When Is The Right Time To Say "I Love You" In A New Relationship?
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for when to say "I love you" for the first time in a new relationship. But if you're wondering about what your timeline should roughly look like, here are some considerations.
How long should you wait before saying "I love you"?
How long you should wait before saying "I love you" depends on what you believe that statement means. Some people take months or even years to confess their love because they believe "I love you" holds great meaning and want to wait until they're absolutely sure about how they feel, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. "Some people, however, use the term 'love' rather loosely; in this case, saying 'I love you' can feel appropriate in the first few weeks or months."
According to 2020 OKCupid data on 6,000 people shared with mindbodygreen, 62% of people think you should say "I love you" "as soon as you feel it," whereas 22% think you should wait "several months," and 3% think you should wait "at least a year." On average, research has found men take about three months to say "I love you" while women take about five months. (Here's more on how long it takes to fall in love in general.)
How soon is too soon to say "I love you"?
It's likely too soon to say "I love you" if you don't actually know the person that well, which is a sign you might be confusing love and infatuation. Infatuation is a strong feeling of attraction and fixation toward someone, whereas love involves feeling intimately bonded and close to someone. Feelings of "love" felt in the early days or weeks of a relationship are often actually feelings of infatuation, Manly explains.
"Truly loving someone means that you see them for who they are and are willing to accept them with both their strengths and their weaknesses; this type of love cannot arise through a series of short dates or fabulous sexual encounters," Manly says.
That said, feelings of love can happen within just a few weeks of knowing someone, according to both Manly and licensed couples' therapist Lexx Brown-James, Ph.D., LMFT. "Depending on the amount of time spent together and the depth of the interactions, true love can certainly be experienced—and expressed—within several weeks of deep, intentional interactions," Manly says.
It's more about the nature of the time spent together than the amount of time spent together, Brown-James asserts. "When there are traumatic events afoot and a person is feeling supported and cared for by another, the brain does release oxytocin and vasopressin, which are the 'feel-good' and the 'relationship' hormones that make people want to get into long-term relationships," she says. If that happens within a month of knowing someone, it's OK to lean into that.
Should you say it first?
In general, if two people love each other, it doesn't matter who says "I love you" first. If you're not sure whether your partner feels the same way you do, you can still tell them how you feel—just be mindful of why you're doing it. If you just want to let them know where your heart is at and don't mind whether or not your feelings are reciprocated, go for it.
"There is so much taboo around what 'I love you' means and who we say it to," Brown-James says. "I suggest taking a bit of time to inventory your feelings. Honoring your feelings of vulnerability is risky and can be scary. It is, however, a way to build intimacy."
That said, Manly points out that those three little words can carry a lot of weight for some people, so it's worth considering how your confession might affect them and your relationship. "A person's proclamation of love can bring a 'not-so-ready' person closer, yet it can also scare someone away," she says.
If it's important for you to have the other person love you back, Manly recommends paying attention to body language cues as well as the other types of language they use to describe how they feel about you. "Couples often test each other out by paying attention to key phrases such as 'I'm catching feelings for you,' 'I really like you,' or 'I feel so close to you,'" she says. "Notice if these precursors to 'I love you' are in play. If they are, it may be the right time to voice how you feel."
Signs it's the right time to say "I love you":
- You feel like it's bursting out of you.
- You keep almost saying it or finding it at the tip of your tongue.
- You know your partner extremely well.
- You recognize your partner's flaws—but you still feel like you love them.
- You've had significant or meaningful experiences together.
- Statements like "I like you a lot" don't feel like they're enough anymore.
- You've been saying things like "I really like you" or "I feel so close to you" and getting positive responses from your partner.
- Your partner's been saying those types of statements too.
- You've been talking with each other about your relationship as if it's going to last.
When you shouldn't say it for the first time.
- During sex
- When drunk
- Over text
- When you feel pressured
- When you want something from them and think saying it will help
What if they don't say it back?
Your relationship isn't over just because your partner doesn't say "I love you" back to you the first time you say it, says Brown-James. "If there is rejection, it can hurt. It also doesn't mean the relationship has to end right then and there," she says. "Instead, it can take time to build toward that feeling for a lover."
There's no way to make someone fall in love with you, and Brown-James recommends against trying to speed up the process because it can make the other person uncomfortable if they feel pressured. That said, there are ways to grow your emotional connection with someone, which can help foster feelings of intimacy.
However, it's important to pay attention if mutual love isn't expressed eventually. "If a couple is dating seriously and the first 'I love you' has yet to be shared by both partners after eight months to a year has passed, that is a sign that something is amiss in either the direction of the relationship or the emotional availability of one or both partners," Manly says.
The bottom line.
When to say "I love you" for the first time depends on the circumstances in the relationship, what you're hoping happens once you confess, and whether you earnestly feel in love.
"In general, it's not the amount of time that passes that makes it the right time to say 'I love you,'" Manly says. "What matters most is that you know in your heart that the feelings you have in your heart are beyond infatuation."
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