Bonnie Azoulay
Jul 1 · 4 min read

When my friend told me she didn’t exchange the words “I love you” with her now-husband until she had a ring on her finger, I was taken aback. My therapist, on the other hand, didn’t seem to think it was so unusual. “I’ve seen couples wait to declare their love for each other until they feel they’re committed,” she explained. Commitment, for some couples, means hitting specific milestones like moving in together or having sex for the first time. But for others, commitment is synonymous with marriage. Kristin, who dated her ex-boyfriend from age 25 to 30, waited three years into her relationship to say it because her partner “equated saying I love you basically with a marriage proposal in its seriousness.” Some couples wait even longer for reasons that span beyond equating them with commitment.

In 2015, Maia and Alex, a couple who’d been dating for eight years, worked with This American Life filmmaker Bianca Giaever on a video series showcasing people who were having trouble putting something they wanted to express into words. For this long-term couple who share a home and bank account, those words were none other than “I love you.” In the first year they were dating, Maia made a pact with herself that she wouldn’t say it first because she “always initiated everything in the relationship.” Giaever aptly asked if they had a communication problem, which would explain why they never verbalized how they felt about each other. But, instead, Maiai chalked it up to a “fluke.” They still loved each other even though they never said it out loud.

This uncommon case proves that there’s no average timeline in which couples exchange this phrase because love develops at different paces. How quickly someone opens themselves up depends on the individual and the level of importance they put on those words. “Saying I love you entails a certain vulnerability that many people are scared of. Society oftentimes gives it too much importance that if someone were to say it, it’s a big deal,” says Mental Health Counselor Muriel Nakash.

Oppositely, we live in a culture where those words are tossed around flippantly (I love Kendall Jenner, I love my writing professor) that it seemingly doesn’t mean anything at all. People put greater emphasis on these words because we’re a society obsessed with choices and we’re afraid to choose wrong. Making that declaration can cause one to be fearful because their choice feels finite. Dr. Tricia Wolanin, Psy.D. further explains this reason that can cause someone to be hesitant. “For some people, saying ‘I love you’ means that this person is The One, which is scary to admit. Also, others may have previous relationships, where they did express this and the relationship ended.”

When someone does make the choice to say it but takes a long time doing so, it doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is doomed. 27-year-old Emma was dating her now-boyfriend for six months when she said it while it took him another six months after that to say it back. They’ve been happily together for four years and he’s the most loving partner she’s ever had. So what gives? “I was his first girlfriend and he had never said it to anyone before apart from his parents. He wanted to make sure he truly meant it before he said it. He’s a man of principle, so will never say something he doesn’t 100% mean.”

As long as someone doesn’t use those words with the expectation of hearing them in return, love can be expressed in many other ways. “The older I get, the less I worry about saying the I love yous. If someone shows you with their actions that they care, that’s the most important thing,” 51-year-old Charlene says. Kim Leatherdale, author of You Own It. Now Grow It! explains that some people choose other phrases to express their love like “you are my world” or “you are the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

So, the next time you’re in a relationship and someone says “I love you” sooner than you imagined or takes forever to utter those golden words, it may be because their definition of love is different than yours. They may see it as the end-all-be-all or they may equate it to saying ‘I love pie’. They may be working through trauma from past relationships. They may not be used to saying those words at home. And yes, they may be reserving those words because they simply don’t feel it. But whatever the case, it’s important to remember that love is not one size fits all — what works for one couple or partner might not work for another.

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