The timing of when a man first tells a woman he loves her is also important. In another study conducted by a team of economists, women were more likely to perceive a man’s first confession of love as sincere if it is made after the couple has had sex. Women were more likely to label a man as “untrustworthy” if he professed his love for her for the first time before the couple had sex. A post-sex confession of love suggests a willingness to remain involved for the long haul.
The decision to say “I love you,” and how both parties in the relationship perceives the profession of love also depends on their respective relationship goals. If both partners in a dating relationship are not interested in a long-term relationship then they are more likely to expect to hear “I love you” within 30 days of starting a relationship and prior to having sex. People looking for long-term commitment tend to prefer to hear “I love you” for the first time after having sex. This suggests that in the context of a short-term relationship, hearing “I love you” may act as a signal to both parties that sexual intimacy is imminent possibility. Hearing a profession of love for the first time after having sex can leave people who are not looking for a commitment wracked with guilt.
How couples interpret "I love you" is contingent upon a number of factors, and the only way to know what it truly means is for the couple to have a discussion about their relationship goals.