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Does 'I love you' mean your relationship is in trouble?

February 14, 2013
DePaul University
Affectionate behavior may not be all that it seems, according to a new study by a relational communication expert.

Cuddling, kissing and holding hands are the kinds of behavior you might expect to see this time of year. So why do the days that follow Valentine's Day mark the largest spike on the calendar for breakups?

Affectionate behavior is not all that it seems, according to relational communication expert Sean Horan, an assistant professor at DePaul University in the College of Communication.

"Gestures such as hand holding, kissing and cuddling could be indicators that your partner is mad at you," explained Horan.

In the study "Understanding the Routine Expression of Deceptive Affection in Romantic Relationships," forthcoming in Communication Quarterly, co-author Horan examined how and why deceptive affectionate behavior occurs.

Deceptive affection means that an individual in a romantic relationship chooses to express affection he or she does not actually feel, according to the findings.

Horan, along with co-author Melanie Booth-Butterfield, a professor at West Virginia University, discovered that non-married individuals expressed deceptive affection about three times a week to romantic partners.

"Couples use deceptive affection because they feel negatively about their partner and want to save face, avoid embarrassing their partner or sidestep a situation that may land them in hot water," said Horan.

Examples of this kind of deception include lying about one's own feelings or feelings about a partner and expressing affection instead of negative feelings, he noted.

One participant confessed she didn't want to hug or cuddle her boyfriend because she was in a bad mood but did so anyway. Another told his girlfriend he loved her to get off the phone faster so he could watch a basketball game. And when one woman's boyfriend asked if she liked his new haircut, she lied and said she did, in order to spare his feelings.

According to the study's findings, couples use verbal and non-verbal affection in hopes that a sweet caress or profession of love will mask their true feelings.

However, don't let paranoia kick in and assume your love will wilt faster than Valentine's Day roses. Horan noted that this isn't necessarily negative behavior.

"Using affection to lie appears to be a regular activity in romantic relationships that most people don't seem to mind," he said. "In fact, deceptive affection might actually help maintain a relationship."

Story Source:

Materials provided by DePaul University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Sean M. Horan, Melanie Booth-Butterfield. Is It Worth Lying For? Physiological and Emotional Implications of Recalling Deceptive Affection. Human Communication Research, 2011; 37 (1): 78 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2010.01394.x

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DePaul University. "Does 'I love you' mean your relationship is in trouble?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 February 2013. <>.
DePaul University. (2013, February 14). Does 'I love you' mean your relationship is in trouble?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 27, 2017 from
DePaul University. "Does 'I love you' mean your relationship is in trouble?." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 27, 2017).