Recently, while procrastinating on Facebook, I stumbled across a post written by one of my good friends. She was raving about how her husband completed all of the tasks on her “honey-do” list. “I have the best husband ever!” she gushed. When I asked her about it later—specifically, why she was so ecstatic that he did some simple chores—she looked at me like I had fallen off the moon. “Duh,” she said. “It shows how much he loves me.” I couldn’t help but smile (you know, the kind of smile you give when you’re about to school someone), because my colleagues and I recently put this idea to the test. And what we found might surprise you.
The idea that men show love in instrumental ways—that is, by doing things for their partners—is a popular one. It’s almost as popular as the notion that women show love by being affectionate. But exactly how true are these cultural stereotypes? Surprisingly, until my colleagues and I conducted our recent study,1 social scientists had completely overlooked these widespread assumptions.
In addition to examining whether men express love by doing things for their partners and women show love through affection, we tested a few other commonly held beliefs about how men and women express love. Specifically, we were curious if men were more likely than women to show love by initiating sex and by sharing more activities with their partners. We also examined whether women who were more in love behaved in a less critical or hostile manner toward their partners. Why? Because if the ultimate goal of giving compliments and kisses is to establish a “warm and fuzzy” relationship, then women may also go about accomplishing this objective by acting less negatively toward their partners.2
So what did we find? First, neither men nor women show love by doing things for their partners. That’s right—if your guy volunteers to do the dishes (or casually slips into the other room before you can ask him to), it has nothing to do with how much he loves you. But, guys who were more in love were more likely to do more chores together with their partners. Not only did they do more household tasks alongside their partners, but they also involved their sweethearts in more leisure activities. In other words, although your man may not surprise you with a home-cooked meal, if he offers to help you cook dinner or invites you to watch the game with his friends, then that’s a good sign of his love for you.
But what about women? As expected, women who were more in love behaved more affectionately toward their partners. But so did men. That is, men and women were equally likely to show love by sharing their feelings, making each other laugh, giving hugs and kisses, and engaging in other positive behaviors.
Consistent with the idea that women control the emotional climate of their relationships3 and that women who are more in love are more interested in maintaining a warm relationship with their partners, women tended to express love by complaining less, interrupting less, and showing anger less.
Men’s and women’s feelings of love manifested in the bedroom, too. Surprise, surprise: Guys who were more in love initiated sex with their partners more often. But women who were more in love actually initiated sex less often. Why? We saw a moment ago that women who are more in love tend to be less self-assertive (presumably to avoid conflict or upsetting their partners)—it’s possible that these women “back off” in the sexual arena as well and allow their partners to, in a sense, seduce them. Sure enough, even though love may be connected to sexual initiation in different ways for men and women, we found that men and women who were more in love were equally likely to actually have sex when they were more in love.
It’s important to keep in mind that, although men and women do appear to show love differently, this doesn’t mean that men and women are from different planets. Take me, for instance: Even though I wear dresses and heels on practically a daily basis, I’m not especially affectionate. Rather, I show my love by spending time with my partner. I’m kind of a workaholic, so when I come home an hour early to help my partner make dinner, he knows what it means. In short, men and women are more similar than different. Just because your man watches New Girl with you or your woman doesn’t say anything when you come home late, it doesn’t mean that he dwells in a Martian cave or that she’s a Venusian goddess. On this planet, men and women both understand the meaning of the words, “I love you.”
1Schoenfeld, E. A., Bredow, C. A., & Huston, T. L. (in press). Do men and women show love differently in marriage? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
2Caughlin, J. P., & Huston, T. L. (2006). The affective structure of marriage. In A. L. Vangelisti & D. Perlman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships (pp. 131-155). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
3Cancian, F. M. (1994). Marital conflict over intimacy. In G. Handel & G. G. Whitchurch (Eds.), The psychosocial interior of the family (4th ed., pp. 401-418). New York, NY: Walter de Gruyter.
Elizabeth A. Schoenfeld - Science of Relationships articles
Liz’s research focuses on love, particularly its development over time and its expression in day-to-day life. She also studies the impact of romantic relationships on physical health, as well as how individuals’ sexual relationships are tied to their personal attributes and broader relationship dynamics.