Saying 'I Love You': The Psychology Behind Those Three Little Words

by Alexia LaFata

Last month, I had a long conversation in a bar with my friend Bryan about whether or not he should tell his girlfriend he loved her.

"In reality," he said, "I would have said it two months ago. But I was nervous."

I wondered -- besides the potential of rejection, the immense vulnerability and the significant threshold it crosses in any romantic relationship, of course -- why he was nervous. In my mind, the only thing scarier than saying, "I love you" when you mean it is not saying it.

The words -- so simple, yet dripping with heavy meaning -- weigh on the tongues and hearts of those forced to suppress it for even a second. Think about how you felt when you broke up with your ex, and you couldn't tell him how you felt anymore; it's devastating. So I couldn't imagine how painful those few months were for Bryan.

I told him there's something freeing about letting the words escape. You should tell her as soon as possible. Make it spontaneous. Don't plan it out or preface it with something serious; it will make you more apprehensive. Just do it when the moment feels right, whatever your personal definition of "right" might be.

A week later, in her dorm room, the moment felt right. And it was probably right for hundreds of other couples across the world that week, too -- in a bedroom, out to dinner, after sex, in the library, at the gym, mid-sentence.

Within a few months of our relationship, my high school boyfriend said it three times, on three separate occasions, before I finally said it back. My college boyfriend said it two days after we were official, and I said it back right away. Each time I said it, I felt different: in high school, I felt comfortable; in college, I felt passionate.

Both times, it felt like every other word I said to my partner that wasn't "I love you" was a lie. That's when I knew I had to say it.

But that's just me.

It's difficult to know if there's a right time to say the words, a right feeling we can categorize as "love." How do we know if what we feel is really love? And, upon knowing (or thinking we do), when exactly should we express that feeling?

According to Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D -- one of the world's leading experts in the study of emotions -- when it comes to saying, "I love you," there's often an emphasis on timing. Perhaps the "right" time to say it is after five dates. Or after three months. Or when you're absolutely bursting at the seams.

Every relationship develops differently, so these wide-ranging, often conflicting pieces of advice offer little guidance. You might take months to say it in one relationship and only a week to say it in another.

Comparing how you feel saying "I love you" in your current relationship to how you felt saying it to your ex is destructive. It's unfair to the uniqueness of your relationships. Each relationship offers new subjective benefits, feelings and experiences that are truly unparalleled.

When it comes to saying "I love you," it matters less how long you wait and more about the context of your entire relationship and what your emotions are telling you.

This might mean you find yourself saying the words "unconventionally" early, and it might mean you feel some other definition of "love" -- whatever that is to you --this time around.

There's a difference between "superficial romantic experiences" and "profound love," though, Dr. Ben-Zeév writes in AEON Magazine.

The former involves a paramount focus on sexual attraction and the latter is fueled by personal flourishing and shared experience. Both are important, but only profound love, which becomes stronger as familiarity increases, survives long term. He writes:

Sexual desire is boosted by change and novelty and diluted by familiarity. Romantic profundity increases with familiarity if the other person and the relationship itself, are multifaceted and complex... Indeed, it is in sharing what is important in our life that love becomes profound. Joint substantial activities have lasting impact on our lives and can also shape our personality.

Profound love takes time to develop, so it isn't exactly realistic to tell your partner you love him or her profoundly early on in your relationship. Although, you can certainly tell your partner you love him or her after a short time together, especially if it's how you feel at that moment.

Dr. Ben-Zeév says this kind of preliminary "I love you" is rooted in the great potential you sense, which can be equally as rewarding and equally as good of a reason to say it.

People develop and express love at different rates. According to Daily Mail, a 2013 survey from eHarmony suggests men take an average of 88 days to say "I love you," whereas women take an average of 134.

Another 2011 study demonstrated men were happier than women to receive confessions of love from their partners.

The difference in pace doesn't mean there are differences in romantic commitment, though: If you fell in love faster than your partner, you may very well be the one to fall out of love faster.

And your partner's relatively slower pace doesn't mean he or she isn't progressing with his or her feelings for you, although it can certainly feel that way.

When you're ready to tell your partner how you feel, the safest, least scary option for most people is to wait until you are sure your partner feels similarly. But Dr. Ben-Zeév advises against that:

While it is true that profound romantic flourishing involves mutual loving attitudes, this does not mean that you should hide your love, just because your beloved is not (yet) as in love with you as you are with him or her. You should be honest and open about your attitude and give your partner the time he or she needs for feelings toward you to develop into profound love.

It's important to respect different personality traits that cause people to express love differently and at different points in a relationship. Most importantly, while it's painful, it's important not to expect your partner to express his or her love at the same time you do.

You don't want your declaration of "I love you" to be contingent upon your partner responding with those specific words because they could end up having no meaning for your partner. It will do your relationship no good if your partner says, "I love you" just because he or she feels like it's the polite thing to say back.

Even further, everyone's definition of love is different, so trying to align your subjective interpretation of "love" with your partner's can be disappointing if the two aren't exactly the same. One definition of love does not trump another.

If you're fearful, you could start by sneaking the word "love" into casual conversation: calling your partner "love" or saying things like "I love ____ about you" until you feel brave enough to give the outright "I love you."

Yet, even after all this, even after you do say "I love you" and it feels magical and you're convinced this person is the love of your life and the future parent of your offspring, love can dissipate.

You might change, situations or circumstances might alter your landscape or chemical attraction might disappear too much, which would remove the passionate element necessary to keep the relationship alive.

It appears as though there are no real, established rules for love's growth or decay -- a sign of its true unpredictability. In this way, however, it also appears as though there's no better time than right now to say those three magic words.

So pick up the broken pieces of your last failed attempt, dust off your vocal chords and try again.