It's easy to text "ily" or "love you" to your friends or loved ones but the phrase becomes a serious affair when said to a romantic partner. This overemphasis on romantic love can make the concept appear more weighty than it is, making people mull over it before saying it out loud. You may scribble the words in your journal when writing about your lover but in real life, you could be tip-toeing around the phrase, waiting for the other person to take the leap first. It's a classic strategy to avoid rejection!
Even if you are in love, you'd rather show it through romantic gestures, physical affection, or emotional support than say it. Your partner may get a hint that you're in love with them but without verbal confirmation, there's still slight ambiguity in your relationship. But you thrive on this ambiguity. It protects you from a negative outcome but it also makes you passive, stuck in a stagnant relationship.
I was in several inert relationships before I realized my fear of admitting my love for my partner stemmed from commitment issues. “I love you” felt like a call to action, a responsibility, or an iron-clad commitment rather than a wonderful feeling. Your perception of love may vary and your hesitancy may be motivated by different fears. But if love is universally understood as positive and warm, why is it so unnerving to verbally express it?
There's too much ambiguity in modern relationships
As a kid, fairy tales were my models of love, a world where the prince and princess fall in love at first sight, seal their love with a kiss and live happily ever after. It was a pleasant concept but too elementary for the complexity of human relationships. Now, several heartbreaks, relationships, and stories later, I realize how complex love really is.
Consider the intricacy of modern relationships that do not follow the old road map toward commitment. In the past, people would meet, go out on romantic dates, become exclusive, fall in love, say it, and then get married - it was a linear process. But now, people are more comfortable with ambiguity and deviate from the conventional stages of a relationship. You may start hooking up with someone before going on a date with them. Even if you go for cutesy dates, hold hands, and have fun between the sheets, you may still be shy about labelling each other as boyfriend or girlfriend.
Scott Stanley, a research professor in Psychology at the University of Denver, explains the reasons for this ambiguity in an interview with Time. “I think the ambiguity is motivated. Simply put, If I don’t make it really clear what I want, I cannot be rejected as deeply. Ambiguity feels protective.” He says that preferring cohabitation over marriage is the cornerstone of an ambiguous serious relationship, essentially, saying, "we're committing to each other but that commitment may be temporary."
The less committed person feels more powerful in the relationship
Not committing to a relationship makes people feel confused but it also gives them a sense of power. The American sociologist Willard Waller coined the term “Principle of Least Interest” to describe power dynamics between partners with different levels of affection. The theory says that typically, the less-involved partner in the relationship will feel more powerful than the person who does the pursuing.
The ambivalent partner wants to appear casual and distant to protect themselves from vulnerability from the intense emotion of love. They’re under the impression that putting yourself in the open and saying, "I love you" means that you’re bound to a person or surrendering your emotions to them but that’s a flawed perception of love.
You want to avoid a messy breakup or divorce
Admitting to your parents that you love them is easy as you have a sense of security that they won't abandon you even if you have huge arguments or fights. However, a romantic relationship is seen as more fragile and trauma-inducing than broken family ties so it can be terrifying to say "I love you" and then face rejection. Additionally, adults who've seen their parents go through a divorce may be more sceptical of long-term relationships. To avoid separation trauma, unsurprisingly, they’ll question their feelings of love a thousand times before making it official.
Therefore making cohabitation a more preferred option than marriage. They're also more likely to put themselves first by opting for prenups, investing in their education and career to secure their freedom and independence. It's a practical approach to love but focuses on the "what could go wrong" outcome too much.
Their relationship could be loving and healthy but Victor Harris, associate professor of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences at the University of Florida, says that they fail to recognize the good signs of a healthy relationship as they haven't seen so many around them.
Fear of missing out on someone else
There are a billion people in the world, thousands on Tinder, and hundreds that you will meet throughout your life, so, how can you settle for just one? The fear of missing out isn't just for parties that you didn't attend but also about losing out on kinds of lovers.
This fear can be explained through the theory of consumer behaviour called, "choice overload" which says that having too many choices can impair your ability to be decisive. Either you'd wait too long to make a decision or avoid making a decision altogether.
In the current era of dating apps, we're presented with so many options that committing to one person starts to look like a mistake when you meet a new guy who sweeps you off your feet.
Instead of taking the 'wrong' decision, you stay in the casual stage of your relationship and delay saying the word "love". Stan Tatkin, psychologist and author of We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love, says, “There is no decision without loss. When you declare something about yourself to the other person, it makes real. It has a somatic effect. It’s who you are.”
Even if you make the wrong decision and say"I love you" to one potential lover, it does not mean that you can’t fall in love with someone else. Love isn’t something that happens once in a lifetime but a continual experience. Moreover, psychologists say that it is possible to love two people at the same time. This isn't to encourage people to date two people simultaneously but to highlight the complexities of love and how it's not set in stone.
You're tired of people saying "I love you" meaninglessly
Have you had a person tell you "I love you" after the third date? They barely know you and they’re confidently declaring that they hold unconditional love for you. Does this person even mean what they’re saying?
Not everybody is serious when they confess their love. They'll say, "I love you" but act in a way suggesting the opposite. Tatkin warns, “Be very very afraid of that person.” Maybe you had a mother who told you she loved you but neglected your needs or a sibling who was expressive about their love but absent when you needed them.
These experiences can make you immune to the word "love" and perceive it as superficial and meaningless. Since it reminds you of hurtful past relationships based on false foundations, you’ll almost always run the other way.
You're overthinking it. Sometimes, it helps to just say it.
Yes, you may fall out of love after 15 years or move to a different city next month or discover you're incompatible as cohabitants but you'll never know if you don't try. As cliched as that sounds, it's true. You can spend years mulling over and analyzing when the perfect moment to say "I love you" is or you can just say it. Scared of rejection? Therapists recommend that the key to securely tell someone you love them is without expecting a particular response in the conversation but telling them for the sake of it.
You're saying it for yourself, it purely benefits your emotional health. As Tatkin explains, “Every time you make a declaration like that you strengthen your sense of self. That’s what people don’t understand.”
We need to realize humans have a need to love
Needing love isn't a weakness, it's human nature. Therapists say, to avoid meeting that needs is to eliminate a key part of your humanity. Yes, loving someone can be high risk but it also gives high rewards.
As mentioned earlier, in the earlier stages, you can lower the risk of confessing your love by keeping zero expectations. Harris advises to, "Just be honest and open. Say ‘This is how I feel; you may not be there yet,’ and if you can trust that that person will safeguard your feelings, that’s a good thing.” You'll feel a lot lighter when you stop focusing on the outcome of saying, "I love you" and pay attention to experiencing the feeling of deep love. If you still can't get the words out, consider singing a romantic melody to them or write a love letter not sparing any detail about how much you love them.