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It’s Not Who Falls in Love First, But Who Says It First, That Matters

Love is a power move

Hot tip: Women don’t typically say “I love you” first in a heterosexual relationship because we know men think we are going to say it first, so we wait and make you say it first because that way it will be more “real.”

Lemme put it another way: Many women play an “I love you” game of chicken, because we have to, or else risk confirming every stereotype alive that we are blinking neon signs of emotional neediness. Yes, there are exceptions, and many people are mature, evolved beings who have no need for such silly games, but we can’t all be brave soldiers in the game of love.

Some context: In an age of Hey, men have feelings, too!, research has resurfaced on the internet that when it comes to those three little words, it turns out that men not only fall in love faster than women, but say it sooner, too. No shit! While the research was celebrated as heartening — proof that men not only have real feelings, but can actually string sentences together on their own to express them without a hard prompt — the ensuing aha! misses the point: Saying “I love you” is, and always will be, one of the earliest, most important power moves in a relationship, and we’ve typically given all this power to dudes, painting women as militants in the game of locking down love. The result? Women feel pressure to hold back.

The research showed up at Broadly, where Jessica Pan explored a 2011 study of 172 college students at Pennsylvania State University, published in the Journal of Social Psychology. Researchers Marissa Harrison and Jennifer Shortall found that men reported both falling in love earlier and saying “I love you” earlier than women did. This contradicted the authors’ expectation that women would fall in love first and express it first. And popular culture, of course, has long painted women as the more eager gender when it comes to falling in love and committing.

“Surprise!” Redbook wrote of the Broadly piece, remarking that the research “totally debunks the myth that women are the ones who *~fall so fast~* and spend all their time quoting songs about unrequited love.”

Women, of course, know this, but such gendered stereotypes — women be chasin’, men be avoidin’ — hang over all our heads as we move toward the big moment. Harrison’s research was published in 2011; that same year, another study was published on Valentine’s Day in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It looked at six studies of male and female behavior in commitment in terms of who says “I love you” first. It, too, 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.”

So why do we think of women as the ambulance chasers of love, when research has shown again and again that we aren’t? Because we think of falling in love and saying “I love you” as the same thing as wanting a commitment, and women, as we all know, all want commitment.

Take this old bit from Chris Rock, who says women are perennially ready to settle down. “Shit,” he jokes, “a woman go on four good dates, she’s like, ‘Why we bullshitting? What are you waiting for?’ Men, never ready to settle down. Men don’t settle down. We surrender.”

One of the above studies cited found that while more women admitted to thinking about commitment sooner in the relationship, men admitted to thinking about confessing love 42 days earlier. But even if we take at face value the longstanding perception that all women want relationships, that’s still totally different from falling the fall and saying the sentence; when it comes to those things, women simply take longer. Harrison’s study found that women said they’d know whether they were in love with someone “in about a few months,” and would also know in that time if the feeling were mutual. Men, however, said they’d know in “about a few weeks,” and would also know if the feeling was mutual. (One survey of 2,000 Brits found most people say “I love you” after about five months.)

“These findings are novel and provide support that women do not rush into a romance before men do,” Harrison writes. “Additionally, neither sex indicated an expected temporal difference between realizing one’s own and one’s partner’s feelings. This further indicates that women are not hopeless romantics engulfed in unrequited or unsure love any more or less than are men.”

Women have historically needed men’s presence, protection and literal paycheck to survive in the world, particularly if offspring are involved. But while you could argue that has made them more likely to rush into commitment, it doesn’t mean they’re more likely to rush to love. We just think they are.

“Research shows that both men and women think women are more emotional,” Harrison told me in email. “Yet in our study, women were falling in love later than men were, arguably postponing ‘love’ until they are sure they picked the right partner. From an evolutionary lens, women must be more careful than men about committing to a romantic partner, because woman have a much more restricted reproductive potential compared to men.”

Harrison goes on to explain that at least from a reproductive standpoint, the fact that women have far fewer eggs than men have sperm forces women to be “more careful to whom they commit.”

“I should qualify this by saying I don’t think most women assess a man by thinking, ‘He is worth my eggs,’” she says. “However, evolutionary psychologists argue we have unconscious mechanisms that drive us to weigh the pros and cons of our mate choices so as to maximize our reproductive potential.”

There are also the cultural forces at play here. Among the previous studies the authors note in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study are ones that found that women are “more interested in and willing to express love and commitment than are men,” “more likely to express love and fidelity” (off a study of the content of Valentine’s Day cards), to be “relatively more disposed to long-term mating strategies,” to be “more upset by emotional infidelity,” and to “have an easier time than men expressing vulnerable emotions such as love.”

All of which incorrectly sets women up to appear to be perfect candidates to be the first to blurt out “I love you.” But even still, most women have been told their entire lives not to. Women have been told in one form or another that it’s “better” for a guy to say it first, whether because he supposedly needs longer to process his feelings or because saying it too soon will turn him off.

Falling in love and being in a love is a luxury, and the researchers in all these studies note that men, because they have more economic freedom, can pick partners based on much more whimsical traits, like loving them, whereas women are more likely to be pragmatic: He is a good father, a steady provider, kind, loyal; he seems unlikely to murder me.

Men might also be a little full of shit on the “I love you front” at first. The researchers in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study note that men may say “I love you” faster “to achieve sexual access by (truthfully or insincerely) announcing long-term romantic interest.”

Oof. Other studies have found that women know this, which may be why they not only let men say it first, but don’t necessarily believe it unless men say it after sex. That leaves women to do some post-declaration parsing: The fact that men are so free with their “love” might imply they don’t take it that seriously. “The one who falls in love more quickly might also be the one who will more quickly fall out of love,” Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeev warns at Psychology Today.

While women now have more economic power to live and love as whimsically as they choose — likely one reason why more women initiate divorce — we still live in a culture that counsels us to guard our virginity and our availability while handing over the big decision about making a commitment to the man.

This is also why newer, more feminist-y advice to women encourages them to go ahead and put it out there when they are in love, because “waiting sucks” and “being in love rules.” Just like women can and should ask men on dates and for their hands in marriage, why not throw caution and cultural stereotypes to the wind and say it anyway? Writing at Cosmopolitan, Hannah Smothers optimistically lists as the number one reason for women going ahead and saying “I love you”: He could be waiting for you to say it first anyway. “If you feel like you’re in a game of ‘I love you’ chicken,” she writes, “odds are he’s waiting for you to say it because he’s just as scared of the potential rejection as you are.”

That may be true, but as long as every sign points to women still having to hedge the perception that they’re only after one thing (your heart), women will probably keep waiting to let you give yours first.