Three words, eight letters—“I love you” can be a tricky phrase. Some people throw it around like it’s nothing, but to others the words “I love you” hold a lot of weight. One thing’s for sure, though: you’ll know when you’re ready to use them. So, what happens if your SO says “I love you,” and you’re not prepared to say it back? We talked to life, relationship and executive coach and author of Secrets of Happy Couples, Kim Olver, about how to handle this tricky situation.
Be honest about your feelings
In the event that your SO says “I love you,” but you don’t feel comfortable saying it back, don’t feel pressured. The best thing you can do is to be honest about how you feel. According to relationship coach Kim Olver, how you respond depends on what you want out of the relationship.
“If the ‘I love you’ is wanted, just not yet reciprocated, then I suggest a physical response of appreciation,” says Olver. Simply responding with a hug or a kiss should be answer enough. “If you are not interested in declarations of love,” says Olver, "then saying something such as, ‘I think this may be moving faster than is comfortable for me,’ ‘We need to slow down,’ or ‘I'm not ready for that’ could work."
Whitney, a senior at Utah State University, told her boyfriend the truth when he said, “I love you” before she was ready. “I was really taken aback, so I just said how I felt: ‘Sorry, I’m not ready to say it back yet.’ To be honest, I can’t remember it being awkward after that. I just remember saying ‘I love you’ a couple days later.”
Whitney also stresses the importance of total honesty. “I think it’s important to be honest and to let the other person know that just because you aren’t ready to say it doesn’t mean that you don’t really care about them.”
When sharing your thoughts with your SO, definitely express that you do care about him or her—even if all you do is respond with a hug or a kiss. Just because you don’t say “I love you” doesn’t mean you aren’t invested in the relationship. If you feel at all uncomfortable, however, it is important to set a boundary early on. Try utilizing one of the phrases Olver recommends if you feel that your SO is moving too quickly.
Understand that everyone moves at their own pace
If you’re the one who says, “I love you” and you don’t receive the response you were expecting, don’t worry. Everyone moves at different speeds in a relationship, and again, it doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t care.
“It is actually quite rare that two people arrive to ‘I love you’ at precisely the same moment,” explains Olver. “Sometimes one person thinks they are in love but doesn't want to say so until their SO declares their love. That makes it feel like you both got there at the same time when in essence, one person was there first waiting for the other person to catch up.”
Natalie, a sophomore at Adrian College is currently on the other end of this situation. “I said ‘I love you’ to a guy I've been seeing, and it freaked him out,” she says. “From your SO’s perspective, it’s a scary thing, and it should be treated with delicacy no matter how you react. It's a different phrase to everyone and some people have a lot harder of a time committing to the idea of loving someone than others [do].”
No matter who says it when, the important thing is that you’re in a healthy, caring and understanding relationship.
Take your time
The words “I love you” mean something different to everyone. Make sure you don’t say them prematurely, because that can lead to more problems down the road. “If someone tells you s/he loves you but then expects the same response in return, then they may attempt to create guilt or awkwardness to get [you] to say ‘I love you’ in return,” says Olver. “Do not fall victim to that.”
Olver warns against lying and saying “I love you” back just so that you don’t hurt your SO. She believes that you are hurting the other person by leading him or her on, “as well as hurting yourself by not being true to the person you are.”
Allison*, a sophomore at The College of New Jersey, waited to say “I love you” until she was absolutely sure of it. When her boyfriend said he loved her, she “freaked out.” “I have had bad experiences with guys in the past and it wasn't very easy for me to ever say the ‘L-word,’” says Allison. “He didn't understand why that word was such a huge deal, but to me it was so much more serious than he thought it had to be. He continued to say it to me, understanding that I wasn't going to say it back. He was OK with that because he understood that I wasn't ready. After a little while, I realized that I had loved him all along.”
When you feel it, say it!
When the point comes that you are ready to say “I love you,” share that with your SO however you see fit. Whether you prefer to plan out a romantic setting, or you’re more the spontaneous type, don’t wait too long. “Don't leave him or her hanging when you realize you are also feeling love,” says Olver. “Tell him/her!”
When you’re actually ready to say those words, you’ll know.
If your SO says “I love you,” and it feels right to say, “I love you, too”—then go for it. But if you have to think about it, you probably aren’t ready—and that’s okay! When the time comes that you do say it, your feelings should be genuine. Your SO will be glad you waited!
*Name has been changed.