Saying “I Love You” With Gestures

We’ve long heard the old proverb: actions speak louder than words. And now new research is backing this up.


According to a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, being on the receiving end of a loving action can make a person feel more loved than simply hearing the words “I love you.”


The study sought to determine if people — 500 Americans, in this case — could agree on what makes them feel loved, or if the experience is a uniquely personal one.


Study participants were asked to identify which of 60 different scenarios — both romantic and nonromantic — would make them feel loved. While being hugged, making love, and hearing a declaration of love ranked high, so did nonromantic gestures like being shown compassion during a difficult time or cuddling with a child. Overall, loving behaviours trumped loving words.


“We found that behavioural actions — rather than purely verbal expressions — triggered more consensus as indicators of love. For example, more people agreed that a child snuggling with them was more loving than someone simply saying, ‘I love you,’” says study author Saeideh Heshmati.


“You might think they would score on the same level, but people were more in agreement about loving actions, where there’s more authenticity perhaps, instead of a person just saying something,” Heshmati adds.


Another consensus: we might not need words to feel loved, but we do need relationships.


The scenarios in which study participants felt love most strongly had an interpersonal element to them: an interaction between lovers, a parent and a child, or a pet owner and pet. Scenarios without this relationship — enjoying a favourite meal or a beautiful sunset, for example — received a less certain response overall.


The one exception to this interpersonal rule, however, was any behaviour that could be interpreted as controlling or possessive, like keeping constant tabs on someone’s location, or making great demands of their time. (The study authors acknowledge that this rejection of perceived possessive behaviour may not hold true for other cultural groups or communal societies and is something they have yet to explore.)


The study authors believe their findings “highlight the importance of looking at the experience of love from the perspective of the receiver: the person receiving loving signals.”


And fortunately, according to their research, making someone feel loved doesn’t necessarily require Jumbotrons and fireworks. Sometimes simple is best.


“The top scenarios that came back weren’t necessarily romantic. So it is possible for people to feel loved in simple, everyday scenarios. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top gestures,” says Heshmati.


Read the study in its entirety here.


Earlier research out of the UK corroborates these findings: little gestures like washing the dishes or saying “thank you” can make all the difference in a relationship, often trumping bigger romantic gestures.


“Grand romantic gestures, although appreciated, don’t nurture a relationship as much as bringing your partner a cup of tea in bed, or watching TV together,” says Dr. Jacqui Gabb, co-author of that report.


What’s the best small way someone’s shown you that they love you?