The thought of hearing your romantic partner say “I love you” for the first time may send a rush of euphoria through your body. When you’re keen on someone, those words often ring as a rite of passage into deeper intimacy—a relationship milestone on high. And, once exchanged, it may feel as though you’ve been plucked from the realm of the casually intertwined and dropped into the arms of something official, lasting and real.
So what do you do if thoughts of falling in love are fizzing wildly inside of you, dying to spill out, but you’re caught in the space of the “should I say I love you or should I...not?" And, you fear inciting a recreation of the dreadful moment in Sex and the City when Carrie impulsively blurts out an awkward “I love you” after Big gifts her a crystalline duck-shaped handbag, and he then mumbles “you’re welcome” in response—before fleeing the scene.
While all great love stories are nuanced and should be allowed to unfold organically, we sought guidance from the experts to help you determine if the right time to say "I love you" first is now, later… or never.
If you’re itching to profess your love, there are some important things to consider.
Dr. Jenn Mann, psychotherapist, host of VH1’s Couples Therapy with Dr. Jenn, and author of The Relationship Fix advises that you gauge the temperature of your relationship before you entertain the thought of saying “I love you.” Specifically, determine if your time spent together ever dips from hot to cold, or if your bond is more like a slow-burning ember of mutual commitment.
Because in our modern day, there are a multitude of things tugging at us constantly, asking to lure our attention—from open relationships to tantalizing strangers on social media and dating apps. “If someone is willing to be exclusive with you, or at least consider you their primary partner when monogamy is not the goal, then that’s a good signal there is a depth to the relationship that is at least leading in the direction of love,” says Dr. Mann.
But before you spout off in a moment of passion, she advises that you sit with the feeling and become aware of what your expectations are surrounding it. “For some people, the expectation is: ‘OK, I say it and you say it, and that means we’re instantly in a committed relationship.’ For others, the expectation may be entirely different—perhaps that it’s simply a deepening friendship.”
Finally, you need to imagine how you will feel if the sentiment isn’t reciprocated. “In many situations, it may be that you’re dying to confess your truth. Maybe you feel as though you can no longer hold it in, and while you hope it will be returned, you are willing to accept the situation if it isn’t,” says Dr. Mann. “That’s the most ideal headspace to be in.”
But before you unpack your feelings, ask yourself: are you sure it's love?
The thrill of a new relationship starts with the rousing of initial intrigue, the attraction that renders you dizzy, and the fun of linking arms with someone who enjoys your favorite activities. Dr. Mann says infatuation often serves as a mask of projection that looks enticingly like love, but isn’t at all. In other words, just because you and your partner have stars in your eyes for each other, and share a mutual fondness for baked ziti pizza, and 90s rom-coms, doesn’t mean you’ve entered into something as complex and enduring as love.
“Too many people declare their love during the honeymoon stage, which is primarily the first six to 18 months of a relationship. The problem is, in most cases, you may not yet know what you’ve got. During this phase, many people are blinded by the excitement,” says Dr. Mann. “This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because you should enjoy it, but don’t be too quick to call it something it hasn’t had time to become.”
Because love isn’t always cinematic. It’s more so a process that crawls into the dungeons of reality with you—building connection, presence and trust over time. It’s when your partner hears you coughing from the bathroom in the dark hours, and stumbles out of bed to bring you a glass of water. Or when you have an ill parent, and they drop their sun-drenched vacation plans to be by your side so that you don’t have to endure it alone. “Love is much more significant and sacrificing than hot sex and the things that thrill us,” says Dr. Mann.
Monica Berg, spiritual thought leader, Chief Communications Officer of the Kabbalah Centre, and author of the upcoming book, Rethink Love: 3 Steps to Being the One, Attracting the One, and Becoming One, says to never utter those words before turning within. “It’s essential to examine the relationship you have with yourself before you tell another person you love them," she says.
...because it’s easy to confuse other feelings for love when you’re in a vulnerable place.
Berg suggests getting radically honest with yourself—dysfunctional patterns and all. “You’ve got to make sure that your motivations for saying ‘I love you’ are fueled by a genuine expression of love, and are not being driven by desperation or loneliness,” she says.
Dr. Mann agrees, explaining that we often develop habits of seeking a relationship to fulfill needs that only we can satisfy. For example, you may believe you are in pursuit of love when, instead, you are unconsciously seeking an emotional crutch, or a happy distraction.
Dr. Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, who counsels couples, finds that our vulnerabilities threaten to deceive us. “If you’re coming out of a difficult season in your life, you may find someone who brings you a lot of happiness, quickly feeling the impulse to say ‘I love you.’ But much of the time what you’re really saying is, ‘I’m hurting, and I’m lonely, and I need to be linked up with someone who will care about me,’” he says. “While it may feel good in the moment, misdirected feelings can create problems later on.”
And, the phrase may mean something different for your partner than it does for you.
Perhaps you come from a family who tosses around “I love you” freely—before ending a phone call or while exchanging a goodbye hug. But your significant other may be more reserved, only calling upon those words sparingly—perhaps during occasions of immense celebration or when gripped by the finality of death. For some, it’s a phrase that's much like a treasure kept locked away, only brought to light and passed around during times of significance. For others, it’s as freely exchanged as “Pass the salt.”
So in the event that you say it and it isn’t reciprocated, Dr. Mann suggests taking a deep breath before you panic—because it’s not necessarily a sign of impending doom. “Some people are cautious in expressing how they feel—especially if they have experienced a great deal of rejection or come from a family where those words were rarely used. So, deciding when it’s time to say it is mostly about tuning into the unique expressions and personality of the individual you’re involved with,” she says.
Saying “I love you” too soon could impact your relationship.
Dr. Mann says that confessing those words too soon may derail a relationship that is on an otherwise progressive track—but not when the investment is already solid.
“Even if a person isn’t quite ready to say ‘I love you’ after hearing it from their significant other, if they are truly looking toward a future with them, it's unlikely to scare them away. However, if someone is on the fence about the relationship, is perhaps a bit emotionally immature, or is negatively triggered by those words, it could scare them off,” says Dr. Mann. “But this again goes back to being tuned into your partner’s behavior and history.”
Of course women can say it first.
Generation is undeniably a factor to consider when it comes to styles of expressing love, though the question of gender isn’t so relevant in our modern day, says Dr. Mann.
Although individuals in their late 40s and 50s are more likely to move along with the traditional gender stereotypes that advise a man to lead the way—wooing his partner with chivalry and being the first to announce his love, this isn’t so with younger generations. “Both men and women in their 20s and early 30s are more aware of their options, and may even be less likely to commit, in general. But, interestingly, studies show that men in the younger generation are able to express their emotions much more freely, as well as receive them more comfortably,” says Dr. Mann. “So, that considered, it wouldn’t at all be alarming to a male of the younger generation if his female partner said ‘I love you’ first.”
But what about when you're in a long distance relationship?
When most of your interactions take place via a messaging app, Facetime or Skype, it isn’t unusual at all for your first “I love you” to be of the digital variety. So you don’t necessarily have to wait to say it until you’re together in the flesh. But you should be aware of some potential dangers.
Long distance love "may increase your hunger for a person. It also doesn’t hurt that you’re not seeing them leave their dirty underwear on the floor,” says Dr. Mann. Still, certain long distance relationships may move at a rapid pace emotionally because there isn’t the smokescreen of physical interaction. When sex is forced to wait, more meaningful conversations are invited to enter the relationship. “I think, most significantly, if there is a truly deep connection, long distance love may develop faster than usual because the parties are forced to communicate and learn about each other beyond the surface things,” says Dr. Mann.
At the end of the day, should one statement have the power to define our romantic relationships?
Should "I love you" be upheld as the proverbial relationship “crossing over” moment? Is it genuinely a milestone that lives up to its hype? Not in a literal sense, but again, it’s important to be aware that many people will see it this way, so adjust your intentions accordingly. Because the climate may change in the aftermath of those words being exchanged—becoming one filled with expectations.
“When you move from interest, to infatuation, to love, many people start to feel a bit anxious. They may think they can’t contain their emotions for that person any longer. But you need to ask yourself if you’re prepared to follow through with loving behavior on the other side of saying those words,” says Dr. Gilliland.
...because the real work begins after—not before—"I love you" is exchanged.
We often invest inconceivable amounts of energy and strategy into searching for a soul mate. Maybe you’ve gone on a slew of clumsy Tinder dates, or allowed your mom or co-workers to play Cupid in ways that have resulted in disastrous episodes of hilarity. Or perhaps you have found the person you believe to be your shining one-and-only, and are working daily to nurture the connection between the two of you.
Berg says that while being conscious during the dawn of a relationship absolutely matters, investing in a relationship long-term is when the real work begins—after, not before, the luster has begun to fade. “It’s important to ask yourself: ‘What level of responsibility am I willing to bring to this? Because ‘I love you’ is easy to say, but harder to practice long-term,” she says. “We live in a society where love is romanticized in the movies. But the truth is that the real work—the essence of the love story— starts as soon as the movie ends.”
For more stories like this, sign up for our newsletter.
You Might Also Like