In defense of being the one to say “I love you” first

I have long debated the power struggle that is “who says I love you first.” When I fell in love for the first time in my 20s, I was ecstatic—and terrified. Were you supposed to say it as soon as you knew? The minute that it wasn’t even a thought process of “do I or don’t I?” Or is it just an automatic reaction to everything that they do in your presence?

The way he smiled at me, or brushed his teeth, or sang along to the radio in the car. Each insignificant action inspired the words to bubble up but stop just short of making their way out of my mouth. An overabundance of “I love you” word vomit was just waiting. But I decided that he was older than me, I was inexperienced with this whole love thing and it should be his responsibility to say it first. But then I worried that I was feeling it so deeply it might slip out naturally before he would say it to me. Maybe when we were cuddling or sleeping together, or late night talking on the phone before hanging up, or, worst case scenario, if I had a few too many martinis and ended up blabbing all sorts of mushy things above and beyond the “I love you” sentiment.

“Hurry up and say it!” I wanted to scream so many times. As if I first needed his permission to openly own the emotions I was feeling.

But my anxiety wasn’t just about who would say those three words first, but whether we were feeling the same emotions at the same time.  Was there a timeline for love, and were we on the same one? By month five of our relationship, I was in knots, over-analyzing how much time was enough time to allow before uttering how I truly felt.

I believed that him saying it first would allay all my fears. If he initiated, I thought, we were definitely on the same page and I could now continue to stumble headlong deeper into love with him. I could be assured that he wouldn’t say something polite yet soul crushing like “thank you” if I said it first (thank you Ryan Atwood and The O.C. for instilling this nightmare in all of us forever and ever). One night after another successful day of avoiding saying “I love you,” he said it to me as we were falling asleep together, which naturally woke me right up. “I love you, TOO!” I practically shouted back almost collapsing in relief to finally be rid of the weight of suppressing it. And then I felt ridiculous because he said it so simply yet sincerely without any fanfare, why did it matter who said it first? I’m no longer sure it does and it doesn’t seem right to stress so hard in order to stifle how we genuinely feel.

Making the love declaration first for some reason has tended to carry the stigma of labeling that person as the weaker, more vulnerable half of the partnership. I wish that wasn’t the case, and as I’ve grown up, I’ve decided that’s not necessarily the right way of looking at it. Yes I suppose it’s the safe way to go about things. Especially since saying it first comes with the added burden of a looming expiration date for when the other person can say it back before it’s clear they’re not going to say it all.

Is holding back safe? Sure. Censoring every fiber of your emotional well-being? Absolutely. And that kind of mental stifling can amount to a lot of added pressure and frustration.

Maybe we need to start thinking about the L bomb in a different way. It’s not a competition, or a game that needs to be played properly. It’s speaking your truth. To know in your heart, without a doubt, that someone inspires you to say those words and mean it, is rare and exciting—regardless of the outcome. I’ve realized now, there’s no right or wrong time to say those words if they’re what you’re feeling. You are entitled to feel love and are beautifully brave to express it. And no response—whether it’s an “I love you, too” or a “thanks”—can take that away from you.

Yes it’s scary to be the initiator, but maybe a bit of fear is a good thing: it proves we’re willing to take risks for someone else. And isn’t that what love is all about?

(Photo via Janus Films, FOX)


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