Gendered Communication in Dating Relationships

Sandra Metts. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.

Although dating relationships vary in levels of satisfaction, commitment, and duration, they share general patterns of development, intensification, and dissolution. These commonalities stem from the fact that both gender and dating are social constructions enacted through communication. The purpose of this chapter is to elaborate the role of communication in the interface between gender roles and dating schemata.

The chapter is organized into six sections. The first elaborates on the notion that gender and dating are social constructions. The next four trace gender differences in communication during typical dating phases: initiation (the first meeting, signaling interest, and the first date); intensification (expressions of love/commitment and increased sexual involvement); maintenance (managing intimacy); and, sometimes, disengagement. The chapter closes with suggestions for further research.

Gender, Dating, and Communication: A Coordinated Intersection

To say that gender is socially constructed is to recognize the distinction between biological sex and gender roles. Biological sex is a genetic distinction determined by chromosomal patterns at birth. Gender is fluid and a socially embedded construction (Canary & Emmers-Sommer, 1997; Duck & Wood, in press; Reiss, 1986). It “consists of meanings and expectations of men and women that are created and upheld by social structures and practices” (Wood, 2000, p. 302). Men and women are expected to display culturally defined masculinity and femininity. Girls and women typically embrace and enact greater degrees of feminine attitudes and behaviors, and boys and men typically embrace and enact greater degrees of masculine attitudes and behaviors.

Biological sex, however, is not isomorphic with gender. Individuals internalize socially ascribed gender differently. Researchers who compare gender with biological sex argue that although men and women tend to score in the expected direction on dimensions of masculinity and femininity, some men and some women are high on both dimensions (androgynous) or low on both (undifferentiated) (Bem, 1981). In addition among homosexuals, gender distinctions are less pronounced. Kurdek (2003) found that masculinity and femininity among gay men and lesbians did not differ significantly.

The distinction between gender and sex is further complicated by “interaction scripts,” which vary in the extent to which they prescribe role-appropriate behavior for men and women (e.g., a first date versus a classroom discussion). The constraining influence of interaction scripts may account for the apparent inconsistency in findings that gay men and lesbians hold less psychological identification as masculine or feminine and still display dating and mate selection behaviors that are similar to heterosexual men and women (Bailey, Gaulin, Agyei, & Gladue, 1994).

In sum, sex is an innate, biological dichotomy, whereas gender is a socially derived, complex system of values and behavioral expectations that becomes more constraining in certain types of interactional contexts. Individuals internalize gender roles to varying degrees and use them more or less consistently in formulating their social actions and evaluating those of others (Acitelli & Young, 1996).

Dating is a socially scripted relationship sequence that activates gender-relevant behaviors for most men and women. Gender role expectations are particularly salient because dating is defined in Western society as a testing ground for mate selection and eventual reproduction. Although interpretations of mating may differ among social groups, research on dating motivations in homosexual men and women (Bailey et al., 1994) and elderly heterosexual singles (mostly widowed) (Bulcroft & O’Connor, 1986) indicates that dating is viewed as a mate selection process. In cultures in which marriages are arranged, dating is not relevant to mate selection. In many Western societies, however, it is the normative transition period between being single and being married (or being in a committed, cohabiting relationship). Within dating relationships, gender influences relationship expectations, presentational modes, relational goals, and strategies to meet those goals (Holmberg & MacKenzie, 2002).

Furthermore, because mental structures such as expectations and goals are inert until they are instantiated in communication behaviors, gender, dating, and communication are inextricably linked and interactive. Mental schemata, particularly interaction scripts, guide the production and interpretation of messages and predict behavior (Holmberg & MacKenzie, 2002). At the same time, messages induce change in existing schemata (e.g., they can redefine a platonic relationship as a romantic one) and activate new scripts. The following sections illustrate the interface of communication and gender role expectations in the initiation, intensification, maintenance, and disengagement phases of dating. Although terminology differs, these phases are recognized in the research on relationship schemata (Baldwin, 1992; Ginsburg, 1988), turning points (Baxter & Bullis, 1986; Baxter & Erbert, 2000), stages of development (Knapp & Vangelesti, 2005; Levinger, 1983), and the process of dissolution (Baxter, 1986; Duck, 1982; Duck & Wood, in press).

Many of these researchers use the term gender when referring to the biological sex of respondents (Canary & Emmers-Sommer, 1997; Duck & Wood, 2006). As a result, the profiles offered here are, for the most part, inferred from self-reported measures of attitudes and behaviors. However, since gender roles are learned at an early age and are reinforced socially (Bailey et al., 1994), we can assume that sex differences are a reasonable, if not perfect, indication of gender role expectations in the domain of mate selection commonly referred to as dating.

Relationship Initiation

Not all single people go out for an evening intending to select a lifelong partner. Most simply want to have fun in some form. But inherent in the small talk and laughter is a dating script that allows prospective mates to reveal their desirable qualities and negotiate interest in future interactions. This initial stage of relationship development reflects nascent forms of gender role mating scripts. Both men and women seek others who have similar interests, are physically attractive, and seem likely to reciprocate their dating intentions. Gays and lesbians seeking partners report similar preferences (Peplau & Spalding, 2000).

Beyond these basic criteria, however, men and women prioritize the desirable qualities of a potential mate differently. Regardless of sexual orientation, men place greater importance on physical attractiveness in a potential partner; women emphasize personality characteristics (Bailey, Kim, Hills, & Linsenmeier, 1997; Peplau & Spaulding, 2000). More specifically heterosexual men look for signs of youth and fertility and use communication to assess a woman’s sexual interest and/or receptivity. Heterosexual women look for signs of physical strength, maturity, and economic stability and use communication to assess a man’s emotional maturity and interest in commitment (Sedikides, Oliver, & Campbell, 1994; Stewart, Stinnett, & Rosenfeld, 2000). The consistency of these patterns across groups and cultures leads some theorists to argue that mate assessment patterns emerge from biological-evolutionary constraints, particularly the relatively greater relational investment required by women for successful reproduction (Bailey et al., 1994; Buss, 1994; Gangestad & Simpson, 2000).

When manifested in communication practices, the stereotypical masculine gender role in relationship initiation is characterized by control and proactive moves and the feminine counterpart by submission and reactive moves (Rose & Frieze, 1989). These patterns contribute to the common view that men initiate escalation and women serve as “gatekeepers,” especially as the relationship moves toward sexual intimacy (Allgeier & Royster, 1991). This pattern is evident in both the coordinated moves of a first meeting and the more fully scripted sequence of the first date.

First Meeting: Signaling Interest, Flirting, Seduction

Early studies of verbal and nonverbal signals of interest during a first meeting identified sequences of co-orientation. Scheflen’s (1965) classic work on quasi-courtship behavior proposes four steps: courtship readiness, preening behavior, positional cues, and resolution (actions of appeal or invitation). Lockhard and Adams (1980) describe similar moves (attention, recognition, interaction, sexual arousal, and resolution) which have been observed during first meetings in bars (Perper, 1985).

While it is generally assumed that the first overt move to initiate contact is a masculine prerogative (i.e., the opening line), observational data suggest that the invitation to approach is a carefully choreographed feminine performance. In a detailed investigation of how they signal interest and invite men to approach, Moore (1985) observed women in singles bars, restaurants, and at parties. She identified 52 nonverbal behaviors that resulted in male approach. Glancing behaviors were finely tuned for both direction and duration: a type I glance encompassed the room or group; a type II was directed at a particular man, repeated several times, but limited to about 3 seconds; a type III was prolonged (more than 3 seconds) and directed at a man who often returned the glance. These glances were often accompanied by primping, head tossing, hair flipping, lip licking, smiling, laughing, giggling, nodding, touching, and so on. When Moore observed women in noncourtship settings, such as a library or women’s center, these solicitation cues were not displayed. Consistent with socioevolutionary theory, she concluded that women rely on indirect moves to assess a man’s interest before committing time and attention to further pursuit. McCormick and Jones (1989) offered indirect support for Moore’s position. They found that women de-escalate their flirtatious behavior once they decide that they are not interested in pursuing a romantic relationship, whereas men continue flirtatious behavior even after they have lost interest and de-escalate it only much later in the encounter.

Moore (1996) also found evidence for the early socialization of typical feminine nonverbal behaviors. She observed 13- to 16-year-old girls in shopping malls, an ice-skating rink, a swimming pool, and at school events where boys were present. They displayed 31 of the 52 behaviors identified in her study of adult women. She saw no overt signals such as kissing or caressing, but often observed exaggerated forms of primping, head tossing, hair flipping, laughing, and giggling. Moore interpreted these exaggerated displays as an indication that the early teen years are a time for adolescents to practice and refine courtship signals.

Interestingly, males also employ nonverbal behaviors to signal their appeal as a potentially attractive mate in ways consistent with the gender script prescribing strength and assertiveness. Anolli and Ciceri (2002) found that males who were successful in arranging a second meeting with a woman displayed a characteristic “seductive voice” more often than those who were not successful. This voice profile revealed patterned variations during the seductive sequence: higher pitch, elevated intensity, and a faster rate of articulation at first; a gradually lower, weaker, and warmer voice (the self-disclosure voice); a higher pitch, higher intensity, and accelerated rate of articulation when the man was asking his partner to meet him again. Anolli and Ciceri concluded that men use the initial resonant voice to raise the interest of the female and impress her with his “strength, vitality, enthusiasm, sociability, virility, and confidence” (p. 167). The lower pitch and softer volume suggest warmth, tenderness, and affability, thereby facilitating conversational openness, relaxation, and self-disclosure.

Although men and women share a common understanding of the functions of flirting behaviors (Abrahams, 1994), they differ in both their motivations and in their judgments about what constitutes sexual as opposed to friendly interest. In a study of self-reported motivations for flirting, Henningsen (2004) found that men and women were equally likely to use it to enhance their self-esteem, to explore the interests of a potential partner, and to accomplish instrumental goals. Men, however, reported that they flirt more for explicitly sexual reasons whereas women reported more relational and fun motivations.

Men also have a comparatively lower threshold for interpreting a range of affiliative behaviors as sexually suggestive (Abbey, 1982; Shotland & Craig, 1988). Koukounas and Letch (2001) videotaped interactions between male and female confederates during which eye contact, touch, physical proximity, and the female actor’s clothes were manipulated to indicate increasing levels of sexual interest. Across all levels of manipulation, male viewers perceived more sexual intent from the female actor than did women viewers, even when she made little eye contact, used no touch, retained social rather than interpersonal distance, and dressed conservatively.

This differential interest in sexual cues is apparent also in the socially defined scripts for the more formal act of relationship initiation—the first date.

First-Date Scripts

Although men and women approach first dates with many of the same goals and expectations, gender scripts do distinguish between male-appropriate and female-appropriate behaviors (Morr & Mongeau, 2004; Winstead, Derlega, & Rose, 1997). Men are expected to initiate events, display their resources, and test for female sexual availability. Women are expected to respond to the man’s initiative, display their physical attractiveness, and respond with interest but restraint to tests of sexual availability.

Rose and Frieze (1989) asked heterosexual college students to describe a typical first date. They identified 27 actions associated with the man’s script and 19 with the woman’s. Of these, 14 overlapped, primarily those expected during the conversation (e.g., get to know, compliment, joke, laugh, try to impress, and say that the date was a good time). Of the 13 actions unique to men, most signaled the roles of initiator and provider (e.g., plan, provide the economic resources, and initiate physical and/or sexual contact). The five unique to women were primarily reactions to a male initiative (e.g., wait for date, introduce to parents or roommates). Rose and Frieze (1993) subsequently confirmed these hypothetical patterns in descriptions of actual dates, and Nakanishi (1998) confirmed them in a sample of Japanese college students.

Other research indicates that despite economic and occupational changes during the past 50 years and despite young adults’ endorsement of egalitarian ideals, gender role expectations are still prominent in first-date scripts, especially for college males. Laner and Ventrone (2000) provided college students with lists of behaviors and asked them to rate whether they would occur on a heterosexual first date and, if so, who would more likely enact them: the male, the female, both, or neither of them. Results indicated that the man was expected to initiate and organize the date (e.g., ask out, decide on plans, prepare the car, pick the woman up, pay all the bills, and make the first affectionate or sexual moves). The woman was expected to respond to male initiative and display her physical and relational attractiveness (e.g., wait to be asked out, buy new clothes, eat lightly at dinner, primp in the bathroom during the evening, and take the lead in moving toward deeper conversation). However, although only 9% of men thought either partner could pay for the date, 22% of women thought either person could.

Several studies have more specifically tested the prescriptive nature of dating scripts and the sex role behaviors they specify. These findings offer convincing evidence that deviations from the traditional script are difficult for dating couples to enact. Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell (1999) instructed college student dyads to participate in one of two conditions. The first reflected the traditional script or “dominant discourse theme,” with male participants instructed to initiate a first date and then greater sexual intimacy, to which their female partners were instructed to say they were not ready. The second was intended to disrupt the dominant discourse, with female participants instructed to initiate the date and greater sexual intimacy, to which their male partners were instructed to say they were not ready. Codings of the audiotaped interactions revealed that no woman initiated the date when her partner was assigned the initiator role but that 31% of the men initiated the date even when their female partner was assigned the role. Likewise, all the men assigned to the initiator role initiated greater intimacy but only about half of the women did.

Research on the dating practices of homosexual men and women indicates a notable consistency with these findings (Peplau & Spalding, 2000; Rose, Zand, & Cini, 1993). Klinkenberg and Rose (1994) tested the assumption that homosexual dating practices would differ from heterosexual practices in that they would not have a clearly defined script or contain similar gender role expectations. However, analysis of both hypothetical and actual first dates indicated that gay men and lesbian behaviors were similar to those scripted for heterosexuals. Moreover, gay men were more likely than lesbians to associate sex with the first date and lesbians were more likely than gay men to associate emotional sharing.


Unlike the scripted first date, intensification moves are less temporally sequenced and more ambiguous. Several factors contribute to the complexity in the transition from first date and early dating to relationship development and intensification. First, the moves that function as transition indicators are both strategic (goal intended) and inadvertent but cumulative in their effect. For example, asking a partner not to date others is a clear message signaling one partner’s goal to intensify the relationship. Alternatively, not dating other people over a period of time and being treated as a committed couple by the social network is a cumulative relationship definition.

Second, the meaning of intensification is multifaceted: it can be experienced as greater intimacy (sexual, emotional, and informational), as greater psychological commitment to a partner or a relationship, or as a combination of these. For example, although first sexual intercourse in a dating relationship typically serves as a relationship intensification move, Sprecher and McKinney (1993) report that sexual behavior also functions as an act of affection, love, self-disclosure, intimacy, interdependence, maintenance, and exchange.

Finally, intensification moves are necessarily embedded within an emerging and dynamic relationship culture. They may, ironically, increase certainty in some aspects of the developing relationship while simultaneously increasing uncertainty in others. This is illustrated in Baxter and Erbert’s (2000) interviews with dating couples about turning points in their relationships. When respondents described the passion turning point (particularly the first “I love you” and sexual involvement), they referred to changes in other aspects of the relationship that Baxter and Erbert characterized as dialectical tensions (i.e., openness/closedness, autonomy/connection, and novelty/ predictability). Baxter and Erbert speculate that the passion turning point forced couples to grapple with the “uncertain implications of such an expression for relational development” (p. 561).

Although intensification is not as explicitly structured as initiation, as Baxter and Erbert’s work indicates, the passion turning point is recognized by dating couples as signifying a move toward greater commitment. Because the normative expectation is that expressions of love precede and frame sexual involvement (Metts, 2004), I will review research related to the first “I love you” before looking at that concerning the first sexual involvement.

Expression of Affection: “I Love You”

Although the expression of love is not necessarily a strategic move, when asked to identify strategies that dating partners use to intensify a relationship (i.e., increase the level of commitment), college students reported professions of love (Tolhuizen, 1989). In addition, and consistent with gender scripts, such statements are more likely to originate with men. Tolhuizen identified 15 strategies in students’ written accounts of how they intensify dating relationships. Men were more likely to make direct definitional bids and use verbal expressions of affection. Women were more likely to accept the definitional bid and use relationship negotiation strategies.

The male initiator role was also evident in spontaneous expressions of love during ordinary conversations. Owen (1987) analyzed audio recordings of telephone conversations between dating couples collected over the course of a semester. Men were overwhelmingly the first to say “I love you.” In providing possible explanations for this pattern, Owen speculated that (a) men are less able to withhold their expressions of love when they feel it, (b) women can better discriminate love from other emotions, and/or (c) initiating declarations of love reflects the male role as proactive and the female role as reactive.

Booth-Butterfield and Trotta (1994) analyzed dating couples’ written descriptions of the circumstances surrounding the first expression of love. They found that 70% of the sample indicated that men said “I love you” first. Respondents’ attributions for the declarations of love were generally consistent with and extended Owen’s speculations. Approximately half attributed them to true feelings and about 20% to situational influences (e.g., a delightful evening or having made love for the first time). About 13% attributed the expression to ulterior motives such as gaining sexual compliance or testing how the other person would respond. In a few cases, love was expressed as a sign of comfort/support when a partner was experiencing distress (5.5%) or when a person was simply at a loss for words (5.5%). Female receivers were more likely than male receivers to attribute an ulterior motive to the expression, but male receivers were also less likely to take it as a true expression, perhaps because female initiation violates the normative pattern.

First Sex

Perhaps no other aspect of dating escalation reflects gender scripts as fully as first sexual involvement, particularly sexual intercourse. Inevitably framed by the socially constructed double standard, women link sexual intimacy more closely to emotional intimacy than do men. This association is evident in their scripted refusal to engage in sexual activity even when intending to do so. Each of these issues is addressed separately here, although they overlap in actual practice.

Sexual Activity and Relationship Meaning. One of the most consistent findings in studies of sexual activity in dating couples is that women more closely link sexual behavior and emotional involvement (Christopher & Cate, 1984; O’Sullivan & Gaines, 1998). This difference appears even in same-sex romantic relationships (Bailey et al., 1994).

Cohen and Shotland (1996) explored the link between sexual involvement and emotional attachment using surveys completed by heterosexual college students. Men reported that they would expect sexual intercourse after significantly fewer dates than women (9-11 versus 15-18). Almost all of them indicated that they would have sex with women whom they rated highly on physical attraction but for whom they felt no emotional involvement; less than two thirds of the women would have sex with men they did not find attractive. Even in relationships lacking physical attraction and emotional involvement, approximately 60% of the men reported they would have sex, but only about 20% of the women would. Approximately 33% of the men reported that they had actually engaged in sex when feeling no attraction and no emotional involvement, but only 5% of women reported doing so.

Hill (2002) confirmed this pattern using eight hypothetical situations, five that contained expressions of emotional investment (e.g., providing comfort) and three that did not. Both men and women indicated a greater likelihood of sexual behavior in the relationships with emotional investment, and the likelihood indicated by women was equivalent to that of men. In the no-investment situations, however, men reported significantly greater likelihood of sexual behavior compared to women.

In an examination of whether gender scripts predicted relationship escalation, Metts (2004) surveyed heterosexual college students about the first sexual experience in their current or most recent dating relationship. Expressions of love and commitment prior to sexual involvement (heavy petting, oral sex, and sexual intercourse) predicted relationship escalation for both men and women, but contributed substantially more variance beyond the control variables for women (12% versus 4%). Moreover, women reported significantly higher levels of explicit expressions of love and commitment prior to sexual involvement. This may suggest that framing sexual involvement as a response to emotional commitment is more important in a woman’s decision to escalate a relationship. Men and women might also reconstruct the escalation of the relationship in line with gendered scripts—men not recalling expressions of affection even if they were spoken and women recalling them even if they were not.

In sum, men consistently report fewer sexual restraints in both attitude and behavior than women. Several scholars have proposed that women use scripted refusal or token resistance to balance the desire for sex with their knowledge of cultural expectations that a “nice woman” refuses sexual invitations unless in a committed relationship.

Token Resistance. Actions can communicate reluctance or refusal to engage in sexual activity while intending to do so. This practice is typically attributed to women’s strategic accommodation to the sexual double standard (Muehlenhard & McCoy, 1991) and is perceived by both men and women as an enjoyable way to be both expressive and playful (O’Sullivan & Allgeier, 1994).

Unfortunately, the scripted ambiguity inherent in token resistance “perpetuates the belief that women’s refusals of sexual advances are often insincere and need not be taken seriously” (Muehlenhard & Rodgers, 1998, p. 444). Indirect support for this position is evident in male and female evaluations of refusal messages. For example, Motley and Reeder (1995) provided college students with scenarios describing the progression of physical intimacy on a second or third date when the woman uses one of six resistance messages. Direct messages were: Please don’t do that; I don’t want to do this; Let’s stop this. Indirect ones were: I can’t do this unless you’re committed to me; I’m seeing someone else; I don’t have any protection. Men and women were equally likely to interpret the direct refusals as indicating no, and women also interpreted the indirect messages as no. However, men were significantly more likely than women to rate the indirect messages as “willing to be persuaded.”

An important finding that appears to contradict the double standard premise is worth noting here. Several studies find that men are more likely than women to report using token resistance (O’Sullivan & Allgeier, 1994; Sprecher & Hatfield, 1994). Social structures may have simply framed the phenomenon as a female strategy when it is a common practice for both sexes. However, it is more likely that questionnaire items asking respondents about a time when they said no to sex when they really wanted it evoke a far broader range of situations than the scripted refusal episode known as token resistance.

A compelling argument for this position is offered by Muehlenhard and Hollabaugh (1988). In an effort to be very specific in their instructions to college student respondents, the authors asked them to describe the following situation:

You were with a guy (or girl) who wanted to engage in sexual intercourse and you wanted to also, but for some reason you indicated that you didn’t want to, although you had every intention to and were willing to engage in sexual intercourse. In other words, you indicated “no” and you meant “yes.” (p. 874)

Initial findings indicated that more men than women had engaged in token resistance. However, when analyzing the narratives, Muehlenhard and Hollabaugh (1988) realized that many respondents had misunderstood the instructions. In particular, the narratives reflected confusion about (a) desires and intentions (respondents actually did not want to have sex although the situation seemed conducive); (b) confusion about communicating no and yes simultaneously (they said no and meant no, but then changed their mind, presenting a sequential rather than simultaneous intention); and (c) confusion about which sexual activity was refused and which was intended (e.g., they might have said no to intercourse but intended to engage in petting). In the final analysis only 20 of the original 177 responses fit the criteria of the token resistance episode. When these narratives were analyzed for themes, five motivations emerged with a distribution reflective of gender expectations: moral concerns and discomfort about sex (two women); adding interest to an ongoing relationship (five women, one man); not wanting to be taken for granted (three women, one man); testing a partner’s response or intention about the relationship (one woman, one man); and asserting power/control over the other person (five men, one woman).

Until further research clarifies whether men and women are responding to surveys in ways consistent with the conceptual definition of token resistance, claims that more men than women engage in this type of sexual negotiation should be taken with a note of caution. It is more likely that the scripted refusal to have sex when it is desired is more frequently used by women and functions to meet gender-related goals of self-presentation.

Maintenance: Assessing Long-Term Potential

The maintenance stage varies in length and level of involvement. During this stage, couples move from reliance on scripted interactions to more idiosyncratic patterns. When uncertainty about the nature of the relationship still lingers or conflict and unexpected events increase uncertainty, couples typically employ information-seeking strategies (Baxter & Wilmot, 1984; Bell & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1990; Emmers & Canary, 1996; Stafford & Canary, 1991). Under ordinary circumstances, however, couples simply engage in routine maintenance behaviors such as showing affection, participating in joint activities, and engaging in small talk (Dindia, 2000). Partners in same-sex relationships report similar maintenance behaviors, although they also employ unique strategies to maintain the relationship, such as socializing in gay/lesbian supportive environments and “being out” as a couple to other members of their social network (Haas & Stafford, 1998).

Interestingly, it appears that once relationships reach a level of commitment known variously as serious or exclusive dating, the sex role imperative for men to be in control recedes. By choice or necessity, women tend to become the more active relationship managers—actualizing the feminine gender role as the “social-emotional specialists in relationships” (Morrow, Clark, & Brock, 1995, p. 378). Although this assumption is derived largely from studies using biological sex, research by Stafford, Dainton, and Haas (2000) using married couples indicates that feminine gender identity (measured on the Sexual Identity Scale) was a much stronger predictor of maintenance behavior than was biological sex.

Evidence of a gender role shift from initiation to maintenance is available in research on relational maintenance and satisfaction. Dainton and Stafford (1993) found tha married and dating couples use almost identical strategies but that in both cases, women use expressions of positivity, emotional openness, and talk more frequently than men. Other research focused more specifically on what men and women want from a partner indicates that they desire many of the same qualities—companionship, happiness, feeling loved (Sedikides et al., 1994). Both report more satisfaction, love, and commitment when sexual satisfaction is high. This association is stronger, however, for men than women (Sprecher, 2002).

Not only is relationship satisfaction comparatively more salient to women than men, it is also closely linked to the disparity between the level of emotional openness and communicative responsiveness that women desire and the level men typically exhibit. This disparity may be due, in part, to gender socialization. The feminine speech community values talk for its own sake and emphasizes its role in building/ maintaining intimacy. The masculine speech community more typically values talk for its instrumental functions (Wood, 1996).

These sex role differences appear to influence women’s regard for communication as central to romantic relationships. When Peretti and Abplanalp (2004) asked college students to describe the “chemistry” in their current relationship, both men and women mentioned physical attractiveness more than any other feature. However, four other elements emerged as important for women: reciprocity (mutual exchange of mental, emotional, or physical qualities of equal or similar value); spontaneous communication (able to reveal selves, express feelings and ideas with a sense of being accepted, self-disclosure accompanied by trust and intimacy); warm personality (warmth, friendliness, concern, empathy, and understanding); and longing (feelings of arousal or excitement, tenderness, mutual affection, enhanced social and sexual intimacy, yearning or desire for someone often facilitated by communication over the telephone or by e-mail). Communicative expressiveness and responsiveness are reflected in all the categories derived from the women’s descriptions.

Critelli, Myers, and Loos (1986) explored gender expectations by asking dating couples to respond to items taken from scholarly literature and from love letters written by students. Women were more likely to endorse statements about romance, friendship, and intimacy (e.g., Someone I can really communicate with, Someone I can confide in about virtually everything, Someone I would most likely go to if I had a problem).

Sex role expectations also seem to influence the relatively lower level of emotionally expressive communication that men are likely to exhibit. Certainly, men and women exhibit many of the same communicative behaviors (see Aries, 1996; Canary & Emmers-Sommer, 1997), but gender scripts curtail emotional expression for men (Metts & Planalp, 2003). As Dosser, Balswick, and Halverson (1986) point out in their discussion of the so-called inexpressive male, “expressiveness is communicative and therefore is influenced by the context which includes the person’s goals, the target of the expression, the relationship between the two of them and the type of feeling expressed” (p. 251).

The importance of framing the differences in emotional expression between men and women as responsive to context and guided by gender role constraints is evidenced in investigations of conversations between dating partners. Vogel, Tucker, Wester, and Heesacker (1999) videotaped dating couples having conversations about an intimate topic (their satisfaction in their relationship) or about everyday things. Behaviors were coded to the extent to which they represented feminine behaviors (e.g., letting another person talk first, talking softly, acting submissive) or masculine behaviors (e.g., being assertive, talking loudly, and taking charge of the conversation). In the intimate conversation, women exhibited more feminine behavior than women in everyday conversation, but men exhibited less feminine behaviors in the ordinary conversation. The authors suggest that intimate situations activate the male gender script because they hold potential for vulnerability or rejection.

In a subsequent investigation, Vogel, Wester, Heesacker, and Madon (2003) randomly assigned dating couples to discussions of either high or low emotional vulnerability. Coders did global ratings of demanding, withdrawing, and of emotionally expressive and emotionally restricted behaviors. Overall, couples were less expressive in the emotional vulnerability conversations. However, an interaction effect emerged. Women were more expressive in conversations of high emotional difficulty, but men exhibited more restricted affect and more withdrawal in difficult situations.

Taken together, the research findings on communication preferences and practices during the maintenance stage suggest a gendered profile. It appears that the feminine gender role encourages women to both value and practice emotional expression as fundamental to satisfaction and maintenance. The masculine gender role, however, encourages men to value and perform primarily instrumental functions. Whether motivated by fear of appearing somehow not masculine or because differential socialization fails to provide them with certain communicative skills, men are generally less verbally expressive, and they are especially less so when dealing with emotionally difficult topics.

Although some scholars have tried to situate male and female differences carefully within contexts and within gender role expectations, the simple view of men as generically inexpressive continues in the popular and pedagogical literature. Wood and Inman (1993) argue that the value of performing instrumental tasks and doing activities together in creating and sustaining closeness is not recognized. And yet for many men these expressions function in much the same way that verbal expressions function for many women. Apparently, women (and a number of researchers) do not code them as intimacy signals, although they likely will interpret a significant decline in such demonstrations as a sign of relationship deterioration.

Dissolution and Breakup

The transition from a state of satisfaction and commitment to one of decline and disengagement is often presented by scholars as a movement through stages (Duck, 1982) and often aligned as parallel to stages of relationship development (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2005). Others suggest a model that focuses on relationship decline as a set of processes. Duck and Wood (2006), for example, integrate the literature on individual, dyadic, and network variables from a variety of relationship types to illustrate the fluid nature of deterioration and gender influences during this process.

Gender patterns in dissolution are consistent with those that characterize the maintenance phase. Men and women are more similar than different, but the differences are important. Both tend to terminate relationships when costs exceed rewards, when satisfaction and commitment fall below acceptable levels (Rusbult & Van Lange, 2003), and/or when a serious transgression or rule violation cannot be forgiven (Metts, 1994). However, the relatively greater expectation for maintenance efforts that attends the feminine gender role also applies to accomplishing relationship dissolution.

For example, although early investment factors predict whether a relationship stays intact or is broken up, they are a stronger predictor for women (Sacher & Fine, 1996). Women also report more reasons and more specific reasons for relationship breakup compared with men (Baxter, 1986). Women attribute the breakup to autonomy, openness, and equity concerns; men, to simply losing the “magical quality” of the relationship (Baxter, 1986).

As might be expected as well, women are more likely to initiate the actual breakup (Sprecher, Felmlee, Metts, Fehr, & Vanni, 1998). Consistent with gender role expectations and practice, women more closely monitor relationship quality and as a result are better able and more willing to communicate the desire to redefine a romantic relationship in a face-preserving way (Cupach & Metts, 1986).


This review has highlighted communication differences between men and women that reflect patterns consistent with gender role scripts across the stages of relationship development and decline. Certainly men and women enjoy dating relationships for many of the same reasons, look for similar qualities in a long-term partner, and communicate in similar ways. They also, however, tend to display gender-relevant patterns. As a mate selection ritual, dating appears to evoke interaction scripts that guide behavior for most men and most women.

Research would benefit from addressing two issues. First, much of what has been done employs retrospective reports or laboratory manipulations. This should be complemented by longitudinal studies. The full influence and evolution of gendered communication in dating relationships is more likely to map clearly when they are followed over time. For example, we know little about how relationships are initiated and developed or what the long-term consequences are when partners do not follow gendered scripts. Indeed, much of the research on initiation seems to ignore the fact that most dating relationships emerge from school, work, and network connections, with only about 15% originating in bars, through personal ads, or on vacation (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, & Kolata, 1994). Those that evolve from social relationships may exhibit less reliance on gender role scripts both in initiation and maintenance. Longitudinal research is a useful approach to discovering patterns in behavior that are not influenced by retrospective sense making—a process that might activate gendered dating scripts after the fact.

Second, researchers need to complement the research on 20-year-old, heterosexual, able-bodied, Caucasian college students with more diverse samples. Dating occurs in many cultures, some of which configure gender identity much differently than do Western and industrialized cultures. We know very little about such cultures. Indeed, we know very little about cocultural groups within the United States. Some existing literature addresses the need to understand the interface between sexual orientation and gender (Bailey et al., 1994; Bailey et al., 1997), but clearly more is needed. Recent investigations have begun to profile the dating motivations and behaviors of African American youth (Harper, Gannon, Watson, Catania, & Dolcini, 2004; Smith, 1996), but to date, little effort has been made to determine whether gender role patterns might be similar to those found among Caucasian youth.

Dating also occurs across the life span (Shotland & Craig, 1988). Divorce, widowhood, and increasing longevity thrust many older adults back into the dating cycle. Although older single adults, like their younger counterparts, seek physically attractive mates who provide companionship and romance, they also assess dates as potential caregivers, a criterion that is not generally salient for younger people (Bulcroft & O’Connor, 1986). The greater number of women in older age lends prestige to those who have a male partner (Bulcroft & O’Connor, 1986), and the grief experienced from the death of a spouse moderates the desire to begin dating again much more strongly than does a breakup for young people (Carr, 2004). Attention to the experiences of older adults would enhance our understanding of gendered communication patterns during dating for various cohort groups.

It is certainly easier to advocate more systematic research in gender and dating relationships than to specify how that is to be accomplished. The task is inherently difficult and challenging. As Kramarae (1996) illustrates, race, class, and gender intersect in complicated ways. When individual differences in needs and personality traits are added, the number of pieces in the puzzle increases significantly. However, the effort to construct a representative profile is both theoretically and pragmatically worth making.