When it comes to love, it seems there is some truth behind actions speaking louder than words.
Feeling loved can impact overall well-being, making it more important than we typically give it credit for. A team of researchers wanted to know if people mostly agree on what makes them feel loved, or if it’s a totally personal thing.
Not only do we agree, they found, it’s easier than you might think to make the people you love feel loved.
The researchers, headed up by Penn State’s Saeideh Heshmati, asked nearly 500 U.S. adults how loved they’d feel in 60 different positive, negative and neutral scenarios—being greeted by a pet, feeling close to nature and interacting with a possessive partner, for example.
There are some scenarios that make some people feel loved and not others, like getting a positive comment on the internet, the results of the study suggested. There was a near even split on that one.
So what makes most people feel the most loved? Believe it or not, it’s not being told “I love you.” It’s little actions—more so than verbal expressions of love—that people overwhelmingly agreed on. For example, people said they’d feel more loved being snuggled by their child than their child saying “I love you.”
Simple gestures also mean just as much, or more, to us than romantic gestures.
“People see loving signals in a wide variety of contexts and scenarios, including both romantic and nonromantic settings,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Although people had strong consensus on the loving feelings communicated by scenarios with romantic connotations like ‘they make love,’ ‘they are hugged,’ ‘someone tells them “I love you”’ and ‘they are holding hands,’ people also had strong consensus on nonromantic scenarios like ‘a child snuggles up to them,’ ‘their pets are happy to see them,’ or ‘someone shows compassion toward them in difficult times’ as indicators of felt love.”
The study found that people in the U.S. also agree on what doesn’t make them feel loved. One biggie: Experiencing a loved one’s controlling behavior.
“Not all interpersonal scenarios were viewed as indicating love,” the researchers wrote. “People agreed strongly that scenarios like ‘someone tells them what is best for them,’ ‘someone wants to know where they are at all times,’ ‘someone is possessive about them’ and ‘someone insists to spend all of their time with them’ did not make them feel loved.”
However, the researchers pointed out, this could be cultural. There is research that shows more communal societies than the U.S.—which tends to emphasize individualism—are more prone to equate controlling or protective behaviors to affection.
Do men and women have different needs when it comes to what makes them feel loved? The responses of men involved in the study were less in line with the cultural consensus—maybe because men tend to think about romantic love differently than women do, as other research has found, the researchers pointed out. Splitting the study results along different demographic lines revealed differences in interpretations of the scenarios.
But, regardless of demographics, people in relationships tend to know more about what makes most people feel loved, based on these study results. Makes sense—they’re the ones experiencing those hypothetical scenarios in real life.
Everyone needs to feel loved. But despite some cultural norms, everyone’s specific needs are different, lead researcher Heshmati pointed out in an interview with Penn State, and making assumptions about them can lead to relationship tension. Maybe you feel most loved when your partner takes out the trash without being asked. Or when they offer to pay for dinner when they know your budget is tight. To make sure you and your partner know each other’s needs, communicate about makes you feel most cared for.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.