Deceptive Affection: Expressing More Love for a Partner Than we Feel

New research suggests that false affection may keep relationships strong.

Josep Ma. Rosell/Flickr

Why do we tell our partners “I love you”?

The simple answer is that we like to feel loved and, if we love another person, we know that expressing affection will make them — and us — feel good.

A cynical answer (and these are always more fun) might be that, by convincing our partner we love them, we stand to benefit somehow. For an example, see any of the many coming-of-age movies about high school guys desperate to shed their virginity, and whose declarations of love for the hottest cheerleader are never more than a transparent tactic for getting inside her pants.

But research suggests that “deceptive affectionate messages”, as they are called by scientists, are commonly deployed even by partners in established relationships: more than 3x per week on average. And we might send these deceptive messages not because we dislike our partners, but because we are aware of the benefits of exaggerating affection. These benefits can include saving face (“she told me she loves me, so I better say it back”), avoiding conflict (“if I’m affectionate with him, maybe he won’t be so annoyed about X”), or emotion management (“we’ll both feel good if I show a bit of affection now”).

Of course, we also show affection when we really mean it. But deceptive affection may be an extra way of keeping our relationships strong by giving our partner something they desire (as as added bonus: it’s free).

Madeleine Redlick and Anita Vangelisti of the University of Texas at Austin recently published the results of a new study into deceptive affection. They predicted that people with especially attractive partners would be more liable to exaggerate affection. We should be more motivated to retain partners who are so attractive they would be difficult to replace. One way of keeping a partner sweet is to whisper sweet nothings in their ear: even if those sweet nothings are nothing but saccharine and stevia.

Redlick and Vangelisti recruited over 200 heterosexual men and women who had been in a relationship for an average of 7 years. They asked these volunteers how often they actively communicated affection to their partners that they were not genuinely feeling. The volunteers also rated how difficult it would be to find another partner who was as honest, devoted, intelligent, and sexually appealing as their current partner: this is a good measure of how attractive the volunteers considered their other halves.

The results of the study showed that there was a link between the tendency to express deceptive affection and the attractiveness of the partner. However, the effect was in the opposite direction to that predicted by Redlick and Vangelisti.

The researchers had thought that those with more attractive partners would be more prone to deceptive affection. In fact, they were less likely to deceive.

Further analyses revealed that those with attractive partners tended to be more satisfied with their relationships, and that those who were more satisfied tended to send fewer deceptive affectionate messages.

Redlick and Vangelisti suggest that people with irreplaceable partners may be more nervous about putting their relationship at risk by sending deceptive messages that could be detected as false. Alternatively, a hot partner may inspire more genuine affection — meaning that deceptive messages are less necessary.

After all, a Judas kiss without any ulterior motive is a genuine, bona fide, affectionate kiss.

Redlick, M. H., & Vangeslisti, A. L. (in press). Affection, deception, and evolution: deceptive affectionate messages as mate retention behaviors. Evolutionary Psychology. doi:10.1177/1474704917753857

The content of this post first appeared in the 10 April 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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