Why It’s So Hard for Some to Say ‘I Love You’

  • 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.

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. The ambiguity is motivated. Simply put, If I don’t make it really clear what I want, I cannot be rejected as deeply. Ambiguity feels protective. There is a 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. Todays 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, 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 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. 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.
  • 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. We Do say 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. 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 or you can just say it. The key, 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. 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. 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. 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.”

What Does “Love” Mean?

  • Of course, it depends on how we define “love.” Unfortunately, our concept of love is often limited by the idea of being “in love” with another person, with butterflies in our stomachs and a compulsive need to be with them. But that hearts-and-roses version of love falls short of what it means to truly love another.
  • Perhaps the best way to define love is to ask ourselves how we would like to be loved. Love is “that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” That definition seems to fit many of our close relationships, and I suspect most of us would like to be loved in that way.
  • Love is also the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing … another’s spiritual growth. Both of these expressions of love describe an overarching care for another person — wanting the best for them and being willing to do something to make their life better.
  • Descriptions of love in religious traditions often echo these concepts. When Jesus said to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), for example, he probably didn’t mean to “be in love” with them. Rather, love meant showing genuine care for another person.

Love Is All Around You

  • These definitions of love seem to apply to more than our family members and romantic partners. I have no doubt that many teachers enact these concepts of love toward their students. Many doctors demonstrate real love for their patients, and patients often have reciprocal feelings and wishes toward their doctors. We don’t want strictly technical support when we’re sick; we want to believe the other person actually cares about us, and that they’ll be happier when we’re happier. One of the most common compliments I read on reviews of doctors is that they “really seemed to care.” Love probably has a lot to do with the so-called “placebo” response — a sugar pill dispensed by a loving hand is not an inert substance.
  • While it seems taboo to say it, love would seem to be the driving force behind effective psychotherapy, to. Most therapists seem drawn to the field at least in part because they genuinely care about others and want to improve their lives. And yet having a personal investment in a client’s recovery might be labeled as therapist “countertransference.” Expressing (non-romantic) love for a client would likely be considered a “boundary crossing,” if not an outright ethical violation.
  • Love isn’t limited to the helping professions, either. Any work can be offered up with love: mopping a floor, preparing food, driving a truck. Love is even expressed between strangers — obvious examples include letting another driver go in front of you, offering a parent your seat on a train so they can sit with their child, yelling to the driver to wait for someone running to catch the bus, even donating a kidney to someone you’ve never met. Why do people extend themselves for others whom they’ll probably never meet again?
  • Here are few examples of how routinely we look out for one another in public spaces. In a subway terminal, it’s common practice when someone with a baby carriage gets to the steps, that someone who does not know that person is going to pick up the front of that baby carriage and get on up the stairs with that person. Similarly, we help people with their heavy luggage, “in that gentle, tender way” that expects nothing in return.
  • We express love for others in these ways because we know we’re the other person at times — if not in the past, then in the future. You help someone with their heavy luggage because we all need help with our luggage. We all need help. We all need to be taken care of and held. That is absolutely an expression of love.
  • And yet expressing our love is not without risk. To say you love another person is a kind of extreme vulnerability. Because if what you love gets hurt or gets taken away, then you, too, are going to be hurt or diminished.

Love Is Your Nature

  • Despite the daily expressions of love we give and receive, there are countless examples of unloving behavior — meanness, abuse, spitefulness, neglect. These experiences can make it easy to overlook instances of love. But when we pay attention, we’ll likely discover a commonplace love that fills the space around us.
In almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking…. This caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always.
  • In public spaces, terrible touch is an aberration. Sweet touch — helping someone up, letting someone know it’s their turn to go by tapping them on the shoulder or forearm … That is actually the ground of our existence. We mostly do understand how to care for one another. And those little moments of public physical interaction are probably evidence of that.
  • Some men may find it harder to demonstrate love because of stereotypes about masculinity. This struggle to express love safely is captured in expressions like, “I love you … man.” I used to believe the myth that “tough guys” don’t have “mushy feelings” like love. But if you know any tough guys — or if you’re one yourself — you know that nothing could be farther from the truth. Some of the toughest people I know have the softest hearts and the fiercest love.
  • No matter who we are, expressing our love is imperative if we want to protect what we care about. We need to practice noticing and articulating and hollering about what we love, because it helps us to preserve those things.

Understanding what “I love you” really means

  • The three words “I LOVE YOU” can be for some the most challenging words to say — and yet also the most appreciated

Why is saying “I love you” in any relationship such a big deal?

  • At the core of every human being, we all just want to be loved and appreciated for who we are. So, letting someone know that you love them is one of the most precious gifts you can give.
  • They’re significant because they when love emerges it means that you have come to appreciate both the positive and negative, good and bad, happy and sad and ups and downs of a relationship.

What does it mean to say, “I love you”?

  • Many people hold back on sharing their love and appreciation for others because of a fear of rejection. So, these words can really indicate true vulnerability and intimacy between you and your partner.
  • Every time you care for someone more fully and tell them how much you care, you increase your self-worth. The phrase “I love you” can also mean that you love and appreciate yourself as well.

Why do we place so much importance on these three words?

  • When love emerges, it means that you have come to appreciate both the positive and negative, good and bad, happy and sad and ups and downs
  • In a study people were asked what they would do if they were told they only had 24 hours to live. In all, if not most cases, they say they would make sure they used their last hours to say, “Thank you, I love you” to all the people that they feel have contributed towards their lives.
  • “I love you” is a phrase that is universally seen as important and significant to any relationship, romantic or otherwise. It’s a way to share your appreciation for someone and the truth of your heart.

Love is our ultimate objective, whether we’re aware of it or not

  • We may think we’re looking for something else, something material and fleeting, but even the pursuit of transient goals just leads us back to the truth of love. The purpose of all relationships is to dissolve the barriers that keep us from recognising the love that already is and expressing the love we ultimately are.

How else can we express how we feel if not by saying, “I love you”?

  • We can express our love for our partner by helping them fulfil what is most important to them and what they value most. It shows that we listen to them and understand what they desire and what is most meaningful to them. Taking the time to find out what is important to them, linking your values to what they love and communicating their values, can bring you both fulfilment and appreciation for each other.

Other ways you can express your love is by showing gratitude

  • Here are some ways you can show gratitude:

Say “Thank you”

  • You can do this by saying ‘thank you’. There is no limit to how many times you can thank a person, and while they seem like two simple words, their meaning is universal and their effects can be profound.

Write a thank you note

  • Write them a thank you note and let your message come to you in the moment — there is no need for the words to make sense to anyone else but the person it is intended for.


  • A smile can be contagious if it comes from the heart and can tell a person much more than what words can say.

Give a gift that counts

  • The power of a gift is ultimately the thought that goes into it. Take the time to really look at who the gift is intended for and what they value most in life. Everyone wants to be loved and appreciated for who they are. If you give a gift that really speaks to their values — it’s likely to be remembered forever.

Are there other ways of understanding how somebody feels — without hearing them say, “I love you” and how can we recognise these signs?

  • Love involves embracing who each of you is and what each of you brings to the relationship: two distinct perceptions and ways of thinking and feeling about the world.
  • This is what I call the love dance, where both partners learn to enjoy all parts of themselves and of one another. When you love people for who they are, they turn into who you love.
  • Love comes when you realise that the purpose of a relationship is not only romance, joy, support and so-called happiness; it is also equally about learning, challenge, growth and personal evolution.

A fulfilling relationship requires concentration, organisation, effort, and skill

  • There’s serious work in keeping and developing any connection with others, whether it’s personal or professional. Anytime you don’t put action and energy into your relationships, they automatically undergo entropy and decay. So your desire to be close to your partner, physically and intellectually, and to understand their values can bring you closer to love.

If you’re still struggling to overcome the fear of saying “I love you” I suggest the following:

  • Write down 25 benefits to you of your sharing the words ‘I love you’ with the person you wish to share your heart with, and then also write down 25 drawbacks to you of not sharing the words ‘I love you’ with them. whenever we see more benefits than drawbacks in an outcome, we take action.
  • Write down all the things you fear may occur if you say ‘I love you’ and then take each item you listed and ask how it will benefit you if it occurs. Every situation has a balance of support and challenge and no matter what happens you will always experience both sides.
  • Write down 25 benefits to the person hearing you say you love them and 25 drawbacks for that person if you do not tell them. When you perceive more benefits to them of hearing the truth of your heart you will feel inspired to tell them you love them.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Here are some ways to start expressing your feelings to family and friends.
  • Some people let months and years pass without telling someone they love them. Then, the day comes when they realize they no longer have the opportunity to tell those people how much they love them, either because some illness has made them unable to understand, or because death has taken them away. Don’t let that happen.
  • Fill each page of your life with expressions of love towards your family and friends. For those who have a hard time saying “I love you,” here are a few ideas to help you show your affection for the people you love.


  • We all need to know that we’re loved, that other people know we exist, and that we mean more to them then a piece of furniture. We need people to tell us that, although it doesn’t always have to be with words. We are body and spirit, and our body has hearing, touch, sight, etc. Use whichever form of expression works best for you (a hug, a written note, or spoken words); but be sure it’s understood.


  • If you don’t tell people how much you love them, you can end up only telling them what you think is wrong about them, by complaining or criticizing them. We have to keep balance in our communication, and make sure that they hear the gratitude and affection that’s truly in our heart.


  • How do we do that? Maybe the first step is just to recognize out loud that we don’t express our affection enough. We can say something like, “You know it’s hard for me to express affection, and that I don’t usually talk about these things, but you do know that I love you, right?”


  • There are a thousand simple ways to do it! For example, you can leave a Post-It on the refrigerator saying, “I love you!” Or, if you have trouble finding the right words, use the lyrics of a song you love, or the words of a famous poet.


  • If there’s a wedding or anniversary coming up and you’re going to be expected to say some words in public, but you don’t feel like you’re going to be able to say something coherent, ask for help. Talk to a friend or family member who’s good with words, or even a professional, and tell them what you feel, giving them concrete information about your history with the person or people in question. They can help you write something that expresses your feelings.


  • Are there things you need to say to someone in your life? Don’t wait for tomorrow to say what you can say today. God forbid something tragic occurs and you end up sorry you didn’t speak earlier.


  • It’s a way of saying to other people, “I’m glad you exist,” and “I want good things for you now and always.” These words will stay with them and help keep your relationship intact in times of difficulty.


  • If your favorite way to communicate is by text message or chat, express your love that way. With time, it will get easier for you, and you’ll be able to do it in a more romantic or affectionate way, in person. If your favorite form of communication is a phone call or face-to-face conversation, do it that way. Use whatever form of communication is most comfortable for you. The most important thing is to do it!
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