My ex-girlfriend and I had only been dating for a month when she tapped me on the shoulder one night and asked me to turn toward her. "Kassie," she said. "You don't have to say it back, but...I love you." Six years later, my current girlfriend used almost the exact same preface when she told me that she loves me: "You don't have to say it back, but..."
Even though I was happy to say "I love you, too" both times, I count myself lucky that the people who've told me they love me gave me an out in case I wasn't ready to reciprocate their feelings. That doesn't always happen, and it can make for an awkward conversation if your partner drops the "L" bomb and then expects that you'll say it back. How do you politely tell someone that you don't feel the same way (at least, not yet)?
"The first thing you can do is acknowledge how wonderful it is that they feel that way about you," says Paulette Sherman, PsyD, a New York City-based psychologist and author of Dating from the Inside Out. Whether or not you feel the same way, it's flattering to know that someone cares about you so much. So tell your partner that you appreciate their love for you. "You can give them a kiss or a hug to express your feelings," Dr. Sherman says. Or, "you can say, ‘I like you so much. I love being together and I’m so excited to see where this goes.’"
No matter what, you shouldn't feel pressured to say "I love you" if that's not how you're feeling, even if your partner wants that reassurance. You can let your partner know that you do care about them and that they are a priority to you, even though you need more time to sort out your feelings. "If they press the matter, then you can explain that you take those words seriously and that you're slow to say them," Dr. Sherman says.
Your partner might feel disappointed, embarrassed, or even a little nervous that you're not ready to say it back, and that's totally fine. You should expect that they'll have some emotions to work through. But, if your partner gets angry, that might be a sign of immaturity or insecurity, says Kate Stewart, a dating coach in Seattle.
"If your partner is feeling that you have to say it back or else the relationship is over, or I have to go find someone else, or they don't really care about me, that's immaturity," Stewart says. "There has to be space for people to develop those feelings on their own."
Still, she doesn't think it's the end of the world if you do happen to say "I love you" even if you're not 100% sure that you mean it yet, but you do think that you'll love your partner someday. "From my point of view as an existentialist, I think that life is short. Just tell people you love them." She understands, however, that some people feel really strongly about saying those three little words. So, for them, she gives the same tip as Dr. Sherman: First, give your partner a hug or a kiss and reassure them that you do care for them, even though you're not ready to say "I love you."
If your partner feels secure in your relationship, they'll understand. And they'll give you the time to let your feeling develop. You just have to ask for it.
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