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The Language of Love in Close Relationships

There's more than one way to say "I love you" but all of them work.

The three magic words, “I love you,” can mean all kinds of things in a long-term relationship. They can be a way for you to bond emotionally with your partner, to initiate sex, or to make amends for past wrongs. However, most couples look beyond these magic words to the way that their partners behave. It’s all very well and good to go around saying you care, but if you don’t provide concrete help to your partner, chances are that your relationship - and your health- will be headed for trouble, as we know from research on marital problems and obesity..

In a long-term study of marriage, University of Texas psychologist Ted Huston and his colleagues are examining the daily behaviors of 168 couples who they studied 4 times over a 13-year period to find out which provide the key to relationship success. In a previous post, I reported on the three types of patterns that Huston and his collaborators identified in these couples which characterize the fate of their relationships over time. In a 2012 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Elizabeth Schoenfeld of the University of Texas teamed up with Carrie Bredow and Huston to examine the day-to-day behaviors of these couples and how they expressed affection to each other in both words and deeds.

Schoenfeld and her collaborators wondered if there was truth to the assertion that “men are from Mars and women from Venus” when put to the empirical test of seeing how couples communicate in long-term relationships. If this assertion were true, there are two prevailing theories that could explain why men and women might differ in their ways of expressing affection. According to the sociocultural explanation, we are all socialized to behave in stereotyped ways. Men are conditioned not to express their feelings in words, but to show their love in instrumental ways, including initiating sex. The evolutionary psychology explanation regards the gender gap in expressing affection as resulting from the selective survival of men who successfully competed with other men by being more likely to initiate sex. Women have evolved, according to this view, due to their responsibilities as caregivers and need to have men provide for them.

The study’s couples reported on how they expressed love in their daily routines, data that allowed Schoenfeld and team to gain insight into the existence of, and reasons for, sex differences in communicating affection. They predicted that women would be more predisposed to be warm and nurturing and that men would suppress their loving emotions. Carrying this one step further, the researchers also predicted that wives would be more likely to avoid being openly antagonistic to their husbands. The women should, according to previous research, be more likely to engage in self-sacrifice, especially the wives who were more in love with their husbands. For their part, husbands should, according to previous research, be more likely to express their love through initiating sex.

Clearly, Schoenfeld and her fellow researchers were embarking on a study that touches on many sensitive nerves. They were asking married partners to document actions and feelings that most people find difficult to acknowledge, much less record. To break these complex human tendencies into specific behaviors and rating scales, they knew they would have to come up with some measures that the study’s participants would find manageable. Below are their measures; see how you would rate on each of these in your current closest relationship (some of these ratings would be made of you by your partner, or vice versa):

  1. Love. To get at this most complex of feelings, participants rated their feelings of closeness, belonging, and attachment to their partners with questions such as “To what extent do you love your partner?” “How close do you feel toward your partner?”
  2. Affectionate behavior of the partners. Rather than ask partners how affectionately they behaved, the researchers asked them to report on the behavior of their partners. The measures of affectionate behavior included how often the partners said “I love you,” offered compliments, and showed affection outside of the bedroom.
  3. Negativity by the partner. Behaviors involving negativity were also rated for partners, not the individuals themselves. These ratings asked partners to state how often their partner criticized them, complained, seemed bored, or did something deliberately annoying.
  4. Sexual initiation. Partners rated each other on whether they initiated sexual activity over the previous 24 hours.
  5. Leisure behaviors. Each partner reported on which of 50 leisure activities they engaged in alone or with their partner. These activities included such mundane acts as shopping, partying, watching television, and going to sporting events or outdoor fetivities.
  6. Household tasks. Using the previous 24 hours as a time frame, partners reported on the number of times they engaged in routine household tasks such as cooking, running errands, and cleaning the house.

Now let’s see how men and women differed across these six areas of their relationship. Remember that the authors predicted that men would show their love by initiating sex and engaging in instrumental behaviors (e.g. helping with housework) and women would show their love in words, affection, and deference toward their husbands.

The results supported, in part, these predictions. Love and sexual intimacy did seem more closely connected for the husbands than for the wives. Husbands also seemed more likely to express their love by sharing activities with their wives. Loving wives, for their part, stayed away from expressing negativity and were more likely to kiss and compliment their husbands. In general, they were more accommodating to their husbands suggesting that “love creates a certain malleability among American women” (p. 1404). The same was not true for loving husbands, who did not show this tendency to try to keep the emotional climate as positive as possible.

The men most in love were also more likely to initiate sex, a finding that the authors regarded as supporting evolutionary psychology ‘s predictions. However, what the authors didn’t expect to find was that the women least in love were the most likely to initiate sex with their husbands. It’s possible that they were trying to fan the flames of love in a dying relationship. Regardless of who initiated it, partners more in love were more likely to have sex.

However, the study also revealed that affection in marriage didn’t break down along completely traditional gender-defined lines. Men were just as likely as their wives to show their love through affection. They were more likely to involve their wives both in leisure activities and household tasks. It wasn’t just because this was the only way they could show their love, as traditional gender views suggest. Instead, men who loved their wives more enjoyed engaging in mutual activities, which they saw as a way to express their loves. As in their relationships with their buddies, doing things together was a way to draw them closer. A happy marriage is much like a good bromance for husbands.

Both husbands and wives express their love in marriage in ways that are not completely explained by either evolutionary or sociocultural theories. The main findings seemed to involve men, however. Husbands in love draw on a wide range of behaviors to show their love, both by expressing their affection and by pursuing joint activities.

The take-home message of this study, in addition to the findings about gender, is that those three little words can do your relationship a lot of good. It’s likely that people in good relationships spontaneously tell each other how they feel. However, it’s also possible that expressing your love on a daily basis can jump-start a relationship and make yours that much more fulfilling.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Schoenfeld, E. A., Bredow, C. A., & Huston, T. L. (2012). Do men and women show love differently in marriage?. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(11), 1396-1409. doi:10.1177/0146167212450739