When Should You Say, “I Love You”?: An Excerpt from “The Arc of Love”

February 13, 2020
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This Valentine’s Day, we turn to Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, author of The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time, for a little romance advice. In the book, he provides an in-depth, philosophical account of the experiences that arise in early, intense love—sexual passion, novelty, change—as well as the benefits of cultivating long-term, profound love—stability, development, calmness. Ben-Ze’ev analyzes the core of emotions many experience in early love and the challenges they encounter, and he offers pointers for weathering these challenges. Read on for an excerpt.

“The regret of my life is that I have not said ‘I love you’ often enough.” Yoko Ono

A common dilemma about romantic timing is the question of when to utter the expression “I love you.” Hearing a partner say “I love you” for the first time is often one of the highlights of a romantic relationship. However, people tend to be uncertain as to when to declare their love and whether to be the first to do so or to wait until the other has given an indication of feeling the same way. Is there an optimal time to reveal your feelings? Does timing make no difference, or all the difference?

When Should You Say it?

“Love isn’t saying, ‘I love you’ but calling to say, ‘did you eat?’” Marlon James

Romantic love expresses our genuine attitudes. There is nothing that boosts communication and personal flourishing more than exposing our loving heart to a partner. However, such self-disclosure makes us more vulnerable and can put our partner in an uncomfortable situation, especially if his or her feelings are different from ours. Consider, for example, these common (and conflicting) pieces of advice about when to say “I love you” to your partner:

  • Go on at least five dates.
  • Say it only after two months.
  • Don’t wait too long.
  • Wait until you’re absolutely bursting.
  • Do not do it before, after, or during sex.
  • Don’t say it when you’re very emotional and cannot think rationally.
  • Don’t say it when you want to reward your partner for something.
  • Never say it first, and don’t echo it back until you’ve spent some extended time together.

All of the above suggestions have to do with timing. However, is timing more important than honesty and self-disclosure?

When it comes to long-term love, it is time, not timing, that knocks the ball out of the park. Some wrong turns along the road, stemming from bad timing or political incorrectness, will not blot out an entire romantic picture. They might even enhance trust and honesty between lovers. Since profound love needs time to develop, it isn’t reasonable to say, “I love you profoundly” after being together for just a short time. Such a statement could show that you are not serious about what is, in fact, a serious matter. However, since love at first sight can occur, you can say “I love you” after a short time together if you are just expressing what you feel at that moment. You might add that you see great potential for the relationship to grow. We can see potential, but we cannot see its end.

In profound love, actions speak louder than words. There can be many reasons for not saying “I love you” that are not necessarily related to the lack of love. When Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, asks Golde, his wife of twenty-five years, whether she loves him, she is surprised by the question and wonders whether he is upset or tired. “Go inside, go lie down! Maybe it’s indigestion,” she says. When Tevye insists on being answered, Golde says: “For twenty-five years, I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?” And when he insists upon receiving an answer, she finally says: “I suppose I love you.”

Different Paces

“Never seek to tell thy love

Love that never told can be;

For the gentle wind does move

Silently, invisibly.” William Blake

When one is sincere, confessing one’s love is usually not problematic. There could be a problem, though, in expecting a like-minded answer to the declaration. This difficulty derives from two major points—the different paces at which love develops, and the different personal tendencies in revealing one’s heart.

It might matter, too, whether you happen to be a man or a woman. Men tend to confess love earlier than women do, and are happier than women are when receiving confessions of love from a partner. According to one survey, men take an average of 88 days to say “I love you” to a partner, compared to women’s 134 days. Moreover, 39 percent of men say “I love you” within the first month of dating, compared to just 23 percent of women.

Personality differences also cause people to fall in love at different paces. However, differences in pace do not indicate differences in romantic commitment—the one who falls in love more quickly might also be the one who will fall out of love more quickly. There are also differences in pace of expressing love: shy people tend to express love later than outspoken people do, even when their emotional intensity is similar. One shy woman told her lover, who had confessed his love to her: “Don’t weigh my words now; weigh my deeds.” She is right: in love, deeds are more real than words.

Lovers, then, are often counseled to reveal their love only when the other feels the same and is ready to express it. Romantic etiquette does not dictate that when a lover has confessed his love, you are to do the same. It is, in fact, probably best not to respond by saying “I love you too,” but rather to say that although right now you do not know whether you love them, you do know that you like them a lot, that you want to get to know them better, and that you want to give the relationship a chance to develop further. Love at first sight is not required. Less preferably, one might postpone discussing the issue of love and simply enjoy the (presumed) bliss of ignorance.

Love does not grow at the same pace for all of us. While it is true that profound romantic flourishing involves mutual loving attitudes, this does not mean that you should hide your love just because your beloved is not (yet) as in love with you as you are with her or him. We should be open about our attitudes and give our partners the time they need for their feelings to develop. This development might be gradual. It might reveal itself in “softer,” more indirect expressions of love, such as calling someone “My love,” or saying, “I send you my love” or “I love what I see in you,” until, finally, the direct declaration ”I love you” might be heard.

Moving slowly is different from being at a standstill, nor does it mean that one is less committed to the journey. Often, the opposite is true. We should respect different personalities and not expect our partner to feel and express the same things that we do at the same time. Profound love is a long-term commitment, and so it is possible that sometime in the future, both lovers will feel profound love and be able to reveal it. Rushing to achieve an unripe romantic profundity is often harmful—patience and calmness are the name of the game.

The same is true of other expressions of romantic robustness, such as “You are the love of my life” or “You are my greatest lover.” Such expressions create a ranking between past and present partners, making the declaration even more complex, as it involves not merely the two lovers, but also others from the past. If, for example, you tell your partner, “You are the love of my life,” you should not be insulted if she does not reciprocate by saying the same about you. Comparing loving relationships is often impossible and even distracting. One loving relationship might be very passionate, another more profound, and a third more companionate. Even if comparisons can be made, the fact that your beloved’s first love, many years ago, was and remains his or her greatest love does not diminish their love for you—the circumstances of the relationships are different, and you might have many good qualities that were absent in the former partner. In any case, your relationship is unique, and a comparison, even if it were possible, is of little value.

In the end, it does not matter who says “I love you” first, or who says it more frequently, just as it does not matter whether you are the first or the second on your partner’s romantic and sexual list. What matters is the profundity of your relationship and the way it develops. Timing and ranking are of little concern—depth and flourishing are what count. In light of the above considerations, in many circumstances an appropriate response to a declaration of love might be “I think I love you, but I can’t be sure whether it is profound love until we’ve been together longer.”


The Arc of Love is available now from our website or your favorite local bookseller.

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