“I love you.” Here’s how to keep these words romantic, expressive, and panic-free.

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There’s no phrase that holds greater power than these three words: “I love you.” Here’s how to keep them romantic, expressive, and panic-free.

As grown women, we find so many ways to communicate our complex feelings. And yet the best, most universal feeling of all-one that comes with a prepackaged, three-word phrase!-can be among the most challenging to articulate. If you haven’t gone there yet, saying “I love you” can be more angst-ridden than a root canal. If you’ve been saying it for years, those same words can feel like they need an emotional reboot. Read on for tips on declaring your love tenderly, fearlessly, and with a full heart, not a heart attack.

IF IT’S THE FIRST TIME

I’d like to validate any anxiety you may have. Uttering “I love you” can be a terrifying, extraordinary, starry-eyed-did I mention terrifying?-thing. But the vulnerability that makes it so intense is also what allows a relationship to cross over into new and exciting places: Sex is better, laughter is louder, commitment is stronger.

There’s no rule about when is right or who should say it first. Your intuition will probably tell you, so listen to it. When the word love feels like it’s about to climb out of your mouth, think, Why now? Why this person? If you know you love him or her…and you’re sure it’s not just lust…say it! Remember, you’re already brave enough to be open with yourself about how you feel. That said, accept in advance that it doesn’t always go down like in the movies. I once failed brutally at the first ILY: My boyfriend at the time, whom I definitely loved, said it first. Attempting a witty response, I said, “Fine, I love you, too,” which came across as cold rather than cute. But by night’s end, we were laughing about my awkwardness as I told him over and over how much I truly loved him. Sometimes that’s what romance looks like.

Also Read:  Your Life Plan, Your Dreams and Present Reality

IF IT’S THE MILLIONTH TIME

The words might roll off the tongue easier, but they’re no less rich. Once the reality of coupledom is grounded on planet earth, love reinforcement becomes especially important. Look your partner in the eye and tell them you love them…and why. It’s not just instinctual anymore; you love them because they nursed you through the flu, supported you through coworker drama, stood by you when your mom got sick. You know the expression “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”? Go on, count them. Out loud!

IF IT’S UNREQUITED

Maybe your love stories are moving at different speeds. Maybe you’re bursting with love, hinting without reciprocation. Or vice versa. If everything else checks out-commitment, closeness, sweet kisses-it’s probably shyness or emotional reserve on one of your parts. If so, stay calm: It will come. But be careful with those who don’t actually want love. A friend once confronted her long-term boyfriend about the fact that he’d never said it. He admitted it was because he didn’t love her yet, maybe ever. That’s painful stuff. Still, she did the right thing-and can finally stop wondering. And if you’re in the BF’s shoes, ask, What’s holding me back? You may have some soul-searching to do before you can fully embrace the gift of it all.

ALWAYS LOVE GENEROUSLY

Everyone wants to be loved. So tell people how fond of them you are: friends, family, not just lovers. Love is limitless, and the best way to soak in that goodness is to keep in mind how loved you are, too, by your partner, your mom, your cat, yourself. Especially yourself-because everything starts there.

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