The first time I said “I love you” to a girl, I was fourteen years old and it was over text message. I didn’t have a clue what the words meant. “I love you” just seemed like a good way to communicate the hormonal storm of warm, fuzzy feelings that I was experiencing.
I definitely wasn’t talking about the love of a bride and groom on their wedding day, or the love of a couple who cares for one another through physical or mental illness, or the love that formed the bedrock of my great-grandparents 75-year marriage.
In the years that followed, as my understanding of love deepened, I got a lot more serious about these three little words. In fact, by the time Renée and I started dating, I was convinced that I didn’t want to say “I love you” until we were engaged.
I wanted to show Renée that I loved her countless times – the last of which would involve emptying my bank account for a shiny rock – before I told her that I did. It felt like the right standard. It was hard, and meaningful, and heroic. It was also something that Renée and I disagreed on.
As with most of our disagreements, Renée won. 5 months into our relationship, after a romantic evening at a little Italian restaurant celebrating Renée’s birthday, we said “I love you.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY “I LOVE YOU”?
Growing up reading books by Christian authors such as Joshua Harris and Jason Evert, the answer to this question was always the same. Love is not a feeling. Love is a choice. Love is about “wanting what’s best for the person you love.”
It’s not a bad definition for highlighting that love is more than just warm fuzzy feelings or sexual attraction. But it doesn’t actually help with figuring out when you should say “I love you” in a relationship.
Going by this definition, I could have said “I love you” to Renée on our first date – I certainly wanted what was best for her right from the beginning.
But it would have been bad timing. Because while “I love you” definitely communicates “I want what’s best for you,” in the context of a romantic relationship, these words also communicates something more.
Renée and I wanted what was best for each another right from the start, but over the months that followed, something changed. Something was different 5 months in, and it wasn’t that we’d had too much Italian wine. So, what was it?
We can find the answer in the words of St. John Paul II, when he said “the greater the feeling of responsibility for the [beloved] the more true love there is.” That something was responsibility.
Two dates in, I wanted what was best for Renée, but I didn’t feel any significant responsibility for our relationship. If we’d had a big fight, or a significant moral disagreement, or Renée had announced she was moving to Peru, that would have been the end of that.
Five months down the track, our relationship looked very different. Renée and I were dating long-distance, and we had made a number of intentional commitments to each other. Some examples were that we said good morning and good night to each other every day, we video chatted at least a couple of times a week, and once a month one of us would make the trip to see the other one in person. We had both taken a lot more responsibility for our relationship.
SO, WHEN SHOULD YOU SAY “I LOVE YOU”?
First and foremost, it’s good to start with the definition given by those Christian authors. If you can’t genuinely say that you want what’s best for the other person, you’ve got no business saying “I love you.”
But that’s just the first hurdle. Now you’ve gotta ask yourself “is responsibility present in our relationship?”
Have the two of you made a clear and exclusive commitment to each other?
Are you willing to invest in your relationship, even when it demands sacrifices?
Is your relationship heading towards marriage? Maybe not next week, or next month, but based on your current knowledge, could you see yourself marrying him/her one day?
If your answer to all of the above is “yes,” you’re probably in a good place to say those three words. But don’t take it lightly.
A mentor of mine, who had counselled many couples through their relationships, once said to me “saying those three little words changes everything.” He was right – saying “I love you” cranks the emotional intimacy dial up several notches in your relationship.
If you’re not sure whether this is the right time, that in itself is probably reason enough to wait. Love is patient. But in the meantime, constantly look for ways to show your significant other that you love him/her. That way, when you finally do speak those words, he/she won’t have any doubt.
LEARNING TO LOVE
Over two years into my relationship with Renée, I am very much still learning how to love her. I’m learning new ways to show my affection, I’m learning the things that make Renée feel the most loved, and I’m (hopefully) learning to be more selfless.
Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I’m a selfish jerk, who puts myself first, or gets impatient, or makes an unfair comment. In those moments, I’ve learning that love means acknowledging my fault, apologising, and starting over.
Saying “I love you” isn’t just a statement, it’s a goal. If I’d waited until I was perfect at loving Renée before I said those three words, I’d be waiting forever. So when I say “I love you”, I’m really also saying “I want to love you every day,” I want to keep learning to love you” and “I want to recommit to loving you every time I fail.”
Paul writes in Philippians 1:9 “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.” Love isn’t static. It’s something that should grow and deepen in knowledge and insight over time.
Saying “I love you” is just the start. The real challenge is learning to live it.