Moments before telling her boyfriend of six months "I love you," Sam, 33, of Columbia, Maryland, was understandably nervous. The last time she had confessed her affection to a significant other, he froze without returning the sentiment. Shortly after, the two broke up.
Now, on the precipice of dropping a love bomb on her new swain, Sam felt "sick with anxiety" but determined to say those three little words, "I love you."
"It felt like keeping a secret that I really didn't want to keep," she said. Fortunately, this time, her admission of affection went well.
"And he was very serious listening to me," Sam recalled. "And then very serious when he said he'd been wanting to find a moment to say it, too."
Sam's confession, while successful, was statistically unusual. According to a 2022 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, cisgender straight men are more likely to say those three weighty words before their female partners. This trend is true in the United States and across several other countries, including Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Poland, as well as the United Kingdom.
One of the study authors, Christopher D. Watkins, Ph.D., based in Chicago, explained that women are less likely to say "I love you" first because they tend to be more selective and cautious. And for good reason.
"In evolutionary biology, females across many species tend to invest more in offspring than males do," Watkins said. "Therefore, they pay a greater 'price' in evolutionary terms from not selecting a good-quality investing partner."
Over time, this higher price has led women to evolve to be more cautious. By contrast, men have evolved to be comparatively less cautious and more optimistic, Watkins noted.
"If hearing a display of commitment —'I love you'—is important to the average woman, men are likely to confess love early to escalate a relationship," Watkins continued. "Likewise, if being too optimistic is risky—[if a confession of love] is not reciprocated—women are likely to delay love confessions relative to their male partners, [if] all else is equal."
The power of three words
According to Watkins, the act of saying "I love you" generally carries considerable consequences for how a relationship progresses—or doesn't.
Luke (an alias), a 33-year-old living in Austin, Texas, is not unaware of the power packed into the three-word phrase.
"I'd heard some books say that [saying 'I love you'] can be emotional manipulation," he said. "I try to contextualize it and say, 'You don't have to say it back.'"
According to Luke, his professions of devotion are generally received with "doe eyes" and puppy dog-like enthusiasm from women. On the other hand, when one brave woman told Luke she loved him, he didn't receive it so graciously. Instead, Luke "Han Solo-ed" her with a cool "I know."
"I was a total coward back then," he admitted ruefully. "Her saying 'I love you,' I think, really came at the expense of me never making any move. It kind of forced that boldness out of her rather than lovingly letting it come out."
Saurabh, 31, of Houston, still remembers the time he heard "I love you" from a woman he'd been dating for a handful of months.
"She caught me off-guard, but I was really happy she said it," he recalled. "I imagined I'd be the one to say ['I love you'] first."
How to say 'I love you,' no matter who you are
Regardless of gender and sexual orientation, saying "I love you" can be a daunting task.
"It can be scary because it implies commitment," said Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author in California.
Tessina is an advocate for taking things slow in a relationship and delaying the three-word revelation until you're absolutely sure about it—not when you're overwhelmed with emotion or desire.
"At the point of the first kiss, or even your first sexual connection, you'll be flooded with endorphins," Tessina explained. "That high may give you the urge to say it, but those feelings could easily fade.
"Just understand that the person you say ['I love you'] to will probably hear it as a commitment," she added.
Tessina also cautioned against overloading your loving announcement with explanations and caveats.
"Wait for a quiet, close moment, hold hands or touch in some way, look your partner in the eyes and say, 'I love you,'" she recommended.
"Hopefully, your beloved will feel the same and let you know," Tessina said. "If not, don't think it's the end of things. Your partner may just need more time to sort out their feelings."