Three words, eight letters. It took Chuck and Blair two whole seasons of Gossip Girl to say them.
Why is it so hard to say “I love you?” What do those three little words mean, and when should you say them? To find the answers, we interviewed fellow collegiettes and Paul Dobransky, director of Women’s Happiness and author of The Secret Psychology of How We Fall in Love.
How to know if you’re in love
What love means
It’s no secret that there’s a lot of pressure when it comes to saying “I love you.” Besides the fear of rejection, we often think that love is some mysterious, sacred feeling we’ve been saving for “the one.”
However, Dobransky says the feeling of love itself isn’t so different from friendship. “Love is just positive emotion shared between two people, a mutual boost of self-esteem,” he says. In fact, we say “I love you” all the time to family members. With romantic relationships, there’s just added desire and attraction, but at the core, it’s still the same feeling of care and concern that you’d have for other people in your life whom you love.
Love also isn’t a statement about who your partner is and if he or she is attractive, intelligent or kind; it’s about the time and energy you’ve chosen to spend on this person. Saying “I love you” is like giving a hug or a kiss – it’s a way to reinforce the bond that you’ve created together.
What love shouldn’t mean
Saying “I love you” doesn’t automatically define the status of your relationship, Dobransky says. Those three words can’t replace having a long discussion about your future together, so don’t think of them as a sign that you’re moving on to the next level. If you’re trying to figure out his or her level of commitment, it’s better to just ask him or her point-blank.
Before you say it
Overcoming the fear of rejection
If there’s one thing scarier than saying “I love you,” it’s not hearing those words back! Be honest about your expectations. How disappointed would you be if your partner was hesitant to make the same commitment?
Jamie*, a sophomore at Rutgers University, says she’s hesitant to tell her SO she loves him. “Rejection is really scary,” she says. Jamie says she also fears getting judged by her peers because she hasn’t been dating her boyfriend for very long.
It’s completely natural to want security, and there are plenty of nonverbal ways to find out whether or not your SO loves you so you’re not completely in the dark. If he or she is not giving off obvious signals, bring up the subject and ask your SO if he or she has ever said those words to anyone. Your partner might just be more hesitant to show his or her affection verbally.
Finding the right time
Once you’ve thought about your expectations and decided that your feelings are genuine, wait for the right time to tell your SO. It could come at any moment, such as after you’ve kissed him or her goodnight, while you’re cuddling together on the couch or even after a big fight. Don’t try to plan too far ahead – the most important part is that it feels natural and comfortable for both of you.
Justin, a student at Rutgers University, says “I love you” should be a spontaneous, unplanned moment. “I just remember [my girlfriend and I] were making up after a huge fight, and we were on the couch and we looked at each other,” he says. “And I just couldn’t stop laughing for some reason; I was just so happy.”
How to react if your SO says it first, but you’re not ready
Dobransky says you’ll know if you’re ready to drop the L-word based on how long it takes for you to say it back. “If you have to think about it, then you probably aren’t there yet,” he says.
Even if they are just words, “I love you” should make you feel empowered and confident—never controlled or pressured. If you’re not ready to say it back to your SO, say that you feel flattered and explain that you’re not sure of your own feelings or you don’t want the same thing in a relationship. If your SO really loves you, then he or she will appreciate your honesty.
It may seem overwhelming, but there’s an upside to love being so complex! Your definition of love will change based on your experiences, so there’s no one right answer to vocalize your happiness. At the end of the day, actions speak louder than three little words. If you trust the time and effort you’ve invested in your relationship, then you can find the courage to be honest about how you feel.
*Name has been changed.