Love is patient, love is kind, but love can also be really effing scary. If your partner doesn’t say "I love you" back, it’s possible that fear may be holding them back. There are so many misconceptions about what love means that fear and confusion are understandable. But being vulnerable is also scary as hell, so if he didn’t say “I love you” back after you opened your heart, you’re allowed to be upset.
“It's OK to feel a bit self-conscious and exposed in this situation,” family and relationship therapist Nicole Richardson tells Elite Daily. Sharing your heart takes courage, and it’s natural to feel a little wounded when you don’t get that affirmation in return. But saying “I love you” and not hearing it back right away isn’t necessarily a red flag. “If this person cares for you, they may not be able to say ‘I love you’ back, but they can be tender and caring,” Richardson says. “Their behavior will often communicate their affection for you.” Your partner might be nervous about those words because of factors that have nothing to do with you. So before you worry that your relationship is over, take a step back to think about the context.
Your Partner Might Be Scared To Say “I Love You”
Some folks are taught that they’re supposed to be with the same person forever, and that love means controlling something about that person. Maybe your partner thinks love involves losing a part of yourself. None of these things are true, but all of them jeopardize the way individuals approach love. And by placing too much value on these flawed conceptions of love, people end up depriving themselves of experiencing love authentically and end up creating the very scenario they fear.
Maybe because they fear losing somebody, they let love be the reason why they cling onto a relationship long after it should have ended. Or if they’re terrified of being controlled, they cling so tightly to their singleness that they miss out on forming genuine, lasting attachments with other people. Maybe they maintain strict boundaries and cut themselves off from receiving care because they fear that they'll lose a part of themselves if they fall in love.
If your partner didn’t say “I love you” back, it could mean they’re not ready or able to be as vulnerable as you are in the relationship, Richardson says. “There are a lot of people who fear what will happen when they say those words out loud.”
Your partner might have been burned in the past and carry some emotional scars from a previous relationship. “Maybe the last time they said it, those feelings were rejected and unrequited,” Dr. Gary Brown, a Los Angeles-based relationship therapist, previously told Elite Daily. “They may have understandable fear.” If this is the case, it doesn’t necessarily mean your partner doesn’t feel love for you — they might just be unsure about how to express it in a safe way. And with time, they might become more willing to open up.
People Express Love Differently
Perhaps your partner was raised with a different conception of love than you were. People’s love languages can be shaped by what was modeled for them growing up. For instance, if they didn’t grow up in a household where “I love you” was said regularly, it might just be an unfamiliar way for them to express love. Quality time, physical touch, gift-giving, or acts of service might feel more natural.
Maybe this person needs more time to figure out how they express love and learn to recognize it in their lives. Maybe they need more evidence that you are a person they can place their trust in. Many people have been hurt by people who claimed to have loved them.
If he doesn’t say “I love you” back, and you feel nervous or worried, you can always ask (kindly) for more information about your partner’s history. “In the most gentle, nonjudgmental, and non-accusatory way, ask them what those three words might mean to them,” Dr. Brown suggested. “Find out whether they’re uncomfortable saying 'I love you' to people in general, including family and friends, or whether it’s specific to dating or your particular relationship.”
Then, consider whether you are feeling the love reciprocated by your partner (even if it’s not through their words). “It is important to ask yourself if you feel loved by this person,” Richardson says. After all, those words can be empty without real action and commitment to back them up. “There are people who will say the words but who don't actually mean it,” she says. “Don't settle until you find someone who waits to say exactly what they mean.”
You Can Still Move Forward
If your “I love you” goes unrequited, it’s not necessarily a sign that you’re headed for a breakup. Meaningful, lasting love needs time to develop. And just because a person fears love, or isn’t ready to say it, doesn't mean a relationship can't work. You might just need more time to create a stable foundation.
“Give yourself praise and grace for being willing to be brave and vulnerable,” Richardson says. Don’t agonize over whether you’ve said too much. You acted in boldness and authenticity, which is a beautiful way to live and love others. You deserve to be proud of yourself.
After you’ve taken some time to process the situation, think about what you’re going to need in your relationship moving forward. “There will come a point for you when, if your partner hasn't said it [that], it is time to reevaluate the relationship,” Richardson says, emphasizing that the timeline is different for everyone. But if you ultimately feel like your partner isn’t giving you the affirmation you need, it’s OK to walk away.
Dr. Brown noted that sometimes, people who can’t seem to say “I love you” are holding back emotionally—and that may end up being a long-term issue. “There might be some part of them that’s emotionally closed off,” he said. “And then you need to consider what the other implications are for your relationship.”
There’s no magic amount of time it takes for couples to say “I love you” to one another. Every relationship and every couple is unique. “There are some really healthy couples that may not use the words ‘I love you’ every day, but they express and show their commitment and affection for each other daily,” Richardson says. “If this does not describe your relationship, it may be time to ask yourself if this is the right relationship for you.” And if you make the decision to move on, that’s an act of love, too — towards yourself and what you have to offer.
Nicole Richardson, family and relationship therapist
Dr. Gary Brown, Los Angeles-based relationship therapist
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