Knowing when to say “I love you” isn’t always easy. For some people it’s a spontaneous moment, while for others saying the L word for the first time may take hours of thought and planning.
The first time you say “I love you” in a romantic relationship can feel intimidating. Is your partner going to say it back? Do you need to say the actual words? Is a couple of months of dating too soon?
Feeling this way and not being sure when it’s appropriate to say “I love you” is natural and common. But there are ways to know if you’re ready.
In general, you should wait until you feel ready and you have a sense of security in your relationship. But, there’s no timeline for saying “I love you” for the first time.
In fact, for some people, thinking about when to say “I love you” isn’t a big deal. It comes naturally and spontaneously whenever they feel they fall in love.
During a tender moment, for example, when mutual affection is palpable from both partners, saying “I love you” may roll off the tongue as easily as a “hello.”
More often, knowing when to say “I love you” goes hand-in-hand with how safe you feel in the relationship.
If you experience a sense of loyalty, commitment, and trust, you both may feel more at ease about expressing your love with words.
Feeling emotionally secure in the relationship depends on many factors, not only how long you’ve been dating. Two months may be too soon to say “I love you” for some people, while the same period of time may be perfect for other couples.
You may also want to consider checking on your own feelings. Lust and infatuation can sometimes mimic aspects of romantic love, and could lead you to say “I love you” prematurely.
How to know if you’re in love
Psychology’s popular triangular theory of love developed by Robert J. Sternberg suggests clear signs of love include:
- emotional and physical intimacy
- sense of commitment
“Attachment-based psychology adds that love is a primary bond that one person forms as a way to survive and thrive as a team, with more freedom and happiness than on our own,” says Gabriela Balsells, a couples therapist from New York.
Either partner can say “I love you” first.
If you’re feeling it and want your partner to know, it’s OK to be the one who takes the plunge.
In 2011, a study on relationship commitment among college students found most of them believed women generally say “I love you” first. However, the study also showed that in reality, men are the ones who tend to feel and say it first.
If you can tick all the check boxes on the core components of love, you may be ready to express it to your partner. However, keep in mind that love is a complex emotion and relationships are unique.
What works for some people may not work for everyone. So, consider assessing your own bond and how safe you feel saying “I love you.”
Consider these aspects:
Passion doesn’t necessarily refer to sex.
Enthusiastically sharing interests and joy in one another’s presence is a form of passion.
“Passion refers to the driver of romance. This is what makes us plan dates, woo our partner, and seek out excitement with each other,” says Elizabeth Earnshaw, a licensed marriage and family therapist out of Philadelphia.
When assessing your relationship, try to ask yourself if both you and your partner express passion for one another on a regular basis.
Intimacy in a relationship is synonymous with closeness, explains Earnshaw.
“We might feel close to the person emotionally, physically, sexually, intellectually, spiritually, or experientially,” she says.
You can experience intimacy with your partner in all of these aspects, or just in one, adds Earnshaw.
Any type of intimacy can encourage emotional availability and emotional safety in relationships, which can make you feel you’re ready to say “I love you.”
When you’re willing to work every day on maintaining love, that’s known as commitment.
“This is a choice. [It] is followed by action to be reliable […] and to continue to make decisions to benefit the relationship,” Earnshaw explains.
If you feel committed to your partner and feel they are to you, you might be ready to say the word love.
Are you scared of saying ‘I love you?’
It’s natural to hesitate about saying “I love you” for the first time in a relationship.
“Early in a relationship, admitting that you love someone can feel extremely vulnerable. Many of us are risk averse when it comes to our emotions,” explains Dr. David Helfand, a licensed clinical psychologist in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont. “It’s easier to ignore them, deny them, and especially not communicate them.”
Some reasons why you may be scared of saying “I love you” include:
Words aren’t the only way to express love. In fact, words may not even be the best way to convey strong and deep feelings.
A 2017 review on love found that small gestures and acts of kindness were considered the best indicators of love. Hand holding, hugging, cuddling, and compassion were cited as prime expressions of love.
Controlling behaviors, like possessiveness or monitoring activities, were ranked as the least loving gestures.
“Couples need to make sure they can identify and speak their partner’s love language,” says Helfand. “It’s not enough to say ‘I show my love by buying gifts.’ If your partner really needs to hear ‘I love you’ to feel loved, then you need to change your approach.”
The same reasons that can make saying “I love you” challenging for you can be factors for your partner, as well.
Abandonment fears, past traumas, fear of intimacy, and attachment styles are all key players in saying “I love you.”
If you say “I love you” and they don’t say it back, you can:
Getting angry or upset in the moment won’t change someone’s response. They may not be ready to say it but it doesn’t mean they don’t feel it or are on their way to feeling it.
Pride may hurt relationships. So, as hurt as you may feel, consider assessing the situation once you calm down.
If your partner is willing, discussing the lack of response can give you insight. They may be ready to discuss it in the moment, or you may need to give them some time.
Maybe they feel good about your relationship but are afraid because of past experiences or witnessing relationship strife between parents.
Communicating can show you ways to support your partner if love is something they’re afraid or uncertain of.
Remind yourself your feelings are valid
It’s OK to express yourself, and you did nothing wrong by being honest about your feelings.
If your partner isn’t on the same page emotionally, it can be better to know sooner rather than later.
When do you say “I love you” in a romantic relationship? The answer may be unique to your situation.
No timeline really exists. A couple of months may be enough time for you or it could be way too soon for other people. Assessing passion, intimacy, trust, and commitment in your relationship may help you determine if you’re ready to say it.