Why This Outdated Relationship Rule Needs To Die

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
This article was originally published on January 11, 2016.
One December morning, about four months into dating my partner, I woke up and knew I loved him. I can’t explain exactly what inspired me to feel that way on that particular day, but I imagine it was a combination of little things. Like that time he went to get coffee and bagels for us when it was snowing, so I could stay warm under the covers. Or how he makes me laugh so much I cry. And the way he respects me and champions even my weirdest of interests. (Think: a three-week experiment in which I didn’t shave my legs, underarms, or anything else.)
I was so nervous. Even though I was sure I loved him, the idea of putting it out there was terrifying. So I did what any reasonable, mature person would do: Instead of just opening up to my partner about it, I immediately ran to 10-15 of my closest friends to talk it out. I’d say, “I think I’m going to tell him I love him,” and, disappointingly, they all had kind of the same answer: "Wait. Wait and see if he says it first."
Though my friends never said it so directly, I knew the subtext they were throwing at me, because it’s a subtext I’ve absorbed my whole life. In heterosexual couples, when men say “I love you” first, it’s romantic. Hollywood is full of movies revolving around that very moment. But when a woman says it first, she’s nuts. She’s clingy and baby crazy and should be dumped immediately, as she is almost certainly a pod person. That’s just how we’ve all come to think of it.
Still, it was surprising to hear my friends advise me not to tell him, even though they are all smart women whom I respect. They were probably just looking out for me, wanting to make sure I didn’t say it, and then feel the sting of hearing nothing in return. It seemed that, no matter how progressive my girls are, there’s still an entrenched idea of following a man’s lead when it comes to love.
I decided to do it anyway.
It just got to a point where it was harder not to say it than to put it out there. I thought about how I should do it. Maybe the next time we were sitting on his couch I could simply go, “I’m still undecided about whom I’d vote for in the 2016 election. Oh, and I love you.”
Of course, it didn’t happen that way. Very few of our daydreams about these kinds of conversations go the way we hope. The stress and anxiety of whether or not I should say it was too much. “I love you” was constantly on the tip of my tongue, considering carefully whether to step out or not, like a kitten considering emerging from its crate into an unfamiliar room. So one night, I decided to just get out with it already.
We were lazing around, and after several deep breaths I said, “We don’t have to talk about it, but I love you.”
He made this sound that was almost like, “Aw,” but it was more like he was punched in the stomach. He squeezed me tightly, and said nothing, for what felt like forever, yet was probably only a minute or so. Finally, he replied, “I don’t want you to think I don’t.”
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
I played it cool, but it hurt not to hear it back. I spent the next few days panicking that I had scared him off, just like my friends kind-of-said-but-didn’t-say I would. I remember thinking, this is why women are told not to say it first. I felt like a crazy person, a blend of sadness and something that felt a lot like guilt, like I had done something wrong. A couple of days after the incident, I even asked him if what I had said altered things between us. He assured me it hadn’t, though nothing he said could really erase the embarrassment I felt. After about a week, I had no choice but to pretend the whole thing didn’t happen. I tried to act as normally as possible. You know, aside from silently cursing myself for ever opening my big mouth about love at all.
Then, about a month later, I was in the kitchen at my apartment heating up some leftover pizza in the oven. The awkwardness from the love conversation had mostly subsided. He was in my bedroom reading, and he suddenly called my name urgently. “Vanessa! Come here!” I thought, this is it. I finally have roaches. I have roaches and they have set up a colony in my room. I’ll have to burn everything I own and find a new place to live. But when I got to my bedroom, there wasn’t an infestation. He was lying on my bed and pulled me over to him. “I love you,” he said.
What happened next wasn’t anything like a romantic comedy. For one thing, I hadn’t even showered. There was no soundtrack of, I don’t know, Michelle Branch? No cinematic elements, here. We were more like that kitten again, taking a couple of padded-paw steps out of its crate into unknown territory. It was new, and it was good, but so unfamiliar.
Here’s the the thing: I didn’t say “I love you” because I needed to hear it back. Yes, I spent a few weeks agonizing over the reasons he didn’t return the expression immediately, however, I told him since I meant it, and that it was killing me not to. It could have blown up in my face. He could have behaved the way cultural tropes had led me to believe he might, and ended our relationship the next day for mysterious reasons. I was prepared for that. But I remember thinking, well, if he doesn’t love me back, then what the hell are we doing together anyway?
Now saying “I love you” is something we’re careful with. We don’t want to wear it out by saying it every time we hang up the phone or texting it to each other every few hours. We say it when we’re feeling genuinely moved by each other, or when I’m about to get on a plane. We write it in birthday cards. But having it out in the open, rather than tiptoeing around it for a year, waiting for him to say it, has made things so wonderful. Our love is still like that kitten, learning how exactly to make its home with us — except now it’s running around looking for all the different things it could interact with in this new environment, and attacking our feet while we sleep.
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