Why Saying “I Love You” Matters in a Long-Term Relationship


Why Saying "I Love You" Matters in a Long-Term Relationship
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

“I love you.”
“Ich liebe dich.”
“Te amo.”
“Jag älskar dig.”

No matter which language you say it in, “I love you” remains a pretty big deal in modern-day romantic relationships.

But what do you do when your partner doesn’t say it? Or never says it?

This was the case for me and my ex-boyfriend of three years, who never said those words during the entire time we were together.

I’d like to preface this article by saying that too many of us throw around the word “love.” We might say we love a band, we love a sweater from J.Crew, or even we love someone we only met two times. From my perspective, the word itself loses meaning when it’s said too often, and not in the context in which it’s often originally meant (i.e. to a romantic partner whom you’ve grown to trust and respect).

And to be fair to my ex, he’s a lovely guy. He just wasn’t, well, my person. (I found my person two years after my ex and I broke up and he’s now my husband of one year.)

But at the time, living with my partner who, for all intents and purposes, was committed to me, cared for me, and shared his life with me, I could not comprehend why it was so difficult for him to utter back those three little words, “I love you.”

I’ll never forget the day I told him I loved him. We’d been together for a little over seven months and had been living together for one. It was a dreary November day in Stockholm (where we lived) and I was beginning to grow concerned that we hadn’t yet exchanged I love yous. Everything else was going smoothly, I thought, so perhaps he was reluctant to say it first because he didn’t know how I felt.

He came home that afternoon to find me sitting on the edge of our bed, with tears in my eyes. I remember him rushing over and kneeling on the floor next to me, looking imploringly for confirmation that something terrible hadn’t happened.

Without missing a beat, I simply said, “I love you.”

And then there was silence. It may have only lasted thirty seconds but it felt like an eternity, waiting for him to confirm the very feeling I had been feeling for months.

Instead, he wrapped his arms around me and said, “I adore you, you know that.”

While the phrase “I adore you” is certainly a beautiful sentiment, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear at that moment. And although I won’t divulge everything that was discussed between us that afternoon, what became very clear to me was just how much those words mattered. (If it’s any indication, my love languages are physical touch and words of affirmation.)

At first, I was sure that he’d eventually say it—his actions didn’t suggest anything otherwise, so I figured it’d only be a matter of time before he’d say it back, on his own terms, and our lives could continue on as normal.

Months went by, and then years, and still no “I love you.” Although cards for our anniversary or my birthday began to include the word “love” at the end, it was a temporary consolation for something I so desperately wanted to hear. I even remember frantically Googling at one point, “Why doesn’t my boyfriend say he loves me?” As if Google could somehow explain the inner workings of my partner’s head.

Only close friends and family knew that he hadn’t said “I love you” back and while some were surprised, given how serious our relationship seemed to be from the outset, others would try to assure me that saying “I love you” is a bigger deal in different cultures and doesn’t necessarily mean anything. In my heart of hearts, I knew better. I knew that the right person for me would have zero qualms about professing his love and would inherently understand that this was something I needed to hear in order to feel secure.

I think I began to feel like an impostor in my own relationship, playing the role of someone who convinced herself that it was OK to be with someone who couldn’t say “I love you.”

In retrospect, I think I began to feel like an impostor in my own relationship, playing the role of someone who convinced herself that it was OK to be with someone who couldn’t say “I love you.” But after a while, this didn’t sit well. I found myself becoming more and more sensitive to those three little words and suddenly every film I saw, T.V. show I binged, or conversation I overheard somehow reminded me of the fact that I was in a relationship with someone who could not, for whatever reason, echo that same sentiment back.

Ultimately, we ended our relationship for other reasons but I can’t help but think that this factored into it somehow. How can you build a life with someone if they can’t even tell you they love you? Although it was a mutual decision in the end—and a difficult breakup given our lives were intertwined—it made me even more determined to not settle for anything less than what I knew I deserved. And for me, this meant someone who could say “I love you,” without reservations, without coercion, and without guilt.

The other day I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a post from US Weekly that reported on a couple from the reality T.V. show, Bachelor in Paradise (yes, a guilty pleasure of mine), about how the guy doesn’t say “I love you” to his girlfriend of two years.

According to him, he said, “I just hate saying the L-word word, so I was like, ‘Let’s make up a different word, so we don’t have to say that to each other all the time.’” I read this and couldn’t help but feel for the girl. How could she not feel slighted by this? No matter what she says, or how “cool” with it she claims to be, I firmly believe that exchanging “I love yous” with your partner is a natural thing and should happen at some point.

In the same vein, I also believe that love shouldn’t be forced and if you don’t think you’ll ever feel that way for someone, you shouldn’t say it. Just as not saying “I love you” can be devastating, so can saying “I love you” when actions don’t line up with words.

I came across an article from Time that talked about this very topic, explaining how our modern-day relationships just don’t follow the same rules that those in our parents’ generation did. According to this article, relationships then were “more or less linear” and adhered to a usual pattern—dating, exclusively dating, falling in love, saying “I love you,” partnering up, getting married and/or breaking up and starting the whole process over again.

Now, it’s all about the gray area, or the ambiguity. According to Scott Stanley, a research professor in Psychology at the University of Denver, the rise in cohabiting couples is what he calls the ground zero for ambiguous relationships. In other words, you might be planning a future with someone, but that future might also be temporary. So, perhaps not saying “I love you” is just one way to protect yourself from potential hurt.

Whatever my ex’s reasons were for not saying it during the course of our relationship, the fact of the matter is that he didn’t say it, not even when he knew how much it meant for me to hear it from him. Love takes time, and people move at different paces, but from my perspective, there is a time limit on when you should cut your losses and move on. I learned this the hard way but I’m grateful for it, given that it led me to my husband, who I’m happy to report openly verbalizes his love for me, each and every day.

BY Erin Huebscher - September 9, 2021

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September 14, 2022 10:51 am

This was very well written! Thank you for the insight.

May 24, 2023 7:50 am

I understand where your heart was thankyou for your wise insight and inspiration.

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