The dos and don'ts of saying "I love you" for the first time

A relationship expert on what you have to do before you declare your feelings.

A relationship expert on what you have to do before you declare your feelings

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Declaring your love for the first time is a big moment. If it goes well, it can be cathartic, and mark a new, more intimate, stage in a romantic relationship. But as the "Marriage proposal fail" YouTube genre demonstrates, it can go the other way. How to avoid the awkwardness and of a love declaration gone wrong?

Janna Comrie is a therapist and couples counsellor and has spent a lot of time helping people to work through their romantic troubles. We asked her about the most common ways people go wrong when saying "I love you" and how to avoid bungling the moment.

How not to say "I love you"

Three little words, infinite ways to mess them up. According to Comrie, these are the most common:

The impulsive "I love you": Words have a way of blurting themselves out, especially when our conversational guard is down, like during sex, or when we're drunk. Comrie says that impulsive declarations are often followed by self-doubt: Do I really mean it? Did I freak out my partner? What if they don't feel the same way? What if I don't want to be in this?

The unreciprocated "I love you," repeated: According to Comrie, a lot of people are so "in love with the idea of being in love" that they tend to run ahead without waiting for their partners to keep up. "They know their partner isn't there yet, but they think 'I'm just going to keep saying it and when he's ready, he'll return my love.'" While it's possible to rationalize this behaviour in the situation, Comrie thinks it creates a lose-lose situation. Often, partners will simply break off the relationship to escape the mounting pressure of unreciprocated "I love yous". But even if they surrender, Comrie says it's a hollow victory. Hearing "I love you" from a partner who's been bullied into it is never fully satisfying.

The "I love you" of attrition: This is the flip side of the "unreciprocated I love you". Staring down a declaration of love from another person can be really uncomfortable, and sometimes it just seems easiest to give the other person what they want. Comrie advises against this. Remember, you're not going to get away with saying it once; you're going to have to keep saying it. And Comrie predicts that, if you are just playing along to satisfy them, you'll probably come to resent them.

It's not what you say, it's how you say it: Often, it's not the fact that you're expressing your feelings that's the problem, it's how you're expressing them. Comrie is a self-professed introvert who prefers to "blend in with the paint." Yet she told us that when she was in high school, her boyfriend had two dozen roses delivered to her school, turned up in a limousine, and took her to lunch at the fanciest restaurant she'd ever been to. He dropped her off in front of a full schoolyard. This is not how to tell a shy person that you care. "I wanted to die," said Comrie. "I've never been so embarrassed in my life. I hated every second of it."

How to avoid disaster

Declaring your love can go wrong, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. However, Comrie gave these three tips on how to avoid messing it up.

Establish a shared vocabulary: The word "love" means different things to different people. Where one person might mean "I think about you throughout the day and like spending time with you," another person might hear "I want to give you children. Today." So before you declare your love, you want to make sure you're both on more-or-less the same page.

Comrie recommends raising the topic indirectly. You might say "I read an interesting article on different definitions of love, and am not sure what I think. What's your take?" The "meaning of love" is a classic conversation topic among friends, and is less awkward than saying, "I want to say I love you, but I'm afraid you'll overreact."

Learn what kinds of expressions your partner is comfortable with: Comrie's high school lunch date was a catastrophe because her boyfriend was so fixated on his own grand gesture that he forgot that Comrie hates being the centre of attention. As she put it, "leave me a cute note; don't skywrite it." But not everyone feels this way. Some prefer the dramatic, and will be underwhelmed by excess discretion. The key is finding a means of communication that works for both of you.

Listen to your head, heart and gut: Comrie told us that we make our best relationship decisions when "we listen to three parts of our bodies: our head, our heart, and our gut." The head represents our intellectual evaluation of whether the person is right for us. It's a "looks good on paper" kind of assessment. The heart is about how we feel when we're around them, whether we have chemistry.  Our gut, says Comrie, is a kind of instinct that manifests in a pull or a repulsion. It draws us in or drives us away, even though it's nearly impossible to fully articulate.

These three aspects of ourselves can disagree. We can know someone is bad match but still be deeply drawn to them. Since telling someone you love them is a big move, Comrie says that if either head heart or gut isn't sure, you should hold off and gather more information.

Have you ever had a declaration of love go wrong? Be sure to mention it in the comments below.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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