You’ve been dating your partner for some time, and you’ve finally found the courage to say those three special words. Three words and eight letters may not seem like much, but saying “I love you” for the first time is a big deal. Not only can it be terrifying to put your feelings out there, but you’re also not guaranteed to hear those words in return. So, what do you do when you tell someone you love them and they don’t say it back? While it can feel like the worst thing in the world in that moment, experts say, you shouldn’t worry.
“It’s really scary for a person to venture forward to say ‘I love you,’” clinical psychologist and author, Dr. Carla Marie Manly, tells Bustle. “In fact, many new couples play an unconscious game of ‘feeling it out’ when (and if) the other person is falling in love at the same pace.”
If you feel ready to say “I love you” first, Dr. Manly recommends doing a few things. First, get to know what you’re really feeling. In the early stages of a relationship, Dr. Manly says, it’s easy to confuse love with infatuation, passion, or simply the joy of dating. When you mistake lust for love, your “I love you” won’t be coming from a genuine place. Instead, it’s most likely coming from a place of insecurity and your partner may not react to the situation in a positive way.
But if you’re genuinely in love and you want to express that, go for it. And if you find yourself in a situation where you’re saying “I love you” and not hearing it back from your partner, here’s what experts say you can do.
When you tell someone you love them and they don’t say it back, it’s easy to beat yourself up over it. But as licensed psychotherapist, Victoria Elf Raymond, PhD, tells Bustle, you’re only human. “Of course it feels much better for your partner to reciprocate, but just because you didn’t get the response you wanted, it doesn’t mean you were wrong for expressing yourself,” she says. Instead, be proud of yourself that you were finally able to say it, as not everyone can be as courageous as you. Plus, it’s better than having to think about all the “What ifs?”
If they don’t say “I love you” back, don’t react to their lack of response with anger, licensed therapist Ieshai Bailey, CMHC tells Bustle. Although it’s common to push the subject or question their response, that can put your partner on the defense. According to Bailey, it’s important to keep calm. Avoid reacting or jumping to conclusions. And remember, it’s not necessarily a red flag if they don’t reciprocate right away.
Relationship and communication expert Chloe Ballatore says your partner may just not be prepared with an answer. “It is absolutely normal for one person to say ‘I love you’ first and not hear it back. In my practice, that’s what happens about 50% of the time.”
While it’s nice to hear “I love you” back, it should never be expected when you’re saying it to them for the very first time. As Dr. Raymond says, “We are all so different when it comes to how we show love, and when we show love.”
It’s possible your partner is more cautious about falling in love due to past experiences, or they’re just more comfortable showing you how they feel. As relationship coach Courtney Boyer tells Bustle, “People who have been hurt by serious relationships may be more reluctant to allow themselves to experience love and acknowledge it verbally (i.e. saying I love you out loud),” she says. “If you grew up in a house where ‘I love you’ wasn’t said often or ever, you may be less likely to blurt it out when your partner does.” Regardless of what the reason is, give them time to process the situation.
Sometimes words just come out without you intending it to. “If you find that in a moment of passion or under some other situation that you tell your partner, ‘I love you!” and your partner does not tell you that they love you back, just move on,” relationship expert and spiritual counselor Davida Rappaport, tells Bustle. If it makes you feel a little better, you can even pretend you never said anything at all. “By ignoring it, you already let them know how you feel,” Rappaport says. “The seed has been planted.” And they will respond back in time.
When you tell someone you love them and they don’t say it back, it’s important to remember that everyone is different. “People rarely experience the same intensity of emotions simultaneously,” Boyer says “It’s likely that one person will fall in love faster than the other.” This doesn’t mean that your partner doesn’t have feelings for you, or that you’ll always be a little more invested in the relationship than they’ll be. That’s why it’s important to just feel things out first.
As New York–based relationship expert and author, April Maccario, tells Bustle, “Understand that you’ve overplayed your hand and decide what to do next.” Whatever you do, don’t try to force an answer out of your partner or make any passive-aggressive jokes about the situation.
Don’t let saying “I love you” and not hearing it back put you off from expressing yourself in the future. “Love has varied connotations, meaning some people have it on the tip of their tongue and some reserve it for rare occasions,” Ballatore says. “The important thing is how you feel with the other person and their readiness to make and keep agreements with you. Actions speak louder than words.”
Although it’s important to give your partner enough time to process their feelings, you don’t have to completely let go of the situation or push your feelings aside until your partner is ready. According to Manly, hearing the words “I love you” is vital for some to feel safe and connected in their relationship. Letting go of the issue completely will only lead to hurt and resentment. Instead, take some time to better understand your partner and their feelings on those three special words.
“Some people freely dot the landscapes of their relationships with ‘I love you,’ statements whereas others are more parsimonious with these same words,” Manly says. “Some partners who are not prone to ‘I love you’ verbalizations show love in different ways that are meaningful to them. However, some partners may have unresolved love-related wounds; for these individuals, saying ‘I love you’ can evoke unconscious fears of emotional pain.” Everyone is different, so learning more about your partner can help you overcome any fears you may have about your partner’s feelings for you.
Practicing gratitude and thinking about what have is a good way to move on from things that may be troubling you. In this case, think about the connection you have with your partner. What made you fall in love with them? What have they done to make you feel loved? “If your partner has a good explanation for not saying ‘I love you,’ the issue can become inconsequential,” Manly says. “For example, it may feel fine not to hear an ‘I love you’ from a partner who shows a great deal of love and affection through acts of kindness and physical demonstrativeness. When partners enjoy a heartfelt connection, the words ‘I love you’ are etched into their deeply loving daily experiences.”
Once you’ve had a discussion with your partner and gather more information on why they’re not saying “I love you,” it’s important to honor their feelings. If you’re with someone who will have a hard time saying those words, don’t try to push or change them.
But it’s also important to honor your own feelings. If hearing “I love you” is essential for your sense of security in the relationship, you may need to consider if this is the right person for you after you’ve given them some time. As Dr. Manly says, “Trust that your capacity to love is better turned to someone who is able to appreciate your special brand of love.”