There’s no denying that there’s something, well, significant about telling your significant other you love them.
Those in love agonize over the questions of when to say it or when to say it back. Tell them too soon and you might spoil it; wait too long, you might never get the chance. But to even begin to answer the question of when, you must first answer the bigger question: What does “I love you” even mean?
I hope it is already understood that it’s a great honor to be told by someone that they love you. When we hear another couple utter those three words, we assume that they share a unique bond, experience a strong physical attraction, feel a certain tenderness, etc. But when we hear it spoken to us—especially for the first time—yes, all those feeling are there, but we typically hear more than that. We hear “I love you” as an implied promise of things to come. Love, expressed truly, is full of expectation. When you tell someone that you love them, what you’re really saying is: I think so highly of you that I intend to stick with you even when I don’t feel as strongly. And not just stick around, of course, but to love all the while. There’s something necessarily exclusive and enduring about it. This is often why a breakup after “I love you” has been said feels like a betrayal and a broken promise.
That's because there’s a difference between telling somebody you love them and actually intending to love them. That is, telling somebody you love them is just lip service and actually loving someone is work.
The feeling of love is a fleeting thing. If you didn’t know that already, you will soon enough—researchers have found that the "in love" feeling lasts about two years. But real love doesn't have an expiration date, it's a choice you intend to keep making even when you’ve lost that loving feeling. For this reason, I have an aversion to anyone saying that they “fell out of love” with someone or “fell in love” with them, as if they’re completely helpless in the matter.
All of this deeper meaning, however, gets muddled when people throw around “I love you”s like they’re going out of style. In fact, some studies claim that my fellow dudes tend to say it to a girl by the end of the first month of dating. If you are reading this and thinking “simma down now,” I’m right there with you.
Is it likely that a man is truly ready to love you—in the action sense that the word implies—after just one month? Maybe, but it gives me cause to proceed with caution. My theory as to why some men are so quick to drop the “love” bomb is not because it’s without effect, but in fact the opposite: We men know what sort of meaning it carries, and we like the reaction we get. This alone is reason enough to be, shall we say, more discerning with our declarations of love. Personally, it has taken me months of exclusively dating someone to even start considering the idea of loving them. That might be because I’m a bit selfish, but it’s also because I want to be sure I don’t make promises that I might not be ready to keep.
So when should you say “ I love you” or when should you say it back?
In short, when you are ready to do the work. When you say those three little words, you better be prepared to do something about it. And then continue to do so because that’s what we expect from people who tell us they love us. This readiness often takes time and always takes seeing that person with eyes wide open. I would also say that if you can’t express to someone by the one-year mark that you love them (and actually mean it), then it’s probably time to move on. It might mean you are with the wrong person. But it might also mean that you’re just not ready to take on the commitment and effort that love requires.
Finally, ladies, if you feel a man is telling you those magic words a bit prematurely, feel very free to say something like, “That’s great. Now prove it.” Because that’s where the rubber hits the road, eh? If you truly love someone, you’re going to do something about it.
Edited on February 2, 2015