How to Know When to Say “I Love You”

It is the ultimate conundrum: You’re in love but you don’t know what to do. Being in love comes with a monstrously overwhelming impulse to share your newly realized love with the one you love. Also, the feeling of being in love is accompanied by a vulnerability and an urgent desire to hear ‘I love you back’.

But, I argue for you to hold it in, not to let it out. At the very least, take moment and think before you speak those three powerful words.

After six years, I finally said “I love you,” to my girlfriend.

We met when we were fifteen in high school English class. I was aware that she wanted to say “I love you” when we were 17. This article is not about what took me so long, or what I eventually figured out that she knew all along, but about what she did right and how her patience gave me time to foster an unwavering love that I could return to her.


Saying ‘I love you’ too early can pressure another into saying it back before they are ready.

My girlfriend never said, “I love you,” even though she wished to, for four years! She had the presence of mind to curb her impulse, because she knew saying it prematurely could trigger a response from me that wasn’t equal to her love.

I deeply cared for her, but I was a young knucklehead (at least, I was self-aware). I don’t know how I would have responded to her if she had said “I love you” when we were 17. Since it took me until I was 21 to puzzle it out, I can tell you one of two things would have happened:

  1. The relationship would have ended. I wasn’t ready for that, and, at that age especially, it would have created an awkward tension that could have eroded our relationship.
  2. I would have said “I love you” back. I cared for her greatly, so I might have said it back to not hurt her and hope, within time, I would develop a steadfast love for her. Absent of complete conviction, could I continue to say an “I love you” without it damaging the relationship? Possibly, but probably not. Love is often accused of fickleness because people say those magic words without fully meaning it.

It Shouldn’t Be a Risk

Saying “I love you” is like a marriage proposal: if your partner is surprised by the words, it’s not the right time. Both parties in a relationship need to have communicated in some way that they both love each other. Like a proposal, it determines the course of a relationship thereafter. You might consider moving in with each other, getting a pet, making career decisions, marriage, and children all have unique and different impacts on your relationship. Saying ‘I love you’ isn’t a risk without profound meaning, good or bad.

You shouldn’t put a partner in a position where he or she has to deny you. You might come up with the excuse: it doesn’t matter if the answer is “no” or “I’m not there yet”; it might seem like a harmless risk. But can you predict how they’ll feel? In terms of a proposal, I would feel horrible saying “no” to the one I love. If I wasn’t thinking about marriage naturally and instead it’s been forced on me, my denial of her proposal would pressure me to render a decision about our relationship earlier than I intended and before I could process my own feelings.

It could turn out great, but why risk it, when it can happen of its own accord in time?

Sometimes, You Just Have to Wait for Your Partner to Say it First

You’re two different people. You’ often need to arrive at conclusions individually, which will happen at separate times. Love is something that must be realized individually. If you happen to feel it first, you will have to wait, but it doesn’t mean you can’t gauge your partners’ state of mind concerning love.

My girlfriend and I had conversations about love where she indicated her feelings without cornering me with directness. You can communicate about love, without blatantly speaking those three words aloud.

Questions like: Have you ever been in love? How do you define love? How do you know? are all questions we discussed, rather obliquely in a healthy manner and without any damage to our relationship. If your partner doesn’t even want to tangentially touch on the topic, then it’s certainly not a good time to say “I love you.” Slow and steady wins this race; as maddening as it can seem.

It doesn’t feel great to wait for a relationship that moves slower than you’d like. You’re vulnerable to your partner’s whim, it seems. You can’t reason with or provide a solution to speed your partners return of love. But, when you’re in love, patience and communication with your partner will nurture an undemanding environment, which, over time, will result in a stronger, secure love for one another.

Speaking from experience on the other side, where I was the one holding up the “I love you” exchange, the knowledge that I’d hear it back when I was ready, ensured that I told her “I love you” as soon as I could (when I found out!). Due to my girlfriend’s self-restraint and fostering nature prior to my speaking the words, our love has since only grown stronger.

Nick recently moved from San Diego to Chicago. In his spare time, he power lifts, plays pool, snowboards, and hikes. A past student of philosophy, he receives greater enjoyment from literature, science fiction, and studying dead languages. Currently, he’s embarking on a career in the legal field.

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