I love you
When I was sixteen I told a boy “I love you” for the first time. I remember it because it was such a big first. But I also remember it because, as soon as I said it, I knew that I didn’t mean it.
James was my first real boyfriend. He was a good guy and we’d been hitting all the relationship milestones I’d always been told you were supposed to hit—he’d introduced me to his friends, we’d started with the pet names, we kissed hello and goodbye in public, we had an assumed date on Friday nights.
It was like I had already been supplied with the blueprint of how our relationship was supposed to progress, and I was following the directions, like putting together an IKEA table. So far, everything was coming together right on schedule. Then, somewhere around the two-month mark, people started asking me if we’d said it yet.
“You know. The L word.”
Once the questions started, it didn’t take long for me to get impatient. If people were asking, that meant it was time, didn’t it? If we weren’t saying “I love you,” there must be something wrong. After all, isn’t the point of a relationship to fall in love? I became so preoccupied by the desire for James to be in love with me that I never had time to wonder whether I was in love with him.
And then, one night, as James dropped me off at my house, there was a really long silence. “Alright,” he said finally, eyes down, hands in pockets, shifting from one foot to the other, “Sleep well, okay? Also, I love you.” I said it back.
It wasn’t until I was inside, in my pajamas, and finally coming down from the oddly victorious high of hearing a boy say “I love you” that I started thinking. My first thought? Oops.
I didn’t know what love was exactly, but I suddenly knew, very clearly, that I didn’t love James. I liked him a lot. I thought he was nice, and attractive, and I enjoyed being around him. He made me giggly and I liked seeing him happy. But love was something more than that. When I’d said it to James, the words had seemed empty, like just another step in the instruction manual. After all, I’d only known the guy for a few months—how could I love him? I was sure I would love him. But I didn’t yet. I just didn’t know what to do about it.
So I didn’t do anything. The words “I love you” continued to come out of me until eventually I did mean it. I reasoned away my initial lie—it wasn’t important, it was a stepping stone, a fake-it-til-you-make-it sort of thing. Wasn’t it?
Years later, long after James and I parted ways, I told a different boyfriend I loved him and I meant it. He said it back, but the next day he confessed that he shouldn’t have said it, that he wasn’t sure if he’d truly meant it and he wanted to wait to say it again until he really knew. I felt crushed and betrayed. I cried and yelled at him. In my most vulnerable moment, he’d said what he thought I wanted to hear rather than what was true. It was the worst lie he could have told me. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to trust him again.
It was just about then that I really started to understand what I’d done to James. Even worse, I’d been too much of a coward to ever be honest with him about how I really felt.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what “I love you” really means. I still don’t have a good definition, but I’ve felt it enough to know when I don’t feel it. And I know those three words don’t fit—can’t fit—neatly into the instruction manual of a relationship.
Have you ever felt pressured into saying the L-word, or said “I love you” too fast? Tell us in comments!
I love you