Discuss: Three Little Words Conundrum

Sep 14, 2012

Last month, a good friend broke up with her boyfriend of eleven months.  Why?  See if you can discern the reason from the following interaction.

Friend: Have fun at the game.  I love you.

Boyfriend: I know.  *door closes*

This is not the first time that his response to an “I love you” left a lot to be desired.  They had been dating for seven months before she told him that she loved him.  His response? “Me too.”  Other responses to those three little words included: “Thanks” and “Ditto” or, usually, just a peck on the cheek and awkward silence.

After a few months of this rigmarole, my friend asked a group of us what we thought she should do.  My advice?

Talk to him about it.  Ask him why he doesn’t say, “I love you.”  Maybe there’s a good reason (I couldn’t imagine what that might be, but I was willing to be surprised.)

His response to said discussion?  That over the course of his life, he only wants to say “I love you” to one woman, and he wasn’t sure that that woman was her. But he wanted to keep dating to figure out if he did or could feel that way.

Just let that sink in for a moment.

He knows that she loves him.  They’ve been dating for almost a year, and he doesn’t want to break up, but he’s not sure that he loves her, and can’t say with certainty that he ever will.

This situation (written about with IB’s permission, of course) got me thinking about saying “I love you,” reasons why we do, why we don’t, how early is too early, etc.  But the question that has been discussed most among my friends since the situation occurred has been who should say it first.  The consensus among a lot of women in their late 20s and 30s seemed to be that IB should not have said it first, because had they been dating seven, eight, nine months and he hadn’t said it, she would have realized that he didn’t feel as strongly as she did and broken up with him. 

I suppose that’s true, but in my mind, saying “I love you” is like jumping off of a cliff with a parachute that may or may not open.  You think the person will say it back.  You hope the person will say it back.  But not hearing “I love you” in return is the risk that you are running to be honest about how you feel, and maybe take your relationship to the next level.

But some people aren’t willing to take that risk.  I once dated a man who, after several months of being involved, looked deeply into my eyes and said, “Belle, do you love me?”  What a coward.  He wanted me to say it first because he felt that was my role, so he tried to goad me into it.  He wanted to be loved, but the risk was too much for him to bear.  Needless to say, we didn’t stay together long after that.

So I’m interested to hear what you ladies think about this entire conundrum.  Do you feel like the man/woman should say it first?  Have you ever said it and not heard it in return?  Do you think there is a time limit on saying it?  I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

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  1. R.L. says:

    I may get axed for saying this, but I found it endearing that your friend's bf wanted to reserve “I love you” for only one woman. Over idealized and naive, yes. But honest compared to all the tales of guys saying “I love you” for ulterior motives.

    I don't think being in a 7+ month relationship and wanting to continue it requires that a man (or woman) say “I love you” if they are unsure about it. I also don't think having been in love before lessens your love in a future relationship.

    If a man I was dating, asked me if I loved him and I did, I would still say “I love you.” If he was goading me into saying it, I'd be disappointed I fell for someone like that, but I would still say it without expectation of it being returned. (But obviously would be disappointed if it wasn't.)

    Man or woman, if you love someone you're in a relationship with, you should tell them. “I love you” should not be used as a bargaining chip in dating, which is complicated enough. Acting otherwise, reminds me of how kids behaved in high school only replace “I love you” with “I like you”.

  2. Anon says:

    Oh boy… yes, I struggle with this. My SO doesn't like saying it for two reasons: 1) he is a stoic midwesterner and 2) his parents, despite still being married, frequently fought while he was younger and were separated for a few years. Since he wasn't raised where it was commonly said, he doesn't say it often. I know he absolutely loves me (we've been through a lot, and he does say so occasionally), but Carolyn Hax would likely say that if it is something that I need from a relationship, I should find someone else who doesn't have those hangups.

    I'm still deciding if this is a dealbreaker for me.

  3. Belle says:

    Anon: I think not saying it a lot, and saying it never, are different. But that does sound rough. Good luck to you.

  4. Rachel says:

    I'm definitely an equal opportunist “I love you”er. Relationships are about honesty and vulnerability–and if you're waiting around so that he can be the first to say those three words, you're not being honest with yourself or your partner about how you feel about the relationship.

    Some people take more time than others to open up, so I'd give my partner some leeway to say it back as long as he made it clear that he was committed to the relationship and to me. But at a certain point, you have to cut the ties and find someone who is capable of loving you back.

  5. Emily says:

    I know how he feels! I decided when I was a teenager that I only wanted to say “I love you” to one person. It ended up not being to difficult since I didn't date anyone in high school (by choice but my high school had really slim pickings and I had a ton of friends and was super involved in extra curriculars so I didn't really have time) and I started dating my husband at 18 and we got married when I was 21 (so young!). We've been married a little over 3 years. When we had been dating about a year he told me that he loved me and I didn't say it back for the same reason – I wanted to be sure we were going to get married. He also told his high school sweetheart that he loved her but look how well that turned out! A month (or 2?) later I told him I loved him but only after I made him raise his right hand and swear that he wouldn't break my heart. Good gracious, I was annoying 😉 Now we are living happily ever after! so far 🙂

  6. Amanda says:

    I don't think gender matters in who should say it first. Nor could I imagine issuing a timeline, even to myself (though I'd have to agree that 11 months is probably, generally, enough time to know, and I'd be pretty disappointed if a boyfriend or girlfriend of 11 months still wasn't sure by then). But if you feel it, say it…and see what happens, regardless of your gender, or how long it has or hasn't been.

  7. lisa says:

    I told my high school boyfriend I loved him and he did not say it back. I felt like an idiot and I decided after that that I would never say it first. I was a rule for me but I don't think men have to say it first, I just didn't want to ever feel that way again. I don't think there's a time limit, but for me it's usually happened around 3-4 months after dating exclusively.

  8. J says:

    Maybe I'm in the minority about this, but I've always thought the entire 'I love you' debacle was a little overblown. I love all kinds of people- my baby sister, my best friends, the kid at the ice cream shop who gives me sprinkles for free when I come in after a long day. I tell people I love them all the time. “I'm in love with you” might give me more of a start, but just “I love you?” That's likely to pop out of my mouth when he brings me swing state exit polls at 2 am. It's good to love people, but I don't think three little words should make or break a relationship. Anyone who says they haven't been in love with someone who they didn't end up spending their life with is either lying or living a very unhappy life. If you love someone in the moment, it seems to me you should tell them so. If your willing to lose the relationship because they say 'me too' instead of 'I love you too,' then I think you should reconsider weather you're being truthful.

  9. Michelle says:

    It is strange to me that someone feels like they could only love the person they will marry. I would think dating a person for almost a year that they would be important enough to you to feel love for them, even if they aren't your perfect match. I would get rid of that guy ASAP.

  10. Belle says:

    J: “that's likely to pup out of my mouth when you bring me swing state exit polls” Classic.

  11. L says:

    To each their own, but to me refusing to acknowledge how you feel about a person because you want to say it to “only one person” feels a little juvenile and much more like a cop out. You can love many people in your life (friends, family, romantic interests) and by and large you will love more than one person you date. It helps you grow and shapes you into a better partner. I've loved a few people previous to my SO and honestly that has given me a better foundation because I'm not swept up in being “in love.” I love him more than anyone else ever, but I truly think I'm capable of that only because my past. Your friend should count her lucky stares she found this out now.

  12. D says:

    A few months ago, when my ex broke up with me after eight and a half years of dating, the last thing I said to him as he was leaving was:

    “I never told you that I loved you. But I guess that's because I knew you wouldn't say it back.”

    Feels on point here, I suppose.

  13. Amanda says:

    Oh…and I do not get this notion of only saying “I love you” to one person. Seriously? Do you not say “I love you” to both of your parents, or all of your siblings, or only your best friend? It's not like you are going to run out of love, are you? In thinking about Emily's story, above, the idea of saving 'I love you' for that super-special-someone seems like a cute and romantic notion, but a very, very youthful one.

  14. Ana says:

    I've never found the “I only want to say I love you to one person” idea very compelling. I loved my first serious boyfriend and told him so (although he did say it first), even though I knew that I might not love him forever. Most people love more than one person over the course of their lives.

    I love my current boyfriend as well, in fact, a whole lot more. I said it first, but mostly out of mercy, as he was stumbling around it and seemed completely overcome with nerves and unable to get any words out of his mouth. But in my experience, that's usually how it goes – both partners tip toe around it for a while (“I like you a lot.” “I really like you a lot.” “I'm totally falling for you.”) until you're both pretty confident of how the other feels. I wouldn't have much tolerance for a partner not reciprocating after that point.

  15. R says:

    This is actually very timely for me – I recently told my boyfriend of approximately 8 months that I loved him and he didn't say it back. Now I believe he does love me but has trouble expressing his emotions. So I'm giving it/him some time. That said, if he doesn't say it back at some point, it's something we're going to have to talk about. He's a great partner otherwise, but we're long distance so I need to hear how he feels about me, since I can't see it in his actions on a regular basis.

    I guess my takeaway is similar to someone above – some people take more time to open up and admit their feelings. (In the interests of full disclosure, I was terrified, and held it in for 2-3 months before I admitted it to him). But if hearing how someone feels about you is important to you and your SO knows that but isn't able to deliver, then they're not meeting your emotional needs and maybe the relationship needs to be reconsidered.

  16. Anonymous says:

    There's a lot going on in the dynamic of the “I love you” even though it's a simple three words. Some people don't feel comfortable saying those 3 words, no matter if the actions clearly say they love their SO. Taking this specific example, though, I don't think it should matter if the male or the female says it first, if they are sincere. Though I think traditionally some people think it should be the male to say it first. I'd say somewhere between 2 months and 1 year is hopefully when those words are first expressed. It's hard to put a timeline to it and there are many couples who are the exception. When there is genuine love between the couple, who says it first and when they say it it is less important than saying it. It should also never be said in a moment of manipulation, as it then has no authentic meaning.

    I think what Belle's friend might have done differently is not to keep pushing the “ILY” on the BF. I wonder if she did that hoping to finally elicit the response that she was hoping for in the first place. Belle's friend could have said it the first time and then not said it again and waited for BF to say it when he felt it. BF's response that “he knows” says that GF said it frequently enough, which may have put pressure on the BF to say or feel something he wasn't or wasn't yet. I think a lot of guys (and gals) are afraid to say ILY when they don't feel it/feel it yet. That's probably a good thing. It shows they have integrity. Truthfully, it should tell the SO exactly how the person feels about them–they like them, etc. but haven't arrived at the ILY feeling. I think that is the bottom line here.

  17. k says:

    J – To reframe your question – I think she's dumping him because she's more sure of the relationship than he is, and has doubts about his committment. Him not saying it seems to be a symptom of the cause, not the cause itself. If he was otherwise very devoted and there was a lot of potential – I bet she'd feel secure enough in the good possiblity of a future that she wouldn't have those doubts.

  18. Olivia says:

    I don't think it matters who says it first. As a woman, I've actually been the first one to say “I love you” a couple times, and while I would have preferred for the guy to say it first, I'm impatient and could not keep my feelings bottled up anymore (this was a the 2 month and 4 months, so the guys weren't hemming and hawing, I am just seriously impatient.)

    Belle, in your friend's case, I'd say it matters more about the other factors in the relationship. It sounds like this guy associated saying “I love you” with marriage. And while I don't have that same opinion, it does not mean there isn't merit to that view. So if the guy was incredibly committed, caring, and emotionally available otherwise, it probably would not have been a dealbreaker. But since the guy had to be prodded to give up his feelings on love, he doesn't seem like such a winner.

  19. SarahT says:

    Wow…this is a pretty heavy subject. In my current relationship (of 3+ years), I really enjoy telling my bf that I love him and he says it frequently as well. However, our “I love you” runs the gamut from the light-hearted “Love you! Have a good day!” to the intense “I can't believe I'm so lucky to have fallen in love with such an amazing person.” That said, we are both firm believers that actions speak louder than words. Yes we say it, but the caring, thoughtful, passionate way we are toward each other speaks volumes compared to just three little words. Also, as J said, there are all kinds of love and I personally would rather hear “I'm so in love with you” than just “I love you.”

  20. PamelaSC1966 says:

    It is always safer to have the man say it first. You want a guy whose heart is really in the relationship. If he is really emotionally invested, he's going to do what it takes to make sure he gets what he wants. Most of them are not shy when it comes to this – and it usually doesn't take that long. It's simply how guys work. If, on the other hand, you say the words first, perhaps you beat him to the punch (if so, lucky you!), or, (perhaps just as likely), you put it out there, and while he's happy enough to be along for the ride, he's not feeling it like you are. It's the chance you take.

  21. Belle says:

    k: Absolutely symptom and cause, but “I love you” was certainly the canary in the coal mine.

  22. Leigh says:

    Interesting ideas so far.

    My husband said “I love you” first, and very rarely said it after that. When I asked him if he still loved me when we were going through some rough spots, he said “Of course!” I then asked why he didn't express it, and he said this: “I said it to you once. It hasn't changed, why would I continue to say something that is the same? If it changes, I'll tell you when it does.”

    Made sense to me, though I explained it was important for me to hear it, so he says it now.

    I'm also one who thought saying “I love you” was special, until I grew up. (Not insinuating anything here to people who feel otherwise) When I was younger, I fell in love with a guy who was totally wrong for me. Almost married him, and then some things happened and we separated. I've never been so thankful in my life. I told that guy I loved him, because I did, but now I realize that love can be shared with multiple people, and it's different with each one.

    I love my husband far more than the first guy, and he loves me back. We're good for each other, etc. etc. In your friend's case, I am inclined to think that he was comfortable in the relationship, didn't love her, and used his “I only want to say I love you to one woman” as an excuse to stay in a comfort zone but not commit further.

    I have learned this though: love will take you far, but commitment will take you farther.

  23. Sally says:

    Loving someone is a choice, and I have chosen to love more than once. I think withholding an “I love you” is a weird emotional game and I can't relate.

    I had a girlfriend in college who, after 2 years of our dating, was “still deciding if [she] loved [me].” It was like dangling a carrot in front of me, that if I just tried a little harder I might win her love. That was cruel, and if I had had more self esteem I would have dumped her ass long before.

  24. Meg says:

    I think deciding to only say “I Love You” to only one person is both unrealistic and selfish, and surprisingly, I've had two good friends who've also been in this situation. It's not realistic because language is limited and people use love to express a gamut of emotions. Like many posters have said, I love everything from my new apartment, to my dog, to my new online shopping purchase. But that love doesn't match the love I have for my parents, my family and my boyfriend. In all reality, he's not saving the L word for one girl because he's likely already used it about pizza or a winning game. So because of that, I think it's selfish. I think it's selfish because it's not fair to the S.O. You know if you love someone or not. If you don't love them, stop wasting their time. And if you do, why would you want them to anguish over it? And I totally get being scared by ILY after a few months of dating or just not being quite sure if it's love you're feeling, but that's different than having an anti ILY policy.

  25. Sally says:

    One more thing:

    My now-husband told me he loved me first after we'd been dating about 6 weeks. We must have said “I love you” two hundred times that night. Four years later, we still tell each other half a dozen times a day (and we MEAN it! It's not just a telephone sign off.). It is awesome to have a partner who gives affection freely, both in action and words.

  26. CE says:

    That makes me sad for your friend. I'm gay so I don't really have much of an option on whether the man or woman should say it first, but I would have real trouble being with someone who couldn't say it at all. My girlfriend and I say “I love you” probably half a dozen times a day, and started probably a couple of months after we got together. It's been six years now, and we show love to each other as well, but I never get sick of hearing it. A good relationship, one that lets you be your best self, should feel safe and comfortable, and that means vulnerability and honesty. Opening up to someone who can't or won't reciprocate seems miserable – you're essentially laying your heart bare to someone who looks at it and thinks, “…eh.”

    The idea of only saying “I love you” to one person sounds very small and mean to me, and a little naive. For sure, I would have trouble being with someone who refused to decide whether I was worth hearing that I was loved. I think your friend made the right call breaking up with that guy, and hope she finds someone better for her soon.

  27. A says:

    I don't think I've ever even heard of this concept of only saying “I love you” to one person…that is the most bizarre thing. How can you spend A YEAR with someone and not care that way about them…what are they just a friend?? I love my good friends and my family, a SO is no different. If you'll unselfishly sacrifice do something to help someone in need that's love – whether you admit it to yourself or not.

    I usually don't say it first, but I have once, when I was reasonably sure I knew what his answer would be. For whatever its worth, part of me doesn't fully love someone until I'm fairly certain they feel the same. And all the times the first I love you has been exchanged were within 2-4 months.

  28. Gabriela says:

    I have to ask, is this couple having sex? It just seems weird to me that he says he can't SAY “I love you” to more than one person, but he can presumably DO the act of love with multiple people. (Not saying that you have to be in love to have sex, that's a pretty personal decision, but if you take saying it that seriously, I presume sex would be a significant topic as well.)

    That said though, I think a lot of people have issues with saying “I love you.” In my last relationship I was the first to say it, and while he said it back, I don't think he said it unsolicited one time in our relationship. When we broke up, he told me that he wasn't sure if he actually DID ever love me, which I think has in turn made me kind of weird about saying it in the future. It's a sticky subject that I think can have a lot of contributing factors, not necessarily related to one's current significant other.

  29. Emme Gee says:

    He sounds emotionally immature and not ready for a serious relationship. If he can't see that he's making his GF feel bad because he wants to save his ILYs until he's “ready” to claim her as his one and only (which seems like a cop-out), then he's not going to be a good life partner.

    I mean, can you imagine this kind of guy with potential future kids with this woman? I think she needs to ask herself if she would want kids to be treated in this emotionally distant and selfish way.

  30. MM says:

    I'm not usually one to get too hung up on traditional gender roles (any my current relationship generally illustrated this) but in the case of “I love you” it's one where I would/have left it up to the man to declare that level of affection. I think in general it takes “more” for a man to get to that point emotionally where women tend to be more expressive anyway so as long as one is getting what they need from the relationship, what's the harm in waiting for the words?

    I distinctly remember the moment where my current SO declared this (years ago) and knowing now what I didn't know then…this was BIG DEAL for him. Not because he was saving it or anything, but he's generally not the most emotionally expressive and this was an important step taken and initiated by him. I think if I had let me emotions “go” and said it first our relationship it may have changed the tone of our entire relationship.

  31. Shannon says:

    I think the idea of saying “I love you” to just one person, your forever ever spouse, is rigid, naive, and absurd. It seems like he can't deal with the fact that life is messy, and that sometimes even if you love someone that doesn't mean you'll love them forever.

    My guess is that he sees himself as the romantic hero of some novel that's being written in his head, and he can't deal with things that don't go according to the plot he's mapped out.

  32. JMK0316 says:

    Personally, I generally feel the man should say, “I love you,” first. But I'm old-fashioned. I want men to ask me out first, and initiate the first date kiss, and call first after said date. It's just how I feel. Maybe all this is because I'm too scared to go out on the limb alone and have it cut out from under me. I will say that when I was in a relationship and wanted to say, “I love you,” to my then-boyfriend, I didn't, because I felt there was no assurance he would say it back, or even that my saying it (and his not) wouldn't end our relationship. So I spent months (until the eventual end of our relationship) not saying it, and holding uncountable other things in as well. I was miserable. So I guess my evolved, informed opinion is that you should tell your partner you love him/her as soon as you find the words escaping your mouth with enough confidence that you aren't afraid of what will or won't happen in the ten seconds following.

  33. CLR says:

    I couldn't read through all of the responses before posting this one for I'd lose my thought….so, here's my thought…..
    You don't say “I love you” to HEAR 'I Love You'. You say it because that's how you feel about the other person.
    I don't think that his lack of saying it (just because she's said it a time a two…or three) should be a reason to call it quits. If she enjoys him, he enjoys her then they should go with the flow. His lack of saying it, to me, doesn't represent that he doesn't or that he won't – uuumm, eventually, I guess…

  34. Kristen says:

    I have never heard of the concept of waiting until you know that person is your one and only to say “I love you.” It just seems insane to me, and very much along the lines of waiting until your wedding to kiss–I mean really, what's the point? That said, I have never said “I love you” first–perhaps because I agree with MM and think it takes more for a man to express his emotions and also because I am pretty shy and introverted. My boyfriend told me he loved me after we had only been together a matter of weeks, and I was so glad because I had fallen in love with him quite quickly too. But, I can only remember one or two instances where I wanted to say it to him before that and held back. It was more thoughts of “oh my goodness I am so in love with him already” than anything else. I suppose it just depends upon the couple, but if I was your friend, this would be a deal-breaker.

  35. Kate says:

    Let's be honest – whether you say it or don't say it you're going to feel the way you feel about someone. If your friend hadn't said those words, would she somehow feel better about the breakup than she does now? People play all sorts of games to try to avoid the hurt that comes with breaking up with someone, or being dumped, etc. but most of the time these games just make everything worse. Be open, be honest, and use your words to communicate what you feel, when you feel it, like a grownup.

    I also agree that every relationship helps you grow and learn more about yourself and what you want, even if it doesn't last, so why hold back in any of them?

    I think the worst part of your friends' story is not that the BF had trouble saying those words, but as another poster said, that he was stringing her along while he decided if he wanted to marry her or not and dangling those words over her head like some sort of prize. That's very different than saying something like “i care about you so much, but i'm not ready to say that yet.”

  36. Caroline says:

    He's overthinking this way too much… which makes me wonder what else in the relationship he's over-analyzing. And he's putting his silly ideals about three silly words over his partner's comfort, which is not cool. His actions should speak louder than his words, but I would still find this troubling.

  37. Jamie says:

    This is somewhat timely as I was just talking to my roommate about saying “I love you” last night. My boyfriend and I say it all the time, and we mean it all the time. I'm crazy in love with him, and tell him all the time. We've even talked about whether we say it too much we both agreed that we like saying it and hearing it so there was no reason to say it less. But my roommate was saying that he thinks it means less if you say it all the time. That only saying it sometimes makes it more special. But he has also admitted that he grew up in a family that wasn't very affectionate, which might have something to do with it. My family says I love you all the time. Because we do. And I will always say I love you after a fight (boyfriend, mom, whatever) because I think it's important to remember that.

  38. SK says:

    Sorry, but he's not holding back because he only wants to say it to one person. He isn't in love with her, and this is the kindest way he can make himself not look like a total jerk by staying with her and not saying it back, because he probably does care about her a lot.

    I do sympathize though. My ex did a similar thing to me about getting engaged. We had a solid 6-8 months out of our two year relationship where “he just wasn't sure” if I was “the one”, but begged me for more time and not leave while he figured it out. It didn't end well, to say the least. It was painful and awful, but looking back, I'm so thankful it happened the way it did. I am upset at myself that I put up with it for as long as I did though. I should of walked the first time he “wasn't sure.”

  39. Spiritmom says:

    My husband was one of the ones who only wanted to say I love you to one person. We dated for 4 years and it was maddening! I just hated it. I loved him so much but rarely said it because he wouldn't say it back. He was so kind and respectful to me but I still felt unloved. I will not tell our sons his dumb way of doing things because I don't want them to lose a wonderful girl over those three words! Can you tell it still bothers me after 17 years of marriage? For the record, he tells me a jillion times a day now. Our first few months of marriage he would wake me up in the middle of the night to say how much he loved me. And the funny thing is, when I tell him how lucky he is I didn't bolt during our dating years, he agrees and gets a nervous look on his face. He still says “I was so stupid to wait that long to propose.” Yes, mister, you were!

  40. Danielle says:

    This is just my opinion, but I think the whole 'I'm only going to say 'I love you' to one person ever,” line is either just BS or incredibly immature. Basically, he is withholding from your friend and hurting her in the process. I'd break up with him (baring some deep, emotional reason for not saying it, which has been ruled out).

    For reference, I've been with my BF 8 years now and was the first to say it after about 2 months of dating. I do think that was likely a bit early, but it was something we both felt so it worked out.

  41. Karen says:

    In my first serious relationship, we said it after two weeks and meant it for a long time, until we got older and grew apart (which can happen from 20-26 years old). He said it first.

    I said it after two months to my fiance. He said it back and I found out that he had never said it to another girl. Honestly, it makes me feel a little special that I'm the only one who he'll ever say it to (assuming I don't die or something).

    As for your friend and her boyfriend…it seems like he associates “I love you” with a permanent committment. Would she be as upset if he wanted to remain a virgin until marriage? He's not ready to say it and she is fully within her rights to make this a dealbreaker, but if everything is perfect besides that I'd let it go for a while. If this is showing her some serious problems in the relationship itself, she should break up with him.

  42. Jess says:

    My husband also wanted to only say I love you to one person- when he knew he was going to marry that person. For him it was strongly tied to the idea of marriage. And when he spent so much time trying to over-analyze whether that person was me without really trying to get to know me first, we ended up breaking up for awhile. Cue best friend who happens to be a boy and that didn't sit well with him, made him realize that you can't decide if you are going to marry someone without getting to know them. Point is, it's not super rare to hear of someone trying to save that phrase for marriage. However, he said it to me about 3 months after dating. And I would have to agree with someone else who commented that if he hasn't said it by now after a year, it is probably not coming because chances are he isn't in love with her, or has serious doubts about something particular to her.

  43. Jill says:

    Although I've heard & said “I love you” from my past boyfriends, my current relationship truly taught me that it doesn't matter who says it first. If you're not a good match, saying “I love you” first or second probably won't make any difference in the outcome of your relationship. For example, my current BF said “I love you” one night as he was drifting off to sleep. The next night, I drunkenly said “I love you, and I don't care if you think it's too early to say it because YOU said it first! So there, I love you!!!” Of course he had no recollection of the first time he said it, but it was one hell of an icebreaker for the convo. And here we are 3 years later, saying it more often than any two people probably should. When it's right, it's right.

  44. sexist?sure says:

    my mom has always told me that relationships will never work if the woman loves the man more than he loves her, and that the man should always love the woman more than she loves him (i always argued it should be equal and she always said sure, but all the same, if someones going to love more, should be the man. something about infidelity)

    as much as i have always felt my mom was being unfair, as i've watched more and more relationships with my friends i feel like she may be right, and for that reason think it might be best if the man says if first (or you say it at the same time).

  45. JKC says:

    I don't think it matters on who says it first or if there's a time limit. For me it's a gut feeling. You say it when you're ready. If it's not reciprocated, then there needs to be a talk why.

    I said it first to my husband after a year and a half dating. We had just started a long distance relationship, and it was his first time to visit me. At this point, I believed that we were secure in our relationship even with the burden of long distance, and that I truly loved him. So as he was leaving from the airport, I told him that I loved him. He said, “me too.”

    I cried all the way home. When I got back, there was a wonderful email explaining that he loved me, but couldn't get the words out. (I know, love via email? But the confirmation is what I needed.) We ended up talking about “love” in conversations about everything and anything, and by the time I visited him, he gave me a big “I love you.”

    And it hasn't stopped since.

    I think there's always a fear of an “I love you” not being returned. However, if that's how you feel, that's how you feel. You can't stop that.

  46. BlueFish says:

    I would have been more upset that he closed the door in my face after hearing “I love you”- so disrespectful and cowardly. He did your friend a favor. This man clearly has communication problems and used your friend, stringing her along while he “figured things out.” In these situations, I usually suggest to my friends to cut their losses and move on because he doesn't need to be with you to “figure things out.” In fact, he probably needs to see what it's like being without you. I have seen so many friends in this situation – spending time with a guy who wants all the benefits of a committed long-term relationship with none of the emotional investment. It's not worth it.

    I've never heard of this “who says it first” dilemma. Wouldn't it depend on the relationship, the person, and his/her communication style? I have felt loved by people who have never once said it to me and it doesn't diminish my feelings for them. I accept it as it not being their way of showing affection – if they show it in other ways I'm happy. It sounds corny, but Gary Chapman's Love Languages book is really helpful in determining how different people show and feel love.

  47. Mair says:

    In response to the commenter who was wondering if you can say it too much and it will lose meaning. In my relationship we say I love you all the time as a sort of throw away 'bye, love you, have a good day' but every once in while my boyfriend will turn to me and say 'I love you so much (my full name including middle name)' or 'I will love you always' and it feels totally different than the regular I love you's like he was actually thinking 'that lady, I love her so much, better make sure she knows I really mean it'.

    As an aside, when he first said 'I love you' my answer was 'I know' which I followed quickly with an I love you back. I think it's best thing someone can say to you when you say 'I love you' because actions should be bigger than the words. Obviously the problem was that your friend in the story didn't know that she was loved (or wasn't, more likely) so the words became very important.

  48. Rebecca says:

    Personally my limit is 6 months. I think after that period of time you should know how you feel about someone. And if you don't know if you love them… then you probably don't love them. I never say it first, but if someone I've been dating for 6 months hasn't said it yet, I would have to address the issue with them. And if they “don't know” that's a deal breaker. I'm not wasting more than 6 months on someone who can't love me back.

  49. Valerie says:

    I broke up with a guy after 2 years for exactly this situation. I was the one putting it all out there – I told him I loved him regularly, he never did. Finally, I told him that obviously this wasn't going anywhere and moved on – he basically said “OK.” If that doesn't tell the story, I don't know what does.

    I don't think there should be a rule about who says it first. No matter who it is, they are taking a risk and that's something that each person has to decide for him or herself, as to whether they want to do it or not. But we all need to be realistic and act accordingly if we're not getting reciprocation.

    Only you can decide if you're willing to continue in that situation. I wasn't. I'm now with a guy who readily says he loves me – we've been together 8 1/2 years.

  50. mishshel says:

    I'm in agreement with Leigh regarding commitment vs love. My husband and I have been married for 13 years now and (honestly) sometimes he drives me nuts. Sometimes I want to call it quits or say something really unkind. But I chose this wonderful, creative, off the wall person to spend my life with and what he does means a lot more than what he says. It's the old “actions speak louder than words” thing. He demonstrates his love over and over again even if it's not voiced every day. I hope this helps!

  51. julie says:

    “I'm definitely an equal opportunist “I love you”er. Relationships are about honesty and vulnerability–and if you're waiting around so that he can be the first to say those three words, you're not being honest with yourself or your partner about how you feel about the relationship.

    Some people take more time than others to open up, so I'd give my partner some leeway to say it back as long as he made it clear that he was committed to the relationship and to me. But at a certain point, you have to cut the ties and find someone who is capable of loving you back.”

    I totally agree with this.

    I said I love you to my boyfriend first and he didn't say it back. We had been dating for 7 months and I had felt it sooner but held back. When he didn't answer I got a little freaked out, but he explained to me how he had been so hurt in the past (cheated on by his first love/live in GF) that it was scary for him to say it. I knew he loved me by the way he treated me, so I stayed with him (never even thought of leaving – but I was afraid he'd never say it) and on our one year anniversary he finally said it. Now he says it all the time.

  52. Honey says:

    Wow. Great post and great questions!

    First, let me say that I don't think anyone should judge this guy for not saying I love you. I applaud him for not saying it just because its the expected response, when he isn't certain if he feels that way. Too often those three precious words are overused and meaninglessly tossed out and into someone's heart. As hard as it is to not get the response you want to hear, its equally difficult for most people to NOT say that, knowing that their S.O. is laying themselves out and desperately wanting to hear it back (speaking from experience).

    With that said, I think his reasoning is a little… archaic? Immature? I'm not sure, but I don't like it. You can love more than one person in a lifetime. Love, and your perception of it, changes as you age and gain life experience. It seems as if, by trying to preserve the meaning of his love, he's placing unrealistic limitations on it. Should she stay with him? It depends on if she's willing to wait. From the interaction described above, it sounds like they are able to communicate about this. Maybe its just a matter of time. Maybe he'll never say it. No one knows.

    Generally speaking, I don't think that men or women should feel obligated to say it first just because of their gender. As a woman, I often fall into the mindset of “I want him to say it first so I know its true.” See my comment above re: meaningless words. But, like you say, if you love someone and want to take the next step in your relationship, you must be willing to overcome your fear and make that leap.

  53. Belle says:

    Honey: Part of the issue is that, the first time she said it, he said Me Too. Then only weeks later he explained that he felt this way about saying I love you.

    If he had said that from the start, then she probably would have been less put off.

  54. Amy says:

    First of all, I'm really sorry your friend got Han Solo'd. Perhaps I'm just a geek, but whenever I hear about men doing that I think of the scene in Star Wars where Han says “I know” in response to Leia's “I love you!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO-KR-14uXM

    I can understand his hang-up about using the L word, but usually you try to express some level of agreement about feelings. This sounds far too similar to a situation a friend of mine was in, and she stayed with the guy after he said he wanted to stay with her but wasn't sure if he'd “ever love her.” She was miserable, and eventually ended it. I know I waited in my most recent relationship to say it (after 6 months) when I knew my boyfriend felt similarly. Turns out he had been waiting also, but the two of us were too scared to just say the words.

    The fact that your friend's ex only thinks he will ever love one woman is a bit terrifying, as it seems like he's got unreasonably high expectations for what love is supposed to look like. It's a cliche, but she deserves better.

  55. CynthiaW says:

    I don't know if this is the case with this particular man, but a lot of men have difficulty expressing their feelings and it doesn't mean that they don't feel them.

    Maybe it's at least partially a generational thing, but my husband grew up with your classic uncomminicative father – I don't think that he's ever told him that he was proud of him or that he loved him. The last time we went to visit his parents, his dad couldn't even be bothered to stop watching television and get out of his chair to greet my husband after we had driven 16 hours to be there. As a consequence, feelings and expressing them are difficult things for him – and he isn't the only man out there who was raised that way or told that feelings were “for girls.”

    I told him that I loved him after we'd been together for 7 months and his response was to freeze like a deer in the headlights and then choke out “happy birthday” in response. It was cringeworthy, but also a bit comical. I just didn't say it again – 6 months later, I went home to visit my grandparents for a week and he realized that he missed me so much, he must be in love with me and he blurted it out as soon as he saw me again.

    If I had pushed him, we wouldn't have been together for the last 18 years and married for 13. He still isn't the type of person to say “I love you” at the drop of a hat – but he feels it. Truly and deeply – and I know that with every fiber of my being. He shows it in the way he takes care of me and looks out for me – and when he says it, he really means it.

    I've had boyfriends who said it constantly and didn't show it with their actions at all. This guy's attitude doesn't sound like it's necessarily the case – it could be that he's trying to let her down gently or he could be a jerk, I don't know.

    However, to make blanket statements that anyone who doesn't say it frequently or can't say it back after 6 months needs to go doesn't take into account the vast differences in the human condition. And for the record, I don't think that's what Belle was implying – just some of the commenters.

  56. K... says:

    It's clear this guy doesn't know what love is… that love is unconditional and can't be held for ransom until he's certain that she's the one and will love him back and marry him and live happily ever after forever and ever.

    He needs to get his heart broken. Dumping him was the right thing. Who knows, it may be tough lesson he needs.

  57. ym says:

    I don't remember who said it first in any of my relationships. Although I'm pretty sure all of the first “I love you's” were spoken during sex…

  58. K says:

    I grew up in a family that expresses 0 emotion, as in we do not even hug. So actually having to talk about my feelings makes me super uncomfortable. I was with my boyfriend for about two years before I finally said it back to him – however he was never too hung up about it because while I struggled to express my emotions I would show them in other ways. He said he knew I loved him despite my inability to share. Perhaps your friend didn't feel very secure in the relationship in general otherwise it would not be as big of an issue?

    Also as for who should say it first (and obviously I am still working on this myself) if you feel it you should say it – life is too short not to.

  59. Anon says:

    I've been in this situation only twice, but it's been completely different both times.

    1. I dated a guy in college who refused to say I love you, which after two years of dating kind of hurt. I had said it once or twice mistakenly (or drunkenly). I didn't want to pressure him into having to say it. His reason was he never wanted to get married he wanted the 10 year-domestic marriage thing. We broke up when I graduated and moved to DC. Within a year he was married. – It shocked the hell out of me but perhaps it goes to show nothing is absolute and people change. Or it's just a When Harry Met Sally Moment – he just didn't want to marry me.

    2. I've been with my current boyfriend for a little less than 2 years and he said I love you first after only 3 months of dating – AND a one month hiatus. It really through me off and I couldn't say it back right away. That made me feel awful. Later that day I said it back to him and to be honest it wasn't true at that moment. Since then yes, I have fallen in love with him.

    This has been very cathartic lol. On the whole I think women are more prepared to say I love you than men. But I will say that being rejected in that way (someone not returning your specific feeling of love) can really hurt you for the next relationship.

  60. gingerr says:

    People have different levels of emotiveness. I can respect the fellow for not wanting to get all “lovey” until he was sure. If friend is more emotive and wants to say the “l” word more readily then maybe it's good they split. They weren't on the same emotive level.

    My Grandmother once told me that you needed to know someone at least two years before you married them. She was pretty emotive so it's not like she was coming from a frozen place.

    If former-boyfriends lack of loveiness was a deal killer for friend then it's good they broke up. If she really cared for him and is distressed maybe she should reconsider. According to my Granny a year isn't long enough to be making those decisions.

  61. Kat says:

    I am only perfectly certain about one thing with respect to saying “I love you”: if you feel it about someone who is in your life, tell that person. Let go of the rules. Let go of the fear. Just say it. Life really is too short to do otherwise.

  62. Belle says:

    RL: Like I said, if he had been up front about it from the beginning, it would be a different story. And while I don't subscribe nor agree with that pov, it is better than the alternative. But if you go two-three months with the other person saying I love you, and you saying Ditto, instead of being honest about how you feel, then you have a serious issue.

  63. eb says:

    This is such an interesting discussion. I was recently reading Cheryl Strayed's new book (Tiny Beautiful Things) which is a compilation of her advice column – highly recommended btw — and she wrote something that struck me: that saying or not saying “i love you” does not ultimately matter, and if one is avoiding saying “i love you”, often in order to remain free of some sort of responsibility or commitment to the person they are with, they are fooling themselves, because ultimately, it's the actions we take that define our commitments to those we love, rather than those words in and of themselves. In any case, she words all this with much more clarity and beauty than me, but I think her basic point rings true – that action matter so much more than these three words.

    I feel that this played out in my current and most serious relationship to date (of several years). We initially said “I love you” much too soon, and this created a lot of angst when (for a multitude of reasons) we broke things off for a brief time. Once we got back together, we avoided it like the plague for a while – but in retrospect, this seemed somewhat silly. In any case, by the time we were at the point where we were ready to use those words again, we both deeply meant it, and it was already obvious in all other aspects of our relationship.

  64. Phoebe says:

    I've only said I love you to one person, who I've been dating for nearly 5 years now. However, I think it's silly to hold out on saying I love you because you only want to say it to one person. You either feel it or you don't. I think people are capable of loving more than one significant other in their lifetime, if that's the way life goes. I certainly would want that to be the case in the unfortunate event of losing a spouse from death/illness or divorce.

    I said I love you first, and my boyfriend did not say it back to me for months. But you can tell if someone is committed in a relationship. You can tell if they express love through actions, not just words. I don't think you should ever dismiss someone solely because they aren't able to say I love you just yet. But if they can't say it OR show it, that's where it becomes a problem.

  65. Annie says:

    Having never said it (yet), I've found that the person saying it speaks a lot more about their personality and past than just the three little words. Some people saying it a lot, some people only once, some people attach tons of value to it and some people become 'i love you sl**s'.
    Personally, if I choose not to say it and my partner doesn't understand me and my reasons well enough to accept it, we might be saying 'goodbye' soon.

  66. Anon says:

    Your friend is absolutely right to dump this guy. His responses are straight out of a game handbook. He sounds like he was comfortable taking in the relationship (sex, emotional support, etc) but in the back of his mind he still thinks he can do better. It's lazy, selfish, and cowardly to string along your friend like that without making the decision to either try to find “the one” he claims to be seeking or commit to your friend. He is doing neither. It should be obvious after one year what his true feelings are. She can do so much better! Kudos to her for having these conversations with him, as it can be really hard to acknowledge the truth when you are hopeful and in love.

  67. b says:

    I think me and my now husband have one of the worst ever “I love you” stories. We dated for a couple of years and never said it. Then when we started talking about getting married, I finally got up the guts to bring it up and he said, “I think I love you.” We went through a really, really rocky patch after that and that came very close to being the end for us. But for reasons I still don't quite understand (divine intervention?), we pushed through and got married. I still get mad about that whole thing sometimes and if I bring it up (which I know I should stop doing) my husband shows genuine remorse and begs me to forgive him. He insists that he was just terrified by the whole love and marriage thing.

    In any event, he is sweet, doting, loving and not in the slightest withholding three years into our marriage. He now tells me he loves me at least every time we part and every night when we go to bed. I have no regrets.

    My point is, we do not live in scripted romantic comedies so there may be room for flexibility on the “rules” of dating and milestones such as “I love you.”

  68. an says:

    A guy once told me “I don't love you” after six months of dating. Nevermind that I hadn't said it to him either and it was completely unnecessary. Needless to say, we broke up, but I kind of wished I had walked out right then. In hindsight, it seems needlessly cruel.

    Ah, dating.

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