Anyone who has been in a relationship or watched any of the Bachelor franchises knows that deciding when to say "I love you" to a partner is a Big Deal. There's a lot to worry about: the timing, the gravity, the phrasing, and of course, the reciprocation. For some people it comes out fast, and others might go their entire relationship without saying it.
For example, Hannah* has been in a monogamous relationship for a little over a year, but has made a conscious effort not to say "I love you." Her partner claimed that he had said it "too many times" in past relationships, and didn't want to rush into it with her. This is a surprisingly common occurrence in relationships, and even though you don't say those three words doesn't mean that you're not in love, or something like it.
"Love is a complicated concept, because love means different things to different people, and there are different types of loves," says Logan Levkoff, PhD, an AASECT-certified sex educator and relationship expert. For example, you might have had a past relationship where the word "love" was tossed around casually, like Hannah's parter experienced, so you don't want to say it to a new person whom you're taking seriously.
Or perhaps you didn't like how "love" was defined in your past relationships, so it has a negative connotation in your mind. You might have very valid reasons to feel weird about the word "love," but that doesn't mean you should withhold it from a partner if you have those feelings, Dr. Levkoff says.
We forget that in relationships, if you don’t take emotional risks you can’t reap the rewards.
Logan Levkoff, PhD
The other thing to keep in mind is that there are plenty of ways to express or demonstrate your love without saying those three words. Performing simple acts of kindness or offering support during trying times can be just as effective.
"'I love you' becomes something that lets someone know that you're safe and respected," Dr. Levkoff says. "Under the right circumstances, that word gives us some relationship peace."
Say you and your partner are in a drag-out fight about something stupid. Being able to tell your partner that you love them is a way to say, "'I'm here, I'm not going anywhere,' even if you're arguing," Dr. Levkoff says. Some couples may use code words or substitutes that connote the same thing as "love." As long as there's some way to communicate your feelings, then there's nothing wrong with not saying ILY.
Ultimately, it's up to you to figure out what it is you want from your relationship. "Not all relationships have to be deeply love-based," Dr. Levkoff says. Some people (like Hannah) are seeking companionship from a partner, and are perfectly content not talking about love, she says.
But if you are looking for love, and haven't felt or expressed it to your partner, it might be time to speak up for yourself. "We forget that, in relationships, if you don’t take emotional risks you can’t reap the rewards," she says. "Is the reality that someone might not say it right now or ever? You don't know."
*Name has been changed.