If I’ve learned anything from CW teen dramas—and trust me, I could get a PhD in Gossip Girl—it’s that most first instances of saying “I love you” are more-or-less unplanned. Those heavily weighed three words, eight letters can become a big point of contention in the relationship. Let’s say one person blurts it out, and the other person is totally caught off guard and says something asinine—obviously it’s about to be a belabored problem. Bravo to Riverdale for ignoring that trope for Betty and Jughead (but boo for pulling that noise with Veronica and Archie).
Anyway, while you may well have more emotional control than a 25-year-old actor masquerading as a teenager, when those loving feelings start brewing for a new significant other IRL, you’d still be wise to have a plan of attack in mind for knowing how to best proceed. Because if I’ve learned two things from CW teen dramas on the matter, the second is that they’re, well, not un-right about “I love yous” being sometimes ill-received, which makes no one feel great. If the recipient reacts a little callously, or a little dismissively, or shuts down the whole convo completely, the result can be a breeding ground for anxiety.
And perhaps this points to why so many people prefer for their partner to spill the “I love you” beans first. “Most humans fear being rejected,” says relationship expert Susan Winter. “Therefore, they don’t want to be the first want to say I love you.”
This makes sense—no matter how old you are, emotional vulnerability can be tough. So when those pesky, adolescent-esque nerves about unrequited love strike, what do you do? Once and for all, how do you tell someone you love them? While there’s no real science to inform the “how” piece, there are some expert tips you may want to keep in mind about showing your love colors.
How do you tell someone you love them without turning into ball of anxiety? Read on for 4 expert-approved tips.
1. “I love you” isn’t a discussion or a debate—it’s a statement
“The only way to confidently say ‘I love you’ is to do so as a monologue. This means the outcome is irrelevant as opposed to the significance of your statement,” Winter says. By reimagining the statement as an expression, not a negotiation, you’ll likely defuse a certain amount of anxiety you have about sharing the thought because you’re sharing news without looking for a response.
Even if you go the route of grandly expressing your feelings, don’t do so with the objective in mind to persuade someone. You can’t control the other party—you can, though, be certain about your feelings.
2. “I love you” isn’t something you use as bait for an ego boost
Of course you want the recipient of your “I love you” to say it back—or to at least refrain from throwing something like, “Thank you?” your way, Ryan Atwood-style. Like, I get it—that stings and stinks. But if you’re looking to get an ego boost by shooting out an “I love you” with the hopes of getting one back, you’re barking up the wrong tree as far as your emotional well-being is concerned.
“The most in powerful way to say ‘I love you’ is when you’re not seeking a response of validation.” —Susan Winter, relationship expert
“The most in powerful way to say ‘I love you’ is when you’re not seeking a response of validation,” Winter says. It’s really important that you go in with your statement completely sincerely and not shoot it out with hopes of bolstering your self-esteem with an “I love you, too.” That’s a real bad look.
3. Don’t say “I love you” if you’re trying to force someone’s hand
“The wrong time to say ‘I love you’ is if you’re fearful that your partner doesn’t love you, and you’re saying this in order to get them to do so as well,” Winter says. Because even if you ultimately do get the verbal response you want, there’s something grimy in pushing someone to say it. And more importantly, the other person likely won’t harbor the authentic feelings to back up the statement, rendering it pretty meaningless.
“The wrong time to say ‘I love you’ is if you’re fearful that your partner doesn’t love you, and you’re saying this in order to get them to do so as well.” —Winter
Like, do you remember how in Gilmore Girls, Dean said “I love you” to Rory after three months of dating, and after building her a car, and then got super upset when she didn’t say it back? And then broke up with her (ostensibly because he thought he had earned her love and was angry at her and the unfair world in which we live)? Alternatively, Jess dropped an “I love you” in season four, and then just walked off the show without fanfare, but he later pulled some ugly “Rory, run away with me” nonsense when she was at Yale.
Tl;dr: Don’t deliver an “I love you” like an emotionally unstable teen boy trying to pressure his girlfriend. It really sets a bad tone for the rest of the relationship.
4. Don’t meander around the point; if you mean it, speak it.
While they’re not words to be taken lightly or to be suppressed indefinitely, the right answer for when and how to tell someone you love them is simply when you mean it. “I’m baffled as to why people feel embarrassed or ashamed to say these three beautiful words that signify love’s affirmation,” Winter says. Still she acknowledges that while telling the truth is powerful, in practice it requires courage.
And to provide you with a hearty dose of that courage, just know that there’s no deep strategy to saying “I love you.” Taking the leap shouldn’t be something you draw out for months. Access whether your reason for saying it is pure and true…and then go for it. “The best way to say ‘I love you’ is to simply say it,” Winter says. “Make sure it’s from the heart. And make sure you’re ready to stand behind the depth of its meaning.”
As long as you’re true to yourself, your feelings, and your intent, the outcome will be okay. Even if you do get a “Thank you?” at first.
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