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Why It’s So Hard to Say ‘I Love You’

8 minute read
Belinda Luscombe is an editor at large at TIME, where she has covered a wide swath of topics, but specializes in interviews, profiles, and essays. In 2010, she won the Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for her stories on the ways marriage is changing. She is also author of Marriageology: the Art and Science of Staying Together.

I Love You is the title of at least 47 songs, 15 albums and 13 movies in the English-language canon. We say and hear it all the time — even if it isn’t directed at anyone in particular. The phrase, or a version thereof, adorns items as tiny as guitar picks and large as bags of dog kibble. And we get so close to saying it so often! We love Rihanna and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and even Vin Diesel. So much. Yet when it comes to actually speaking the words out loud, to another person, whose face we can actually see, people can get squeamish.

Why is that? TIME put the question to some therapists that we — well, that some might say we like very, very much. Here are some of their theories, and their advice.

Because it really is complicated nowadays

Psychologists have observed that modern relationships do not follow the map that used to help people guide their way to commitment. People used to meet, go out on a few dates, decide not to date anyone else, learn to trust each other, fall in love, say Those Three Words and then either officially partner up and maybe marry, or break up and fall into a deep funk before starting the process all over again. The relationships were more or less linear.

Now, ambiguity is the thing. As a result, people aren’t sure what their relationships are, let alone whether they will last. Maybe you hang out with someone, and perhaps you hook up with them a couple of times, but you don’t want to put a name on it — and there are reasons for this. “I think the ambiguity is motivated,” says Scott Stanley, a research professor in Psychology at the University of Denver. “Simply put, If I don’t make it really clear what I want, I cannot be rejected as deeply. Ambiguity feels protective.” He points to the rise in cohabitation as the ground zero ambiguous relationship: Hey, we’re planning a future together, but that future could be temporary.

Uncertainty makes people feel vulnerable, but it also gives them power. According to the mating theory known as the principle of least interest, the person who expresses more ambivalence about the relationship has the most power, because it means the other person has to be the one who does the pursuing.

Once someone has said I love you, they can’t unsay it. They’ve made a declaration as to what camp they’re in, whether their love interest feels the same way or not. For some folks, it feels like diving off the high board, naked, in front of the entire school (or office). Maybe it leads to glory, maybe you belly-flop.

Because of the ’80s

You can say I love you at any age to any friend/parent/child/pet, but the classic ILY is to a lover. Some psychologists believe that this generation’s belief in that particular relationship has been rocked because their parents were among the generation with the highest rate of divorce, which peaked in the mid-’80s in the U.S. They don’t want to go through that trauma again, and they may be still dealing with its emotional aftermath. Plus, they may question their feelings. “People find it more difficult to recognize the signs of a healthy relationship,” says Victor Harris, associate professor of Family, Youth and Community Sciences at the University of Florida, because they haven’t seen so many around them. “They don’t have a sense of the red flags they ought to be watching out for.”

Partly to inoculate themselves against a relationship going sour, couples are marrying later (28 for women and 30 for men in the U.S.), living together first and using algorithms to increase their chances of finding The Right One. And to provide a bulwark against the ill effects of a breakup, they’re showing more interest in prenups, investing in education and working long hours to make sure they can be independent.

Saying I love you to someone is throwing such caution to the winds. It’s committing to something that might not work out in the long run. A new, non-peer-reviewed but plausible study from homes.com suggests that about a third of people between 26 and 40 who are living with their parents are doing so because of love gone wrong. (An earlier study from the Max Planck institute also hinted at this.) For these folks, a declaration of love can seem more like diving off a high bridge, when you’re not sure what’s in the water below.

Because of 30-day returns

All right, maybe not exactly because of 30-day returns, but because of the indecision that makes that practice necessary — and also encourages it. There’s a theory of consumer behavior known as “choice overload,” which suggests that when people have too much choice, the mental effort required to select the exact right option is so great, that they shy away from it altogether. People who are seeking mates in the current era are presented with so many options, the FOMO can be chronic. What if you commit to Gregory Peck and then Cary Grant swipes right? (Look ’em up, younglings!)

People don’t want to choose wrong, so they delay making any decision. Saying I love you to one potential mate means you cannot say it to another. (Or if you do, you’ve misunderstood the terms of the deal.) “There is no decision without loss,” says psychologist Stan Tatkin, author of We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection and Enduring Love. “When you declare something about yourself to the other person, it makes real. It has somatic effect. It’s who you are.” This one is like not being able to decide which is the best diving spot, so you never dive at all.

Because of the I love over-you-ser

There’s always that one exception, the person who says I love you on the third date, or all the time, or to everyone. The person who says it when they can’t possibly mean it, right? Then there’s the one who turns around and behaves in a way that suggests the complete opposite. “Be very very afraid of that person,” says Tatkin. If people encounter such a person in a partner, sibling, parent or friend, it can make them allergic to those words. Just as parents can’t name their child after someone they hated at school, nobody wants to be associated with a phrase that once brought them pain, fear, repulsion or some combination of the three. This is like deciding not to dive because you have a morbid fear of water.

Because we haven’t listened to this advice

If you’re having trouble saying I love you, there are some workarounds. “Well, you can go into analysis for 20 years,” jokes Tatkin, “or you can just say it.” The key, say therapists, is to tell someone you love them without needing a particular response from them, but just because it’s true. You’re making a statement about yourself and your feelings, and that has benefits purely in terms of identity and emotional health. “Every time you [make a declaration like that] you strengthen your sense of self,” says Tatkin. “That’s what people don’t understand.”

It also helps to realize that humans have a need to love, therapists say, and to avoid meeting that need is to eliminate a key part of your humanity. Homo sapiens are herd animals who pair bond. So while it’s risky and dangerous to trust someone with such information (see: principle of least interest, above), it’s also one of the most exhilarating parts of belonging to the species.

“Just be honest and open,” says Harris. “Say ‘This is how I feel; you may not be there yet,’ and if you can trust that that person will safeguard your feelings, that’s a good thing.” There are limits, though. Don’t waste it. Don’t say it to get someone to sleep with you or to ward someone off from another suitor. Make sure it’s earned.

It might also help to know that studies have shown that men usually say I love you in a relationship before women do, and prefer to hear it before they have sex. Women are more circumspect, preferring to hear it said after the couple first has sex, “which more reflects women’s natural and smart response to be more cautious in committing to a specific man until really having sized him up,” says Stanley. “Women can still lose a lot more than men in making a bad choice.”

But once you jump, you’ll find your way through — and eventually back to land. If you simply can’t get the words out, you could always use the method attempted by the young man in British novelist Anthony Burgess’ fictional musical comedy Say it, Cecil. Every time he told someone he loved them, a natural disaster broke out. So he tricked fate by working up to it: “Isle of Man, Isle of Wight, Isle of Capri, Isle of You.”

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