Valentine’s Day is around the corner and with it comes countless customs for displaying love. Lets take up the popular trope that men do not show love as much as women. In the conventional discourse active listening and intimate, expressive, emotional, talk are the standard for what love is supposed to look like. Contemporary pop psychology and many psychotherapies often hold them up as the ideal method of communicating affect. In turn, men are often deemed insufficient in this regard and are criticized for not being open and tender enough. Partners, who may expect love to be shown in this fashion, can end up frustrated and resentful for being left wanting. However, psychological and sociological research points to a different conclusion. Namely, men frequently show affection but it is easily missed when viewed through the feminine lens of emotional openness and expression.
Of course, any discussion around differences between the men and women must acknowledge that comparing group averages can be a clumsy and reductive exercise. Differences are frequently over exaggerated, and there are bound to be countless individual exceptions to the rules of averages. With that caveat, a discussion of some trends in the research literature yields some thought provoking conclusions.
It is clear that there are differences in how men and women talk about love. For instance, a classic 1970 study of the verbal differences between men and women (Kanin, Davidson, & Scheck) found that women were more likely endorse and ideas words like “giddy”, “carefree”, and “floating on a cloud” when talking about being in love. Similarly, another more recent study prompted men and women to write about love. The women used not only significantly more emotional words but the text they generated was almost twice as long as that of men. (Gawda, 2008).
Not only is there a difference with regard to language, there actually appear to be differences in how love manifests in the body. In an interesting study, men were shown to be more physiologically reactive to emotional stimuli (Buck, Miller, & Caul, 1974). That is, rather than respond to emotions verbally, as is more common among women, the men responded more strongly within their body via heart rate. That is, their emotional response was translated more viscerally than verbally. Similarly, Galloise and Callan (1986) showed that men were more closely attuned to body language than women and were more sensitive to physical cues. Correspondingly, they were more likely to show their emotions through physical messages rather than verbal communication since that is a more familiar domain.
In his highly influential book, Real Boys, Pollock (1998) posited that men demonstrate affection in different ways yet valid ways from women. In short, men tend to show affection through action rather than words. He points to examples like doing hard work and chores (labors of love), doing simple unexpected favors (I was thinking of you and want to make a connection), and offering protection (I have a desire to perform a loving duty). For men togetherness is more of an activity than an ephemeral state of being. Hence, shared activities like running errands, taking walks, or playing a game may feel more essential and compelling than opening up in conversation.
These ideas are borne out in recent research (Schoenfeld, Bredow, & Huston, 2012) that showed that both genders equally showed love through affection, but there were clear differences in how they show love. In the study of heterosexual couples, the more that women loved their spouse, the more likely they were to be expressive and to let their partner assert himself and initiate sex. Women who tended to make the first move were feeling less love. The study’s authors posit that making the first move might be understood as an attempt to kick-start the relationship. Conversely, the more that men loved their wives, the more likely they were to join their spouse in leisure activities and chores and to initiate sex.
Of course, such research raises the question of socialization and gender roles. Distinguishing essential biological nature from the influence of experience and culture remains a tantalizing task. Moreover, these studies don’t have representative samples and their generalizability is limited by the lack of diversity among the included participants (white, western, hetero). Nonetheless, perhaps you see yourself or your partner in some of the behaviors and patterns described above. If so, perhaps the next time you you get too frustrated with your partner, consider whether your partner’s unwillingness to provide you the love and intimacy you desire is not a problem of love being withheld but misperceived.
Buck, R. W., Miller, R. E., & Caul, W. F. (1974) ‘Sex, Personality, and physiological variables in the communication of affect via facial expression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 587-596.
Gallois, C., & Callan, V. (1986). Decoding emotional messages: Influence of ethnicity, sex, message type, and channel. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 755-762.
Gawda, B. (2008) Gender Differences in the Verbal Expression of Love Schema. Sex Roles 58: 814.
Hook, M., Gerstein, L., Detterich, L., & Gridley, B. (2003). How Close Are We? Measuring Intimacy and Examining Gender Differences. Journal of Counseling & Development, 81(4), 462-472.
Kanin, E. J., Davidson, K. D., & Scheck, S. R. (1970). A research note on male-female differentials in the experience of heterosexual love. The Journal of Sex Research, 6, 64-72
Kring, A., & Gordon, A. (1998). Sex differences in emotion: Expression, experience, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(3), 686-703.
Pollack, W. S. (1998). Real boys: Rescuing our sons from the myths of boyhood. New York: Random House.
Schoenfeld, E. A., .Bredow, C. A., & Huston, T. L. (2012) Do Men and Women Show Love Differently in Marriage? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin Vol 38, Issue 11, pp. 1396 – 1409