"The regret of my life is that I have not said 'I love you' often enough." — Yoko Ono
Hearing a partner say "I love you" for the first time is regarded as one of the highlights of a romantic relationship. However, people are often uncertain about when to declare their love, and whether to be the first to do so or to wait until the other has given an indication that they feel the same way. Is there a best time to reveal your heart? Does the timing make any difference, or all the difference?
When should you say it?
"You don't have to have a ring on your finger to say, 'I love you.'" — Tyra Banks
Romantic love expresses our genuine attitudes. Revealing our loving heart to a partner is immeasurably valuable for communication and personal flourishing. However, such self-disclosure makes you more vulnerable and may put your partner in an uncomfortable situation, especially if his or her attitude is different from yours. Consider, for example, this common (and conflicting) advice about when to tell your partner "I love you":
These examples emphasize the importance of timing. However, is timing more important than honesty and self-disclosure? More plausible advice assumes that there is no precise formula for when to say "I love you," and that you should say it whenever you feel that way, without making too many calculations about timing.
What's important in long-term love is not timing, which refers to a specific temporal point, but time. Time has a wider reference, including duration, frequency, and development. Accordingly, a few apparent mistakes along the road, stemming from bad timing or political incorrectness, will not change an entire romantic picture. It may even enhance trust and honesty between lovers. Since profound love needs time to develop, it isn't reasonable to say "I love you profoundly" after being together for just a brief time; that may indicate that you are not serious about what is in fact a serious matter. However, since love at first sight can occur, you can say "I love you" after a short time together if you are just expressing what you feel at that moment. You may add, if this is indeed the case, that you see great potential for the relationship to grow. We can perceive potential, but we cannot perceive its inevitable implementation (Ben-Ze'ev, 2014).
In profound love, it is activities, rather than words, that count most. There may be many reasons for not saying "I love you" that are not necessarily because of a lack of love. When Tevye, in "Fiddler on the Roof," asks Golde, his wife of 25 years, whether she loves him, she is surprised at the question and wonders whether he is upset or tired. “Go inside, go lie down! Maybe it’s indigestion,” she says. When Tevye insists on being answered, Golde says: “For 25 years, I've washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After 25 years, why talk about love right now?” And when he continues to insist upon receiving an explicit answer, she finally says: “I suppose I love you.”
"It's not easy to sit down and open yourself up and say, 'This is how much I love you,' you know? It's scary to do that." — Jason Isbell
When one is sincere, confessing one's love is typically not problematic. There may be a problem, though, in expecting a reciprocal answer to the declaration. This difficulty derives from two major aspects—the different paces at which love develops and the different personal tendency to reveal one's heart.
Not everyone develops love or expresses it at the same pace.
In addition, there are indications that gender differences play a part: Men tend to confess love earlier than women, and are happier than women when receiving confessions of love from a partner (Ackerman, et al., 2011). According to one survey, men take an average of 88 days to tell a partner "I love you," compared to a woman's 134. Moreover, 39 percent of men say "I love you" within the first month of dating someone, compared to just 23 percent of women.
Personality differences also cause people to fall in love at different paces. These paces do not, however, indicate differences in romantic commitment—the one who falls in love more quickly might also be the one who will more quickly fall out of love. In addition to the different paces at which love develops, there are also differences in the pace at which partners express love: Shy people tend to express love later than outspoken people, even when their level of love is similar. One shy woman told her partner, who had confessed his love to her: "Don't weigh my words now; weigh my deeds."
And she was right: Deeds speak louder than words.
In light of all these differences, one common piece of advice is that lovers should reveal their love only when the other feels the same as them and is also ready to express it. As one young woman said:
"We got married when I was 19 and I married him knowing that I didn't love him. Later on, I was discussing my ex-husband with my current husband and he asked me why I ever even told my ex that I loved him. All I could say was that he said it first and it seemed like the nice thing to say in response."
It is not part of romantic etiquette to tell someone that you love him just because he has declared his love for you. It is, in fact, probably best not to respond by saying. "I love you too," but rather to say that although right now you do not know whether you love him, you do know that you like him a lot, that you want to get to know him better, and that you want to give the relationship a chance to develop further. It does not have to be love at first sight. Another, less preferable option is to postpone discussing the issue of love and simply enjoy the (presumed) bliss of ignorance (Ben-Ze'ev, 2014).
Love does not grow at the same pace in all of us. While it is true that profound romantic flourishing involves mutual loving attitudes, this does not mean that you should hide your love just because your beloved is not (yet) as in love with you as you are with him or her. You should be honest and open about your attitude and give your partner the time he or she needs for feelings toward you to develop into profound love. The development might be gradual. It might reveal itself in "softer," more indirect expressions of love, such as calling you "My love," or saying "I send you my love," or "I love what I see in you," until, finally, the direct declaration "I love you" might be spoken.
The fact that one goes slowly does not indicate that one is not still advancing, or that one is less committed to the journey than the person who gets there faster—often, in reality, the opposite is true. We should respect different personalities and not expect our partner to feel and express the same things we do at the same time. Profound love is for the long term, and so it is possible that sometime in the future, both lovers will feel profound love and be able to reveal it. Rushing to achieve an unripe romantic profundity is often harmful—patience and calmness is the name of the game.
When should you say "You are the love of my life"?
"I love you—I am at rest with you—I have come home." — Dorothy L. Sayers
Much of the above also applies to other expressions of romantic intensity, such as "You are the love of my life" or "You are my greatest lover." Such expressions create a ranking between past and present partners, making the declaration even more complex, as it involves not merely the two lovers, but also others from the past. If, for example, you tell your partner, "You are the love of my life," you should not be insulted if he or she does not reciprocate by saying the same about you. In addition to the issue of the difference of paces at which love grows for different people, there is the problem that each case of love is different, and making comparisons between them is often impossible, or even destructive. One love affair might be very passionate, another more profound, and a third a kind of companionate love. Even if comparisons can be made, the fact that your beloved's first love, many years ago, was and remains his or her greatest love does not diminish his or her love for you—the circumstances of the relationships are different and you may encompass many good qualities that were absent in the former partner. In any case, your relationship is unique and a genuine comparison, even if it is possible, is of little value.
In light of the comparative concern involved in saying "You are the love of my life," receiving a reciprocal answer may actually take longer than in the case of "I love you." Don't hold your breath until you hear this declaration from your partner—it may take a long time. You may hear it only in the last days of his or your life, or you may not hear it at all.
In the end, it does not matter who says "I love you" first, or who says it more frequently, just as it does not matter whether you are the first or the second on your partner's romantic and sexual list. What matters is the profundity of your relationship and the way it develops. Timing and ranking are of no concern—depth and flourishing are what count. In light of the above considerations, in many circumstances an appropriate response to a declaration of love might be "I think I love you, but I can't be sure whether it is profound love until we've been together longer."
Ackerman, J. M., Griskevicius, V. & Li, N. (2011). Let's get serious: Communicating commitment in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 1079-1094.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2014). Ain't love nothing but sex misspelled? In C. Maurer, T. Milligan, and K. Pacovská (Eds.), Love and its Objects. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 25-40.