What does it mean to say “I love you”?

relationships-logoRELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#3 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

What does it mean to say, “I love you”? When is it okay to start saying that in a relationship?

The answer to the second question depends greatly on the answer to the first.

Depending on a person’s background,  and the relationship in question, the words “I love you” can mean very different things. You’ve probably experienced this already.

Have you ever told your grandmother that you love her? Obviously, that’s not the same as saying it to someone you just met on a date, even if the words are identical. The first will get you a smile, a hug, and maybe even a cookie. The second…well, the second won’t get you another date.

Some people have grown up in family and cultural environments in which people routinely say “I love you” to friends. But others would only ever use those words to mean, “I’m in love with you and want a special relationship that’s different from all others.”

Imagine a woman in the first category saying “I love you” to a man in the second category. What she means is, “You’re a good friend to me and I enjoy being with you. I have a fond affection for you.” But that’s not what he hears. His mind may begin to race: “Wait — she loves me? Does that mean she’s ready to be intimate with me? I didn’t see that coming. What am I supposed to do now???”

We need to recognize that different people may intend quite different things when they declare their love — making an awkward misunderstanding a real possibility.

And that, by the way, is one of the reasons (not the only reason, but an important one) why the other person may not respond to your declaration immediately or with the right words. They may not understand exactly what you meant, but they know that this may be a momentous occasion and they’re trying not to mess up.

Thus, when you say, “I love you,” you may be hoping that the other person will immediately say, “Really? I’m so happy–because I love you, too!” Unfortunately, you get a blank expression and silence instead. It’s not what you had hoped, and it feels like rejection.

The other person, however, is not necessarily thinking, “Uh oh. I don’t feel the same way. How do I let her/him down easy?” What’s actually going on inside their brain may be something more like, “I’m freaking out and apparently have no access to the English language at this time.”

When, then, is it okay to tell someone you love them? It depends on whether by “okay” you mean “socially appropriate” or “risk-free.” To me, it would be inappropriate and incredibly unwise to say it on a first date — but what really matters is that the two people in the relationship may have different ideas of what’s appropriate. Add to that the fact that the two may not be moving through the stages of a relationship at the same speed or with the same goals. The upshot is that a declaration of love is never risk-free. It’s a moment of vulnerability, which by definition always comes with the possibility of injury.

Take some time to come to terms with what you mean when you say that to someone else. It’s not just a matter of being open about your feelings. Into what kind of relationship are you inviting the other person? And don’t assume the other person wants the same thing you do, or is moving at the same pace.

It’s a question of wisdom and discernment, and I don’t know how clear cut the guidelines can be. Still, I can at least offer this: if “I love you” means “I’m in love with you and want you to love me back,” then don’t say it unless you’re able to hear that they don’t. It will still hurt. A lot. Just don’t say it if you think rejection will make you fall apart or descend into hate.

And that might require being secure in the knowledge of who else does, in fact, love you.