There’s a lot of hype around the first time you say “I love you” to someone—and like, many Very Special Episodes dedicated to the phenomenon. We get all teen-anxious about it, worried about saying it the right way, worried about whether it’s too early to say it, worried that Johnny Footballplayer will laugh in our effing face is we’re that vulnerable. But after the floodgates finally open, something magical and terrible happens: It becomes so easy to say those three words that we, uh, kind of need to find different ways to say “I love you.”
This is largely due to the shadow side of longterm relationships, which is where all novelty goes to die. Think about it! Like, the first time the person you’re dating watches an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with you, it’s a special and heartwarming occasion. You’re sitting there like, “This human really VALUES me and cares about my passions and they’re really in it for the long haul. We’re going to have such a great time with our new friends Buffy and Willow and Xander and Giles.” The 132nd time the person you’re dating watches an episode of Buffy with you it’s, you know, Tuesday night. Like you’re both invested in the story but season seven is just emotionally draining.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that saying “I love you” when you’re in a longterm relationship is like watching the 132nd episode of Buffy. You still appreciate a good “I love you,” but it hardly feels the same when you’re casually throwing it over your shoulder while hurrying out the door in the morning as it did when your shiny new partner held your face in their hands and said it while staring into your eyes. “I love you” becomes less of an expression of devotion and more of a sign off, a reflex, a thank you.
So how do we make our feelings known in a way that still causes butterflies? First off, actions speak as loud as words, according to the “Love Doctor” Terri Orbuch, PhD and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great. You can pull a Bieber and write your beau a poem. Or she suggests you can kick it grade-school-style by penning an anonymous love note or finally framing that Instax shot of the two of you on vacation. If your partner’s love language is receiving gifts? “Get them something they’ve been saying they wanted or needed,” Dr. Orbuch says.
For those times when words are all you have to give, mix up the usual platitudes with these different ways to say “I love you,” courtesy of Dr. Orbuch.
“You make my life exciting and wonderful”
Even if the daily work grind has you two bickering at the end of the day over who should do dishes, you make up for it on the weekends. The occasional new restaurant or day trip out of the city keeps your life happy together.
“I love you even more now than when we first met”
For this one, you don’t leave your “I love you” hanging. You add a bit of sparkle to show your partner that each day your love for them grows. (Never mind that it has to keep growing to put up with all the idiosyncrasies you notice after the honeymoon phase—like, the way they chew.)
“I’m a better person because you’re in my life”
Hopefully that’s true! If you’re making the commitment to grow together as a couple, chances are you’ve helped each other grow as individuals along the way. I’ve learned to make pasta sauce in my relationship! I still need my partner to text the recipe instructions every time I do it, but like, I can definitely throw those ingredients in a pot all by myself. Thanks, Luke.
“You are my best friend”
Even if your real best friend is your roommate from college or Chrissy Teigen (in your heart), there’s a reason why people always brag about “marrying their best friend.” It’s because healthy relationships occur when you actually like hanging out with your partner and you’re not just trying to touch your parts to their parts till the end of time. Duh.
And last but hardly least, “I would still choose you”
“This is my favorite way to say I love you,” Dr. Orbuch says. “Every partner needs to hear these words on occasion. They are affirming, nurturing, and appreciative.”
Why is that? Well, although so many teen soap narratives look at love as this woven-in-destiny force, it is still a choice. You choose to actively love and be with your partner every day—even deep into season seven of your relationship. Even when the apocalypse is nigh, your home seems crowded, and the plot lines aren’t as fresh as they used to be. Telling someone that they’re still your chosen one is a big deal.
“It is also a reminder that you are renewing your commitment and love in this relationship,” Dr. Orbuch says. “Also, in my long term study [following 373 couples over more than 30 years] one of the women told me her husband always wrote in a greeting card to her, ‘I would still choose you if I had to do it all over again.'”
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
We figured out why receiving a platonic “I love you” is almost weirder than a romantic one. And if you feel yourself free-falling out of love [insert sad face emoji], here’s how to know if you should catch yourself.
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