My partner and I have been a couple for 18 months. I love him—I have no problem writing that here. But I've never said "I love you" to him.
I didn’t say I love you when he zipped up the bridesmaid dress I decided to wear to my sister's wedding and called me beautiful. I didn’t say it after he met my mother for the first time. I didn't even say it in the afterglow of leg-tangling, heart-stopping sex when he tenderly told me, “What am I going to do with you?”
Why have I held back? The closest I've come to an answer is that I like how my partner and I, both in our mid-20s, exist outside of the I-love-you paradigm. I’m proud we haven’t fallen victim to the "snowball of love," as I call it—which means that once the first I-love-you exchange has happened, all the other traditional relationship milestones soon follow: the shared apartment, the pet co-parenting, the ring, the wedding, the baby.
I’d expressed love in previous relationships before, but it was always difficult for me. In my last relationship, which was long-distance, I wrote it on a Post-it note and stuck it in a Christmas stocking—the note was meant to be found later, when I was 3,000 miles away. That cowardly, not exactly romantic expression of love led to a fight about my communication skills that we ultimately weren’t able to recover from.
By not saying I love you, I always thought, I’ve saved my current partner and me from the pressure to proceed to that next relationship step. But I've lately been wondering if there was something more to it—and what it meant, if anything, in terms of how I felt about myself or my relationship. To get a better handle on the topic, I decided to explore it with some relationship experts, Their insight turned out to be very illuminating.
Exploring my I-love-you block
I posed the question to New Jersey-based professor of psychology Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr., PhD, author of The Science of Relationships. I explained that I was writing about why I haven't told my partner of 18 months that I love him. “This is going to be an awkward conversation,” he replies. “It's important to recognize that being in and expressing love is an essential component of being in a commitment, monogamous relationship for most people,” he tells me.
The love is there, I answer him. I just don’t say it.
“There’s a difference between feeling it and not wanting to say it—and not feeling it and therefore not saying it,” Lewandowski goes on. Okay, but I really have felt love for my partner for over a year. I think I've demonstrated that love as well. So the question remains, why haven’t I said it?
When I asked Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor at OnePatient Global Health in Chicago, to explore this with me, she asked if my parents are still married. They aren't.
How’s that for a truth bomb?
But blaming my muteness on the fact that I’m a “product” of divorce feels like an easy out, but it’s not just that. I think I've protected my relationship from the I-love-you line because once it’s exchanged, it feels like there’s no going back.
Fearing the vulnerability of love
Here's what I mean. Usually, saying I love you suggests that not only are you all in now, but that you’ll be all in tomorrow, and for the rest of your lives. There’s an implied shared future that not only feels vulnerable, but which I feel too young, too career-driven, and too focused on my goals to make right now.
And my partner, possibly more goal-oriented than myself, is in no position to make that hefty promise back to me. Sure, I’ve seen friends of all ages share the words freely and quickly, but I can’t imagine myself doing it. So it boils down to this: I may feel love for him. And he may feel it for me. But I’m not saying it because what if it doesn’t last.
Not saying I love you meant I wasn’t dependent on those words to be happy as a couple. It meant we’d have a better chance of a future. But in reality, not saying I love you just means I’m not ready to be vulnerable in that way. It means that we won’t go the distance. My relationship is a story of love—and of fear.
A third expert I talked to confirmed this for me. “Not saying it doesn’t make you love your partner less. Love is often felt before it’s said,” Shadeen Francis a sex, marriage, and family therapist in Philadelphia, assures me. “But not saying I love you to a person you love suggests an aversion to the vulnerability of saying I love you.”
I’ve dated my partner for a year and a half, and I love him. Though holding back on telling him so is an impulse deeply ingrained in me, maybe the next time he zips up my bridesmaid dress or talks to be tenderly after sex, I’ll say what I’ve been too scared to. The experts agree, after all, that communicating your feelings is a key to relationship longevity. And this is a relationship I want to last.
Besides, as Lewandowski tells me, “There are certain problems with saying it too early. But there are certain problems with saying it too late, or not at all, too.”
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