Could it be that men are really the hopeless romantics? This may seem hard to believe, as we see magazine stands filled with bridal magazines, and shelves of romantic movies and novels marketed to women.
But research suggests that the male attitude toward love is actually more romantic.
Romanticism, as defined by social psychologists, is an outlook on relationships that love should be the most important criterion in choosing a mate.1 People with a highly romantic view of love believe that their love will be perfect and that each of us has one true love.2
So let’s start with how men and women score on the most well-known measure of romanticism, the Romantic Beliefs Scale.2 This questionnaire asks people to rate the extent to which they agree with statements like, “There will only be one real love for me," “If I love someone, I know I can make the relationship work, despite any obstacles," and, "The person I love will make a perfect romantic partner; he/she will be completely accepting, loving, and understanding.”
The researchers who developed the scale have found that, on average, men outscore women.
You can practically hear the items from the Romantic Beliefs Scale coming out of the mouth of Ted Mosby, the main character of How I Met Your Mother, who spent years searching for his soul mate. His romanticized view of love is not surprising for a show, created by men, that follows one man’s quest to find love.
(A separate study found no gender differences in romantic beliefs among Americans,3 but no study to date has shown women to be more romantic.)
Other research on gender differences in romantic beliefs has found that men report being more likely to experience “love at first sight”4—one recent survey of 100,000 adults found that 48 percent of men claimed to have fallen in love at first sight, while only 28 percent of women made such a romantic claim.5 In addition, men, compared to women, tended to place a greater emphasis on the importance of feeling passion in their relationships.6 Men have also been found more likely to say “I love you” first in a relationship—and they report greater happiness than women after hearing those words for the first time.7
To make sense of these apparently counterintuitive gender differences, we can turn to evolutionary psychology. Women tend to be more pragmatic when seeking a mate.8 That is, they are more likely to feel that love should develop slowly, and to be cautious before jumping into a relationship—a less romantic attitude. According to evolutionary theory, women must be more selective when choosing mates because, by biological necessity, they must invest more as parents.9 Clearly men have at least the biological potential to have many, many more children than women, as women must spend nine months carrying a baby and men need only devote a few minutes of their time to become fathers.
Thus, a “love at first sight” attitude could lead women to jump into relationships with less than optimal mates, and miss out on better mating opportunities that could increase their chances of having healthy offspring. The risks are much lower for men who can more casually jump into relationships including casual encounters, each of which could potentially lead to additional offspring.
This means that a more cautious, less romantic approach to love is more adaptive for women than it is for men—and that women in our ancestral past who took the careful approach to love were more successful in passing along their genes, and thus their behavioral tendencies, to future generations.
Another explanation for these differences focuses on social factors: It’s not just that men can afford to be less picky because of their limited parental investment, but rather because they have greater economic freedom.2 When women are in a position of lower status economically—a condition rapidly changing in the United States and elsewhere—they need to be practical in their mate choice and might favor someone with status and resources, rather than giving in to love at first sight.
But whether the reasons for this gender disparity in romantic attitudes are evolutionary or social, current research clearly dispels the misconception that men aren’t romantic. Maybe all those boyfriends and husbands being dragged to romantic comedies are enjoying them more than they’d like to admit.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
1 Weaver, S. E., & Ganong, L. H. (2004). The Factor structure of the Romantic Beliefs Scale for African Americans and European Americans. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 171-185. doi: 10.1177/0265407504041373
2 Sprecher, S., & Metts, S. (1989). Development of the 'Romantic Beliefs Scale' and examination of the effects of gender and gender-role orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6(4), 387-411. doi:10.1177/0265407589064001
3 Sprecher, S., & Toro-Morn, M. (2002). A study of men and women from different sides of earth to determine if men are from Mars and women are from Venus in their beliefs about love and romantic relationships. Sex Roles, 46(5-6), 131-147. doi:10.1023/A:1019780801500
4 Hatfield, E., & Sprecher, S. (1986). Measuring passionate love in intimate relationships. Journal of Adolescence, 9(4), 383-410. doi:10.1016/S0140-1971(86)80043-4
5 Northrup, C., Schwartz, P., & Witte, J. (2013). The normal bar: The surprising secrets of happy couples and what they reveal about creating a new normal in your relationship. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.
6 Fehr, B., & Broughton, R. (2001). Gender and personality differences in conceptions of love: An interpersonal theory analysis. Personal Relationships, 8(2), 115-136. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2001.tb00031.x
7 Ackerman, J., Griskevicius, V., & Li, N. (2011). Let's get serious: Communicating commitment in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 1079-1094. doi: 10.1037/a0022412
8 Hendrick, C., Hendrick, S. S., & Dicke, A. (1998). The Love Attitudes Scale: Short form. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15(2), 147-159. doi:10.1177/0265407598152001
9 Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual Strategies Theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100(2), 204-232. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.100.2.204