Men may not be from Mars, but their ways of showing affection are different from women’s. Both approaches—men’s and women’s—have value in close relationships.
Specifically, men are less likely than women to verbalize their affection. Study after study finds that men’s average scores for verbal affection are significantly lower than women’s, at least among Americans. Men are simply less prone to expressing their affection for others with words, either written or spoken.
That’s especially true when guys are communicating with other guys. According to research, men are much less affectionate—verbally or otherwise—with each other than they are with women. A typical male-male friendship is far less affectionate than a typical female-female friendship—and that’s true even if the two friendships report identical levels of closeness. A couple of factors qualify this sex difference. First, men are more affectionate with male relatives, such as fathers and brothers, than they are with male friends…even if they feel closer to the friends. Second, gay men are more affectionate with their platonic male friends than straight men are.
None of this means that men aren’t affectionate, however. They simply have a subtler way of demonstrating it than women do.
Research from my lab has shown that men are more likely to express their affection through supportive behaviors than through direct verbal statements (e.g., “I love you”) or nonverbal gestures (e.g., hugging, hand holding). That’s particularly true in their relationships with other men, but it’s also true in their relationships with women. With his guy friends, a typical man is more likely to show his affection by bringing the chips and beer for sports night or helping with a roof repair than by saying “I love you.” With women, he’s is more likely to help with a task that needs doing, such cleaning out your gutters or rotating your tires, than he is to send a Hallmark card.
Not everyone fits this profile, of course. Many men—whether gay or straight—are very expressive of their affection. And many women are not. These findings (like those of all social science research) tell us only what is true for most people in most circumstances.
That caveat aside, there’s a lesson here.
In my work, the question I get asked most often is “How can I get my husband/boyfriend/father to be more affectionate with me?” One answer to that question is: Look for his affectionate behaviors that you aren’t noticing yet. If washing your car is one of his ways of expressing affection to you, then it’s more productive to recognize and appreciate that expression than to bemoan the fact that he doesn’t like to hold hands. That doesn’t mean you can’t encourage more direct expressions of affection (and many men are open to those). It simply means understanding that for men, affection is more in the doing than in the saying.