The first time I said “I love you” to a girl, I was fourteen years old and it was over text message. I didn’t have a clue what the words meant – “I love you” just seemed like a good way to communicate the hormonal storm of warm, fuzzy feelings that I was experiencing.
In the years that followed, as my understanding of love deepened, I got a lot more serious about these three little words. In fact, by the time I started dating Renée, my now wife, I was convinced that I didn’t want to say “I love you” until we were engaged.
I wanted to show Renée that I loved her countless times – the last of which would involve emptying my bank account for a shiny rock – before I told her that I did. It felt like the right standard. It was hard, and meaningful, and heroic.
Over the first few months of our relationship, my perspective changed again. I began to understand in a practical way what it meant to love in a romantic relationship and Renée was usually my role model.
Five months into our relationship, after a romantic evening at a little Italian restaurant celebrating Renée’s birthday, we said “I love you” for the first time.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY “I LOVE YOU”?
Growing up reading books by Catholic authors such as Jason Evert, the answer to this question was always the same. Love is not a feeling. Love is a choice. Love is about “wanting what’s best for the person you love.”
It’s not a bad definition for highlighting that love is more than just warm fuzzy feelings or sexual attraction. But it doesn’t actually help with figuring out when who should say “I love you” in a relationship.
Going by this definition, I could have said “I love you” to Renée on our first date – I certainly wanted what was best for her right from the beginning.
But while “I love you” definitely communicates “I want what’s best for you,” in the context of a romantic relationship, these words also communicate something more.
What is it?
We can find the answer in the words of St. John Paul II, when he said “the greater the feeling of responsibility for the [beloved] the more true love there is.” That something was responsibility.
Two dates in, I wanted what was best for Renée, but I didn’t feel any significant responsibility for our relationship. If we’d had a big fight or Renée had announced she was moving to Peru, that would have been the end of that.
Five months down the track, our relationship looked very different. Renée and I were dating long-distance, and we had made a number of intentional commitments to each other. We made time to phone or video chat each other almost every day and once a month one of us would make the trip to see the other one in person. We had both taken a lot more responsibility for our relationship.
SO, WHEN SHOULD YOU SAY “I LOVE YOU”?
First and foremost, I start with the definition given by those Catholic authors. If you can’t genuinely say that you want what’s best for the other person, you’ve got no business saying, “I love you.”
But that’s just the first hurdle. Now you have to ask yourself “is responsibility present in our relationship?”
Have the two of you made an exclusive commitment to each other? Are you willing to invest in your relationship, even when it demands sacrifices? Is your relationship heading towards marriage? Maybe not next week, or next month, but based on your current knowledge, could you see yourself marrying him/her one day?
If your answer to all of the above is “yes,” you’re probably in a good place to say those three words. But don’t take it lightly.
If you’re not sure whether this is the right time, that in itself is probably reason enough to wait. Love is patient. But in the meantime, constantly look for ways to show your significant other that you love him/her. That way, when you finally do speak those words, he/she won’t have any doubt.
Samuel Brebner is a Catholic speaker and writer from the sunny shores of New Zealand. He works for Real Talk, a Catholic organization that speaks in high schools across Australia and New Zealand on the topics of love, sex and relationships. He writes to encourage young people to be all that God created them to be. For more of Sam’s writing, visit his blog https://parttimeprophet.com.