What Is Love? To Most Americans, It's Cuddling and Small Romantic Gestures

Although most Americans agree on what symbolizes true affection, there may be individual differences. ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Looks like your mother was right—when it comes to signs of love, actions do speak louder than words. A recent study revealed that Americans generally associate feeling loved with small gestures such as a cuddle or kiss, while words, such as constantly texting or calling, are more closely associated with aggression than affection.

For the study, lead investigator Saeideh Heshmati, a postdoctoral research scholar at Penn State's College of Health and Human Development, and her team interviewed nearly 500 Americans on whether or not they believed most people would feel loved in about 60 different hypothetical scenarios.

The scenarios all started with the phrase "Most people feel loved when…" followed by representations of either support, physical expressions of love, signs of trust, sharing time with others or possessive scenarios. Control scenarios were also added to the questionnaire. Results revealed that for the most part, Americans agreed on what was a clear display of love and what was not.

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"We found that behavioral actions —rather than purely verbal expressions—triggered more consensus as indicators of love," explained Heshmati in a statement.

According to the report, now published online in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, more people agreed that someone snuggling with them was more loving than saying the words "I love you."

"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 explained.

Other gestures that were generally accepted as making people feel loved included showing compassion in difficult times, and when a pet was happy to see them.

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The results highlight the American concept of love, showing that in U.S. society, possessive behaviors, such as wanting to know where someone is at all times and insisting on spending all of their time together, are generally not associated with true love. The results also showed differences in how men and women view love, with men more likely to associate the emotion with sexual commitment and pleasure while women associated the emotion with commitment and security.

While the results reveal what may be the majority consensus on love in American society, the authors point out that individual ideologies on love differ. At times, these differences could prove disruptive in a relationship, but as in all partnerships, communication is key.

"I think it's important to communicate these things to each other, which can assist in being more in tune with each other and feeling loved in the relationship," said Heshmati.