Who Should Say 'I Love You' First, According To Science

Photo: Getty
man smiling at camera and embracing woman who is smiling and laughing

Written by Lindsay Mannering

While there aren't really many hard and fast rules when it comes to love and relationships, there are lots and lots of opinions out there about which rules people think men and women should follow.

One often debated topic is who should be the first one to say 'I love you': men or women.

The answer is highly subjective, but there has been a bit of scientific research into the matter.

Who should say 'I love you' first?

While there is no right or wrong answer about who should, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, men are more likely than women to be the first ones to say, 'I love you.'[1]

In one of the six studies the authors analyzed in the full text of the article, guys say 'I love you' first around 61.5% of the time. They also report that they feel happier than the women they're dating do when they're the ones on the receiving end of said admission.[2]

(Note: Surprise, surprise! There's a catch. More on that later...)

"Across 6 studies testing current and former romantic relationships," the authors say, "we found that although people think that women are the first to confess love and feel happier when they receive such confessions, it is actually men who confess love first and feel happier when receiving confessions."

RELATED: What It Means When Someone Says 'Love You' Instead Of 'I Love You’

How long it takes for men to say 'I love you'

The findings of one of the studies concluded that men first start to consider saying those three little words a full six weeks earlier than women, at about the 97-day mark (a little more than three months), versus women, who first say the same at approximately 139 days.

It takes a while to get to know someone and fall in love, and after 90 days, you probably have a good idea about the depth of your feelings.

Interestingly, survey participants overestimated women as being the ones to say 'I love you' first by 64.4%.

When asked who's more likely to get serious in a relationship between a man and a woman, a whopping 84.4% of participants said women.

It's also worth noting that a more recent study published in 2022 shows the trend holds true around the world, with the researchers asserting that "men, across different nations, were more likely than women to confess love first in a romantic relationship."[3]

RELATED: Why Your Boyfriend Won't Say 'I Love You' — And What To Do About It

What men think when a woman says 'I love you' first

"Consistent with predictions," the researchers note, "prior to sex in a relationship, men were more likely than women to react positively when receiving a confession of love."

This might suggest that they're happy to feel loved, or maybe just to be off the hook and not have to risk the potential of rejection or his woman simply not feeling the same way, but as it turns out, that's not usually the case.

The researchers continue, "On the face of it, this reaction appears to suggest that men are quite interested in early commitment. However, after the onset of sex in a relationship, men exhibited somewhat less positivity to confessions of love. This emotional slump, combined with a strong increase in women’s happiness, may indicate that pre-sex and post-sex confessions of love afford unique implications."

Why would men be excited to hear those words earlier on, before the two of them had slept together, than conversely, less happy to hear them afterward?

The answer may have less to do with actual love than one might think.

The researchers provided this crucial rhetorical compass when navigating intentions and ulterior motives and love (even if it may not be foolproof):

"A pre-sex confession may signal interest in advancing a relationship to include sexual activity, whereas a post-sex confession may instead more accurately signal a desire for long-term commitment."

RELATED: 15 Ways Guys Say 'I Love You' Without Ever Saying A Word

What it means when a man says 'I love you' first

Can how soon a man says he loves you determine not only if he is falling in love with you, but whether or not he just wants to get you into bed?

If a guy tells a girl he loves her earlier than that 97-day mark, it may be a sign his intentions are less than honorable.

Even if a man is interested in being with you for the long haul, men often perceive professing their love as a low-risk, high-reward situation. He may think that if he spits out those three words, he'll get you to believe he's got commitment on his mind. (Hint, hint: he's got more than that on his mind.)

Once you believe that, he thinks that will lead to sleeping together.

While it's a pretty messed-up, calculated move, the researchers explain this behavior is hard-wired into men on a primal level.

RELATED: Why Saying 'I Love You, Too' Kills Your Relationship

I would certainly be skeptical of a man's motives if he says it too soon, but on the other hand, if a man I was seeing took a year to utter those three words, I'd be just as uncomfortable.

Do keep in mind that a man can be in love with you and want to get you into bed at the same time.

And, I don't think, based on this study, that we can know who should say 'I love you' first in every relationship, or that you should always be leery if a man does, but it may be wise to let the man be the one to say it first.

That way, you can better determine how authentic he is when saying it.

RELATED: When To Say 'I Love You' For The First Time

Lindsay Mannering is a writer who served as Senior Vice President overseeing the editorial strategies of Bustle. She writes for the New York Times, Gossamer, and many other outlets.

This article was originally published on YourTango on June 21, 2011.

This article was originally published at The Stir (now CafeMom). Reprinted with permission from the author.