"If he really loved me, then he would..."
Everyone who's ever been in a relationship has had thoughts like this one. If he loved me, he would bring me flowers, or compliment me more often, or remember my birthday, or remember to take out the damn garbage.
We expect feelings of love to translate directly into loving behaviors, and often judge the quality and intensity of our partner's feelings through their more tangible expressions. When it comes to love, actions speak louder than words, right?
Not necessarily. According to new research by psychologists Lara Kammrath and Johanna Peetz, romantic feelings like love, intimacy, and commitment reliably lead to some loving behaviors, but not others.
Some gestures of love are spontaneous and of the moment: it occurs to you to do something nice for your partner, and you act on that thought immediately, or in the very near future. Saying "I love you," offering a back rub when your husband has had a particularly trying day, surprising your girlfriend with a gourmet dinner -- these are examples of loving actions that don't require much in the way of forethought, planning or memory.
Other gestures have a much higher degree of what Kammrath and Peetz call "self-regulatory challenge." They are harder to perform, often because they have to be maintained over longer periods of time (e.g., remembering to do household chores without being asked, being nice to one's in-laws) or because there is a delay between the thought and the action (remembering to buy your wife a gift for her birthday next week, keeping a promise to call home during your conference in Las Vegas.)
In their studies, the researchers found that while feelings of love are quite good at predicting spontaneous, in-the-moment acts of kindness and generosity, they do a lousy job of predicting the more challenging, longer-term loving behaviors.
When it comes to pulling off the latter, they found that it's how conscientious you are, rather than how much in love you are, that predicts success.
In one study, college undergraduates who were currently involved in committed relationships were given an online survey to fill out that measured, among other things, their feelings of love, intimacy and commitment. After completing the survey, they were informed that as a reward for participating, they could come to a "candy lab" on campus and create a gift for their boyfriend or girlfriend and enter that person's name in a drawing to win a $50 gift card.
Kammrath and Peetz varied whether the "candy lab" would be open on the very next day, or not until four days later. They found that the intensity of a student's feelings of love predicted whether or not he went the next day, but not whether he went four days later.
Only those students high in conscientiousness (i.e., who "were always prepared," "paid attention to details," "followed a schedule," and "got chores done right away") showed up four days later to make the candy gift, regardless of the depths of their love. I'm guessing they were the only ones who remembered to write it down.
In another study, people were asked to list seven easily doable loving behaviors they would do for their partner (e.g., give a compliment, send a loving text message), and were told to try to do them either all that same day, or to do one each day for a week.
Once again, being more deeply in love resulted in doing more of the loving acts on the same day, but not when they were spread out over a week. (And once again, only conscientiousness seemed to matter when more planning and better memory were needed.)
So if you're trying to get a sense of how your partner really feels about you, the smaller, spontaneous acts of love that occur without much forethought are a much better indicator of the depth of his love than whether or not he remembers your birthday or to take out the trash. (When he reads that last sentence, my husband will no doubt rejoice that he is finally off the hook and remind me that he's been telling me this all along.)
If the birthdays and the trash-removal are important to you (as they are to me), then you might want to try lending them a hand through some gentle reminding. Love may not help them to remember, but you certainly can.
Follow Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hghalvorson