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Should You Say 'I Love You' First?

Things to consider if you want to reveal your feelings before your partner does.

Key points

  • The principle of least interest suggests the person who is more invested in a relationship has less control over it.
  • Men usually fall in love and say "I love you" faster than women, due to biology.
  • If no one's said "I love you" after a year, it could mean the end of the relationship.

Everyone knows that iconic scene on Friends when Ross rushes to the airport to catch his British paramour Emily moments before she boards a flight back to London. He earnestly confesses, “I love you”—to which she responds with a warm embrace and an appreciative, yet awkward, “Thank you,” before abruptly exiting through the boarding gate.

Watching it now is as painful as I remember it years ago when it first aired. Thankfully and unsurprisingly, the episode ends (spoiler alert!) with Emily eventually coming around and reciprocating to Ross those magical three words, to which he responds, of course, with a heartfelt “thank you.”

If only every “I love you” was mutually exchanged, or at the bare minimum, appreciated, the world would be a much happier place. The reality, however, is that while love may always be the answer, “I love you” isn’t. Long ago, my own Ross-inspired confession of love failed to result in either reciprocation or even gratitude from my “Emily.” What I got instead was a somewhat rueful, “I don’t think I have it in me to love anyone.”

No thank you.

While that relationship clearly didn’t last, my decision to refrain from revealing myself too prematurely has. The rejection offered a brutal but necessary reality check: Unlike Ross and Emily, I don’t live in a sitcom where happy endings are guaranteed.

Source: Pexels/CCO

Here on Earth, relationship issues are far too complex and unpredictable to be solved in half-hour episodes. Which is why, if you’re anything like me, you spend hours analyzing and agonizing over being hurt and then spending more hours trying to prevent it from happening again.

If you want to have the power, you may want to wait

One of the most effective preventions I’ve come to discover is called the “principle of least interest,” which theorizes that in a relationship, the person who cares less or is less invested has more power than the person who cares or invests more. This principle is a familiar trope in teen movies, where a lovestruck dork is powerless and subservient to the cool, popular kid who doesn’t know they exist.

Sociologist Willard Waller originated this principle in 1932, deeming that emotional investment in a relationship is rarely equal in couples—and thus, so is power. In his research, he found that in both dating and married couples, less invested partners viewed themselves as having more control over whether the relationship continued, while those few couples who exhibited more equal levels of emotional involvement reported being happier and more stable. Then, in 1972, a team of sociologists at Ohio State University found that men, in general, were less interested and emotionally invested in maintaining dating relationships compared to women, who “exerted significantly greater effort” to do so.

What is saying “I love you” if not unabashedly declaring your emotional investment in someone else? While sharing your vulnerability with the person you care about is an important milestone, it’s worth remembering that it could make your position in the relationship more vulnerable.

Men usually say it first, and it's for the reason you think

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Sociology Psychology found that, while both male and female college students believe women tend to say “I love you” first, it’s actually men who fall in love faster and say the L-word earlier. In fact, they think about saying it about six weeks earlier than women do. Why this is the case comes down to biology. Men want to spread their genes and saying "I love you” to a potential mate helps them achieve that goal faster.

The researchers also compared the reactions from each couple when they heard “I love you.” Turns out, men who hadn’t had sex in the relationship yet responded more positively because they considered it “an implicit signal that sex was going to happen,” whereas after the couple had sex, women were the ones to react more positively, viewing it as a “symbol of commitment.”

Source: Pexels/CCO

Consider how long you’ve been together

While there’s no set amount of time you need to be a couple before declaring your love for a partner, you may want to think twice if it’s been too long. According to therapist Jenni Marie Battistin, after six months—if your partner “can’t look deeply into your eyes and confess his or her love,” it might be time to move on.

But if six months feels too fast, then a year might be a better cut-off. If you’re seriously dating someone and no one’s said “I love you” after eight months to a year, it’s “a sign that something is a miss in either the direction of the relationship or the emotional availability of one or both partners,” says therapist Lexx Brown-James.

Men generally take three months before saying I love you; for women, it's five.

If neither of you has said the words yet, maybe there’s a good reason why.

Facebook image: Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock