It can be so hard to say those three little words: I love you. These three tiny words have such enormous weight attached to them. And because of the significance of these words, expressing initial feelings of love to your boyfriend or girlfriend can be a daunting task. You may try to drop hints without saying those three little words, but eventually you just need to come out and say it. You know you have these feelings, but when should you share them?
I remember in middle school reading an article in a popular teen magazine that said you shouldn’t tell someone you love him or her until you had been together for at least six months. For some reason, this arbitrary number has stuck with me, even as I enter young adulthood. But, is there actually a magic time to express your love and adoration to your partner? Relationship experts across the board say no, there is no set amount of time, but rather the perfect time varies from relationship to relationship. While this may seem like unhelpful advice, there are some things you can keep in mind when deciding if you’re ready to say, ‘I love you.’
The science of falling in love
You may understand what is going on in your heart, but it is also important to understand what is going on in your body and mind when you are in love. According to Sarah Merrill, a doctoral candidate and sex and relationship researcher at Cornell University, there are two stages to falling in love: infatuation and attachment. Merrill says that when people typically refer to the feelings of having a crush or “falling in love,” they are speaking about the infatuation phase.
“[Infatuation is] characterized by intense desire and motivation to be around and think about this person. Mental preoccupation, obsession to the point where it annoys all of your friends—sometimes it is easier for other people in your life to see it,” Merrill says.
After the infatuation period, which can last anywhere from six months to two years, comes the attachment period.
“Attachment is all about understanding and having someone fulfill your expectations, but those expectations are in a parameter of ‘you make me feel safe,’” Merrill says.
Merrill also notes that attachment has four defining characteristics: separation distress (you and your partner are upset when you are apart), proximity maintenance (you and your partner want to be close to each other), safe haven (your partner makes you feel better), and secure base (your partner has your back).
According to Merrill, there are some big break-up points at around two years and four years into a relationship, but if you make it past those points your relationship can be viewed as fairly strong. So, does that mean you should wait four years to tell your partner you love them? Worry not, you can share the news much sooner!
Knowing when the time is right
Lesli Doares, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Balanced Family, says that there is no way to put a number on how long to wait to say, ‘I love you.’ Rather Doares says you need to consider what sort of feelings you are having towards your partner.
“You need to wait to see if you are in love with the real person, and not an idealized version of your partner. And knowing this depends on how aware you are of your own needs. You should evaluate whether or not your partner checks off more than just a set list of characteristics,” Doares says.
If you are considering saying ‘I love you,’ reflecting on your relationship can provide deeper insight into your relationship. So, if your partner only excites you because they meet your arbitrary requirements (i.e. a certain height, has a car, can braid hair and has Zac Efron-esque looks), you may be more in love with the idea of your partner, rather than the person your partner is.
If you have evaluated your relationship and feel confident that you are in love with your partner, there are some cues, both physical and otherwise, you can pick up that offer hints that it is the perfect time for you to share your feelings with your partner.
According to Doares, eye contact and easy physical contact are two big signs.
“Is there eye contact when you are having conversations? Are there examples of your partner stopping what they are doing to pay attention to you? Do you touch each other as a way of connection?” Doares says. “Also, focus on whether you are being invited into that person’s life—do they invite you to spend time with their friends and family?”
If you and your SO are constantly alternating between spending time with your parents and their friends, that is a major sign that your lives are meshing together. And the more involved you become in each other’s lives, the easier it may be to say ‘I love you.’
But, is there ever a time you shouldn’t say ‘I love you?’
First, you need to check in with yourself. If you are only communicating these feelings to your SO to get them to say it back, you all might not be ready to say ‘I love you.’
Remember, if something feels off, don’t rush into anything. Doares emphasizes that if you feel as though you have to say it back to your partner, or if you fear for your safety, reciprocation of feelings is not necessary.
“You really should not say it [‘I love you’] if it is a manipulation. Being coerced is never love,” Doares says.
But all in all, Doares believes that if you and your partner are committed (and have experienced some of the aforementioned cues), there is no bad time.
Alex Galli, a grad student at York University, thinks that sometimes you just have to take the plunge.
“I ended up being the one to say it because I didn’t want to hold it in any longer and I knew he felt the same. If you’re both on the same page, odds are [your SO] feels the exact same way. And what’s a relationship without taking a little risk?”
What happens next?
So, now that you are pretty sure you are in love and have worked up the courage to say those three little words, what happens next?
Well, hopefully your partner returns your feelings! If they do, that’s great. The two of you can enjoy the blissful feeling of being in love and all of the perks that come with it. But, what happens if your partner doesn’t return your feelings?
Beverly Hills matchmaker Marla Martenson says that even if your partner doesn’t reciprocate your feelings, not all hope is lost
“If you haven’t been together that long and your partner doesn’t return the sentiment, it could just be that they are trying to get to know you better,” says Martenson.
Even though it may be awkward in the face of rejection, you and your SO may be able to work past this. Continue to spend time together and see if your feelings wax or wane. Sometimes, the strongest love needs a while to develop.
What if the situation is flipped and your partner expresses feelings of love before you are ready? What should you do then?
Carole Lieberman, M.D., Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author, says that it is best to practice kindness.
“If you don’t return your partner’s feelings, it is best to be compassionate and honest,” says Lieberman. “You can say something like, ‘Oh, I hadn’t realized that you felt this way. I thought that we were just good friends.’ If you want to give the relationship a chance, now that you know how he feels, you can say, ‘Perhaps we can continue to spend time with each other and see where it takes us.”
Liz Jacobson, a junior at UW-Stout, also emphasizes that it is important to be honest.
“If you aren’t ready to say it yet, do not say it,” says Liz. “Be honest with yourself AND to your partner because it’s not fair or healthy to lie. Open communication is essential to a healthy relationship.”
As cheesy and cliché as it sounds, you are the only person who can know if it’s the right time to say ‘I love you.’ You spend the most time with your partner and are the expert when it comes to your relationship.
Anne*, a senior at American University, know this to be true.
“My advice is to wait to say it until you truly feel like it’s the right time, whatever that means to you. My boyfriend said ‘I love you’ to me for the first time before I felt ready, and even though it was a little awkward, I didn’t say it back right away. When I eventually did say it back, I think it was even more special because I knew that I really meant it and wasn’t just saying it because I felt like I had to,” says Anne.
And while it may seem silly, sometimes you just have to follow your heart.
*Name has been changed