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“I Have Feelings for You,” Its Eight Different Meanings

This declaration of love has shades of meaning—and intention—very few realize.

Key points

  • Saying "I have feelings for you" could be a way to protect oneself from saying "love," in case the feeling isn't returned.
  • "Having feelings" for someone may simply express a strong liking—a feeling of tenderness rather than being turned on.
  • "I have feelings for you" can be some people's lead-in for sex, and may not be truthful.
Alexas Fotos/Pixabay--CCO Public Domain
Source: Alexas Fotos/Pixabay--CCO Public Domain

Could there be any expression—on the surface, at least—more ambiguous than “I have feelings for you”? After all, there are literally hundreds of feelings that, supposedly, this statement might allude to.

Still, virtually all of us would agree that such an emotional declaration routinely implies fervid feelings of love. Unless it doesn’t. Before writing this post, I explored several Internet forums on this topic so I could examine what different respondents had to say about the meaning of this poignant expression. And the results of my informal “field study” turned out to be a lot less predictable—and far more suggestive—than I’d anticipated.

The various answers to this query fell into eight categories. A brief digest of the miscellaneous meanings—and intentions—attributed to this popular, yet multi-layered expression.

1. Your friendship has blossomed into love. Several discussants claimed that the true intentions of the speaker were not always easy to grasp—as in, Is it love, or merely (or mostly) lust? But the consensus was that anyone uttering this line was expressing the desire (see Quora) “to deepen the relationship’s intimacy . . . to find a way to become more . . . meaningfully engaged emotionally, as well as physically.” And doubtless, this is how the expression is most commonly used.

What the words imply is a growing emotional attachment—a caring and concern transcending the (less complicated) friendship that the individual experienced before being overtaken by feelings considerably stronger, and unsettling. More than one commenter has sought to distinguish “I like you” from “I have feelings for you.” And what they sought to clarify was that “like” implies enjoying the other’s company or sharing common interests.

In distinct contrast, the expression “I have feelings . . .” implies a deeper attraction characterized by more serious—and intense—romantic feelings. A slightly different way of describing this is that the person confessing these feelings has moved from what was previously felt as platonic to something much more compellingly romantic.

geralt/Pixabay--CCO Public Domain
Source: geralt/Pixabay--CCO Public Domain

One of my favorite quotes portraying this most tender and amorous definition of “I have feelings . . .” is from Jeremy Taylor, who reflects: “Love is friendship set on fire,” which suggests how a relationship can "spark" from tame to torrid.

2. You’re inviting your now beloved to have a romantic relationship with you. This closely related meaning of the expression might take the form of “Hey! I really like you, and I’d like us to start dating. Are you interested?” In this situation, you’re not simply confessing your tender sentiments, you’re proposing—however indirectly—that the object of your affection return your burgeoning feelings.

Here you’re wanting to cultivate a more romantic union with the one who’s captured your heart. As another respondent on Quora suggested, you “might be mentioning it to gauge [their] reaction” and, based on whether they seem interested, attempt to pursue an expanded relationship with them. Your attraction could be predominantly romantic, or physical, but your implicit objective is to find out whether progressing to a more “embracing” relationship might be mutually desired.

It might be added that the connection between you and the person you’re now enamored with might originally have been of the “friends with benefits” variety. In this instance, the growth of what started out as casual sex may have intensified to the point that one or both of you now experience a more abounding passion.

As a result of such a development, two scenarios could arise. Either the friendship mutates into love, or the sex becomes far more heated. As described by a contributor to urbandictionary:

a. guy: I have feelings for you.

girl: I have feelings for you too! let’s date.

They live happily ever after [the ideal—or idealized—conclusion].

b. guy with benefits: you aren’t just a booty call anymore . . . I have feelings for you.

girl with benefits: I have feelings for you too! let’s bang.

They have beautiful sex [the more carnal conclusion].

3, You’re feeling a need to be cautious—not yet ready to commit yourself, or say “I love you.” Here you’re just beginning to lose your emotional equilibrium—“falling” helplessly in love with the one for whom your feelings have been steadily growing. Undoubtedly, the emotions you’ve been harboring, and are finally ready to admit, are those of soft-hearted warmth and tenderness. Yet these feelings also link to a substantially heightened sense of vulnerability. You ask yourself: “What if my feelings aren’t shared?” Abruptly discovering you’re in a one-sided affair could be extremely painful. So, in addressing the one you’ve come to cherish, you self-protectively avoid employing that perilous word, love.

Besides, it might feel premature to take the relationship to the next level. Your feelings may not have fully crystallized. The whole thing may feel rather tentative, so you still have some hesitancy about moving forward. Additionally, you might feel too embarrassed, or awkward, to stick your neck out and directly confess how “smitten” you are with the other. Take the words of this commenter:

Saying I have feelings for you . . . is like saying I’m in love with you and want to be with you. But we haven’t been together that long, or it just doesn’t make sense to me why I feel so strongly about you. (From Reddit)

Or, for that matter, your very nature may prohibit you from outright confessing your ardent feelings. In girlsaskguys, the question of what it means when a guy says “I have feelings for you,” leads to this curiously guarded “guy-speak” response:

It means he likes you, but isn’t about to admit undying love. Guys are more reserved about their feelings. I have never told a girl that I loved her. I have said she’s beautiful, amazing, awesome, that I like her, etc. But I’m not about to open up and sing some gushy love ballad about how my love is like an undying fire. . . . Girls are more open with their emotions.

Jeff Kubina/Flickr
Source: Jeff Kubina/Flickr

4. You’re without any hope that your love will be requited, but you just can’t resist disclosing it anyway. Sometimes the key motive driving you to confess “I have feelings for you” is simply to ease the profoundly felt burden of having to keep lovesick feelings all to yourself. The weight of your undeclared feelings may just have become so heavy, so oppressive, that from deep within you experience an irresistible urge to get them off your chest.

You may be all too aware that, for any number of reasons, the object of your adoration isn’t available to you. For instance, he or she might be happily married to your best friend, or they might simply be too young, or old, for you. Nonetheless, you could experience an acute need to at least let the other person know how deeply you care about them.

5. If you’re on the receiving end of this declaration, you’re trying—as gently as you know how—to inform the other person that you can’t return their amorous feelings. One of the saddest meanings that this expression can carry is when it’s followed by the word but: “I have feelings for you, too, but . . . .” The other person's romantic sentiments aren't at all reciprocal. In such an unfortunate situation, you want to let the infatuated person down as easy as possible. Since you like them, you want to respond kindly to minimize the emotional hurt of what they can’t help but take as rejection.

6. You may be in the warmest, most caring relationship—yet it’s still not love but friendship.

Strong feelings of empathy, compassion, conviviality, companionship, may be experienced as extremely rewarding, but may not equate to feelings of romantic love either. Might you ever have been in such a relationship? You could have the warmest regard for the other person but still, your emotions couldn’t be described as amorous. You might use this expression to express a strong liking.

Certainly, feelings like this can morph into something more impassioned, but not necessarily. In which case you’re left with a wonderfully satisfying relationship yet destined to be platonic. The two of you may freely admit that you have feelings for one another but these are exceptional friendship feelings. You’re truly fond of each another but the feelings are far more tender than “turned on.”

DeeDee51/Pixabay--CCO Public Domain
Source: DeeDee51/Pixabay--CCO Public Domain

7. You’re being indirect in declaring an interest that's more lustful than loving. Several correspondents hinted at this duplicity. Particularly with someone who possesses a strong sex drive, lust and love can get confused, or hopelessly entangled. And if you’re the recipient of such an “I have feelings for you” message and your b.s. antenna immediately starts signaling, then—unless you’re experiencing a similar libidinous pull—it’s best to decline this implicit proposition.

As one discussant on Quora puts it: some people who use this expression, “Just want sex and see this as a good lead-in,” adding prudently: “Just because someone says ‘I have feelings for you’ doesn’t actually mean they [do]."

8. You might use this expression if, for any number of reasons, you decide to break up with your committed partner or boy/girlfriend, even though you still genuinely care about them. There’s an obvious paradox in this: Why would you want to end a relationship in which you’re still experiencing loving, attached feelings for the other?

But there are a host of explanations for this negative relationship decision, including crucial issues with incompatibility that can’t be rectified. For instance, you might feel that your life would be forever incomplete if you didn’t have children, and your partner (or prospective partner) is dead set against starting a family.

I’ll conclude with two final respondent quotes:

I never understood what “having feelings for someone” is and what it constitutes, and after a while, stopped trying to figure it out. (from wrongplanet); and

Does “I have feelings for you” mean “I’m in love with you”? What does it mean if not? (from FreeDictionary)

I think this post should give the first commenter a clearer idea of what’s left him so confused. And, as for the second respondent, I’d simply say that, yes, the expression does generally signify that—pure and simply—the person is in love. But, as I’ve taken some pains to illustrate, there could be many other things “at play” here, too.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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