What are the most important words you will ever utter? Some people may think I’m talking about the words: “pass the wine,” but no. I mean the words “I love you.” The words “I love you” are indeed small, but have the potential to change our lives by plunging us into endorphin-soaked happiness, or creating little earthquakes of anxiety. Anxiety can arise from hearing them from the wrong person, hearing them too soon, or not hearing them at all.
This week I’ll talk about these small but mighty words. What do they mean? Why do we say them? When should we say them?
Who says “I love you?”
Have you ever noticed that some people have a very hard time saying “I love you?” Others say them all the time. They say “I love you” to their goldfish, their friends, their parents, the brownie they are about to eat, or the guy who stops by to help with a flat tire. (For example: “Oh my God, I love you! I will never forget this. Thank you…” and more effusive expressions of gratitude.) Clearly, when someone says “I love you” to a parent or sibling it is different from addressing the good Samaritan or the longed for dessert. And then, the words spoken between lovers have even more layers. The words “I love you” can be interpreted in many different ways, and it helps to understand the context in which they are spoken.
If you know someone who does not say these words much, it does not mean that he or she does not feel love, just that the verbal expression of it is very challenging for some reason. Feelings of insecurity, fear of judgment or abandonment, or simply lack of role models who spoke words of love easily – any of these, and more, could be reasons for someone to be taciturn about feelings of love. There are many other ways to express love. Actions speak volumes, and you often know you are loved because of the many things someone does for and to you from a loving place. From back rubs to hot coffee delivered in bed, to cooking AND doing dishes … there are as many non-verbal expressions of love as there are people and kinds of love.
When to say “I love you”
One thing I do know is that there is never a bad time to speak love when it is truth. Love is energy, and it can not do harm. Admitting to feeling the great gift of love is simply putting that energy out into the world, making a gift of it to the loved person. Love does not have to be reciprocated to be real, meaningful, and healing. Love does not have to make sense, either. Say the three little but mighty words whenever you feel love. Say them for you—not because you want or need to hear them back. If you say “I love you” and hear nothing but crickets, that is okay. You have put your love into the universe as a gift.
Hearing them spoken
What about hearing the magic words? Well, when you feel the same way, they are music to your ears. When you do not feel the same way, respond honestly. Do not under any circumstances say, “I love you too” if you don’t. The pain of not hearing them spoken back hurts less than the pain of being lied to or patronized. You are doing no favors by lying about something so very important.
Who goes first?
According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,* research shows that men say “I love you” sooner than women do. Statistically, men utter the words at around the 3 month mark in a relationship. Women wait a little longer, saying “I love you” closer to five months in. There are exceptions, of course. Some people speak up much sooner, and others wait much longer.
Another interesting “I love you” statistic: men reported feeling happier if they heard the magical words before physical intimacy and women felt happier hearing them after moving the relationship to the intimate level. Women report that when a man says “I love you” before sex he comes across as less trustworthy and sincere.
Timing does not really matter except as far as your own readiness is concerned. The most important thing is to take the time to experience someone before professing your love. Time allows you to know whether what you are feeling is true love or infatuation. (For a refresher on the difference, revisit my blog on that topic, Is It Love or Infatuation)
Love is a gift. It is a joy. We all want love in our lives – we long to feel it, we want to give it, and we hope to receive it. Good luck, and love, to you.
* Ackerman, J., Griskevicius, V., & Li, N. (2011). Let’s get serious: Communicating commitment in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0022412