Technically, the first time I said “I love you” to a boyfriend was in high school. We hadn’t been dating for very long, and we’d only been on one real date — driven to the local movie theater by our moms to see Corpse Bride since we were 14 and Tim Burton was the coolest. We told each other “I love you” over AIM because it was what you did in relationships. We both put it in our AIM profiles — the pre-social media place where you put all your moody song lyrics and declared your love for your significant other.
For reasons that are probably obvious, I don’t particularly count these proclamations of love as the first time I really said, “I love you.” Even at the time, somewhere deep in my 14-year-old subconscious, I was aware that my actions and my “I love you”s were being dictated by how I thought I should feel rather than how I actually felt. I don’t want to take away from this particular relationship because it was, and still is, incredibly special to me but, looking back, I was more in love with the idea of being in love than I was actually in love with him, even though I did very much like him.
So, the first time I really told a significant other I was in love with them was in college, and the first time I said it was an accident. It was a “Love ya!” called to my boyfriend’s retreating back as he left the take-out restaurant where I worked. He had visited with the sole purpose of eating dinner with me on my break; there wasn’t anything particularly special about that night, but my subconscious decided it was the perfect night to tell my boyfriend I loved him. Except, I didn’t quite say “I love you.” I called, “Love ya!” as the door swung closed behind him.
I should take this moment to interject that I was, in fact, in love with him, although I didn’t actually realize it until those two words popped out of my mouth. It had been on my mind prior to The “love ya” incident, but I hadn’t been sure if I was really in love, or if I only thought I was because I wanted to be. (If it wasn’t already apparent, I’m absolutely the type of person who gets too in their head about things, sometimes to the point that I confuse myself by overthinking it.)
So, the first time I really said “I love you” to someone I was actually in love with was not only an accident, but a silly, offhand, shortened version of those three words that are built up to be the most important words in any relationship. I still cringe thinking back on the moment and the ensuing anxiety, while I debated with my coworker about whether he heard me at all. She then attempted to talk me down from texting my boyfriend to apologize for what I had said.
Thankfully, my boyfriend — who knew me well enough that he must have realized on his drive home I would be drowning in anxiety — texted me a few minutes later to tell me he had heard what I’d said and that I shouldn’t worry about it. It wasn’t a profession of his own feelings by a long shot, but it meant enough to me that he was willing to acknowledge something so huge. He also wasn’t the type to say something as big as the first “I love you” over text, or even in a phone conversation. What mattered was that I had said “I love you” — or, at least, some version of it — and it had been true. As someone who tends to keep everything inside my head, that was momentous for me, even if it happened by accident.
When I was in high school I much more free with telling friends and boyfriends I loved them, and that made it more difficult to parse out my true feelings from what I thought I should feel. I thought I should tell my high school boyfriend I loved him, so I did. I thought I should have a crush on the guy my friends said liked me, so I did. I thought I should hug all the people in my group of friends (even if I didn’t particularly like everyone), so I did. At some point, it began to feel disingenuous. I’m not sure if it was simply me growing up, but over time I learned not to express love just because I thought I should. Unfortunately, I over-corrected a bit. I began holding onto my feelings for fear that they would be corrupted by what others thought, or what I perceived others thought.
This has led to its own set of problems that I’m still working through, but I was so concerned with keeping my feelings to myself when I was with my college boyfriend that I didn’t realize I was holding back too much. Then my subconscious kicked in and I yelled “love ya” to my boyfriend on that ordinary, not-at-all special night. Yes, I may still be cringing at the memory, but it was a revelation I needed.
I’ll admit, my perception of the situation may be colored by what happened after the accidental “I love you.” The day after the incident, we were laying down on my boyfriend’s couch in his apartment, watching something on Netflix. It was late afternoon and the sun was coming in through the front windows of the apartment, making it a little warmer and cozier than usual. I was drifting to sleep with my head on his shoulder and, as he watched whatever Netflix documentary he’d put on, he told me he loved me. I smiled, my eyes still closed, and told him I loved him too.
It’s a sweet moment that I still look back on fondly, and it may never have happened if I hadn’t accidentally yelled “love ya” to him. We ended up breaking up before I graduated from college, but I’ve never looked back and questioned what I felt about him because that accidental “I love you” forced me to open up in our relationship and recognize how I really felt. It also taught me that I can’t overthink my feelings, and I can’t keep them inside my head, because they could pop out anyway. So, I might as well try to make sure they come out more eloquent than yelling “love ya” in place of a first “I love you.”