Here are some things I love: the 1990s drama ER, a perfectly fluffy frozen margarita, and showers that are so hot they burn a little. Here are some things I don't love: hubristic presidents, new haircuts that are too short, and the moment someone says "I love you," and you don't know what to do so you weirdly turn your head and sort of let them kiss your cheek. I mean, other than give your partner a half-cheek, what are you supposed to do if he or she said "I love you" first and you're not sure? You don't spit it out just to mitigate the awkwardness... or am I just a jerk?
Well, I am sometimes a jerk. I was a pretty big jerk when I made it seem like I have some abundant number of suitors telling me they love me daily. To be clear, this is not the case at all. Being told "I love you" in the romantic way is not an everyday experience for me, and I do not duck out of kisses on the reg. I have, however, heard the three words in a moment where I was not so sure (not AT ALL sure) that I was in love. And that is when I did the petulant cheek move, because I'm an adult woman.
Pretending your partner didn't just courageously share their vulnerable heart with you isn't judicious — it's just rude. But saying "I love you" when you don't mean it is cruel. I spoke to Dr. Gregory Kushnick, a psychologist specializing in dating and relationships, to figure out what to do if you find yourself in this extremely uncomfortable position. Here is his expert advice.
Don't Say It If It's Not Authentic To You
So maybe my turned cheek wasn't so off the mark after all? "If you're not sure, don't say it, but explain your position," says Dr. Kushnick. "Share your investment in the relationship and 10 other things that amaze you about your partner."
This is good advice, but I feel like my partner might just be like "enough with the 10 things you love about me, why aren't you reciprocating with the only words that matter?" Well, rather than buttering them up with compliments, you can get honest about why you aren't quite ready to say it back. "This moment is a great opportunity to work on sharing when you're at your most vulnerable," says Dr. Kushnick. Even if you aren't ready to say the words, "it gives you a chance to share your fears as well as the intensity of your feelings." I might even posit that sharing your fears is actually easier than saying "I love you."
Don't Beat Yourself Up Over Not Reciprocating
Imagine for a moment that you were the first to say "I love you" to your partner, and they didn't immediately say it back — sure, you'd be disappointed. However, if you genuinely loved your partner, you would also be willing to be understanding and patient with them and their fears around the vulnerability associated with the words, right?
"I love you" shouldn't be a phrase you use to accost your partner, it should be a gift to them. If you're going to take a lack of an "ILY too" response personally, you're probably saying "I love you" for the wrong reasons. The same goes for your eager beaver partner! Don't stress about taking your time to be sure about your feelings, you don't owe anyone's ego anything.
Take Some Time To Think About Why You Aren't Ready
"The lack of reciprocation is usually about timing, dishonesty about your intentions or difficulty being vulnerable," explains Dr. Kushnick. "If you're still scarred from a prior relationship, have the courage to share about it and assert your commitment to your partner." This sounds like a plan —TRANSPARENCY 2020!
I personally am terrified of stating those three little words out loud —they're raw, risky, and very real. Even when I love someone, emotional intimacy is difficult for me (according to my exes, and my therapist). "If you can't be honest about your feelings in this pivotal moment, it's is a sign that there are other topics to be discussed to shed light on your lack of reciprocation," says Dr. Kushnick. "Such as your difficulty with being honest or vulnerable, or putting into words how you feel.
Did your partner drop the L-bomb on you before you were ready? Take this opportunity to look at yourself and think about why you didn't reciprocate. Are you simply not in love with this person, or are you afraid to share big feelings at all like me? If the latter is the case, therapy is helpful. If you're not in love with your partner, it's OK to take your time and see how you feel in a month or so! It's also OK to break up if the relationship isn't working for you. Just keep the communication open, and remember, somebody loves you and that's a good feeling!