When I worked as a doorman in New York’s Paramount Hotel, I met a lot of very interesting characters. One was a mounted police officer who looked like a movie actor (with a dashing mustache and a face of the Clark Gable/ Errol Flynn cast). The dashing mounted officer had been something of a playboy in his day, and he bragged about having had different girlfriends for different activities – one for skiing, one for going to the theater, and so on. Since I was only 19 years old, he was happy to give me advice on how to handle relationships with women. I’ll never forget one piece of wisdom he imparted: “Never tell a woman you love her.” Why would anyone say such a cold and heartless thing to a young and impressionable fellow? (who was almost embarrassed to admit that he had already told his girlfriend “I love you” hundreds of times).
In a paper just published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, MIT’s Josh Ackerman joins Vlad Griskevicius (University of Minnesota) and Norm Li (Singapore Management University), address this very issue. And although all three of these researchers were once graduate students in my lab, I did not, to the best of my recollection, ever pass on the sage advice from my NYPD romance mentor.
In one of their six studies, the researchers asked students to imagine they had just started a new romance with someone they found “attractive and interesting.” If you were a subject, you’d read a scenario describing lots of things couples do together, including eating meals and meeting friends with your new partner. Half the time you’d read a scenario in which you and your partner had already been sexually intimate, the other half the time you’d imagine a partner with whom you had not had sex. One month into the relationship, you’d imagine your new partner saying: “I love you.” Next you’d be asked how happy it would make you to hear this confession of love (on a scale ranging from 0 (“not at all”) to 7 (“very much”).
You’d also be asked about your “sociosexual orientation,” filling out a questionnaire to determine whether you are someone who is unrestricted (who thinks sex without love or commitment is a fun idea) or restricted (someone who only really enjoys sexual intimacy in the context of a committed relationship).
It appears that unrestricted men have a strange double standard about hearing a woman say the words “I love you.” If a woman professes love for an unrestricted man before they have had sex, it makes him happy. Why? Perhaps because it is taken a signal that they are getting somewhere, and are better positioned to experience carnal “lovemaking” in the near future. If on the other hand, a woman tells an unrestricted man “I love you” after they have already had sex, it makes him unhappy. Why? Perhaps because they were, like my mounted cop friend, hoping to take the sexual benefit without having to pay a commitment cost. To see a figure with the results, click here.