Why My Relationships Never Make It to “I Love You”

love note collage illustration

After my last relationship ended, I had a revelation: Despite feeling love for my partner and — I think, anyway — showing love, I could not say, “I love you.” Not when he flew across the country for my birthday, nor when we talked under the starlight at an AirBnB in the middle of a Redwood forest. I couldn’t say it when he laid his head on my chest the last night of my week-long stay in California, nor when he actually listened to me after a serious discussion we had about relationship needs.

When I try to unpack my hesitation, I find only a tangled web of not-quite-right theories. Was it because he didn’t say it first? I don’t think I subscribe to any rules around that, gendered or otherwise. Did I think he didn’t care? No, he was emotive and affirming, and I felt safe. Did I not really love him? That doesn’t feel like it either; I believe love is often felt before it’s said. But then why didn’t I say it?

The simplest answer, I’m afraid to admit, is that I’m nervous about what comes after. There’s something about saying those three little words that marks a transition in your relationship; once you say it once, you’re expected to keep saying it. You usually don’t break up with someone you just started to love; you can’t back away from that word. Usually, saying “I love you” means you’re all in. Or so I think it should, in an ideal world.

I asked Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor at OnePatient Global Health, to explore this subject with me. She agreed there are probably a few factors contributing to my verbal block, like a fear of rejection, for instance, even if I did feel “safe” in my relationship. “There is such profound concern with being fiercely independent today, and saying ‘I love you’ makes you vulnerable,” she says.

I’ve only expressed love one time. My first boyfriend told me he was falling in love with me, and a few weeks later, we exchanged the words for real. The next day, he broke up with me. We ultimately did get back together — he said he ended things out of fear and I believed him — but I hated that I hadn’t seen his reaction coming. I pride myself on that. If I can predict outcomes, I can save myself pain.

There’s a part of me that thinks I’m always searching for signs someone will leave before they actually do. Signs they’ll get scared and bow out. “Longevity has always been the hallmark of successful relationships, and many still hope [for] that,” Ivankovich says. “But modern relationships are difficult to traverse. Each person, while interested in being a couple, is still extremely independent. They fear the ‘me’ becoming a ‘we.’”

I don’t personally fear becoming a “we,” but I do fear the other person will not want it as much as I do. I often fall in love with men who are similar to me: ambitious, passionate, focused on careers and goals that have high potential to pull us apart. I typically start forecasting the future after only a few months, or even weeks. And while I’ve often seen friends use the word “love” very quickly in relationships, I can’t fathom myself doing that. Instead, “love” feels like a word I need to protect — in part because I believe it’s more than a feeling; it’s a choice that needs to be made consistently.

I may have felt love for him, and he may have felt love for me, but perhaps I didn’t believe the verb would carry on past the noun.

When I think of the last few guys I’ve dated, the consistency wasn’t always there. Take my recent ex, for example, who would frequently forget about scheduled phone calls or prioritize me differently than I would have hoped. I may have felt love for him, and he may have felt love for me, but perhaps I didn’t believe the verb would carry on past the noun.

Historically, I’ve been pretty commitment-shy in romantic relationships, not because I fear it, but probably because I take it very seriously. Committing to love another person isn’t always pleasant, is often self-sacrificing, and I want to feel that both my partner and I are mutually ready for that.

After I share all this with Ivankovich, she wonders if I’m sabotaging my relationships before they have a chance to advance by way of sharing vulnerable feelings like love, and expectations like commitment. “Are you saying that a man has to love you the way you want him to love you or you feel as if you can’t commit?… If you don’t say [“I love you”], and you think you know the outcome before you get there, your relationship fails anyway. If you do say it, and you guys talk more openly about the future, you have a shot of making it work.”

It made me wonder: What would happen if I lived within my relationships more, without trying to forecast their outcomes? What would happen if I gave my partners a shot at changing the narrative, or catching up to my feelings and what they represent for me? When I consider what might have happened with my recent ex had I shared my feelings and he didn’t return them, the possible outcomes aren’t as bad as I feared. In fact, his response might have proven to be valuable information. The words might have even shattered walls. I guess I’ll never know.

Ultimately, I believe in taking risks for love; I advocate for it in my writing. While sometimes old habits of self-protection die hard, there is likely less to lose than I fear when I instinctively hold back those words. Maybe next time, I’ll just let ‘em fly.

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

Jenna Birch

Journalist, dating coach and author of The Love Gap.

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