Love, like happiness, looks different for everyone. Some people are quick to say it after a few dates, while others are reluctant to drop the L-bomb until they’ve built up trust and deep intimacy in the relationship. But how do you know when it’s time to tell your significant other that you love them? And is there a definitive timeline that can be applied to everyone?
One way to figure out whether you’re ready to utter the three magical words is by gauge the temperature of your relationship, says Jenn Mann, a psychotherapist and host of VH1’s Couples Therapy with Dr. Jenn and author of The Relationship Fix. She advises assessing if you have a strong sense of shared interests and common values, as well as gauging how much time you spend together—and whether your bond is like a volcano erupting into lust or more like a slow-burning ember of mutual commitment.
But she also cautions that “love is not just a ‘feel good’ chemical process,” and it takes more than oxytocin and other hormones to sustain a healthy and fulfilling relationship. It’s about “caring, sharing, and sacrifice,” she says. It’s when you love someone enough to hear them coughing in the night and crawl out of bed to bring them water, or to ditch their sun-drenched vacation plans to visit an ailing parent. And, arguably, it’s about loving yourself as much as you love another person, which can often be tougher and more unglamorous.
Those are just a few of the reasons why it may take longer for some people to say “I love you.” Plus, cultural and family upbringings can play a role. In France, for example, the phrase isn’t guarded as closely as in the United States, according to dating coach Adeline Breon. And, in some cultures, such as those of Iran and South Korea, it’s considered a formal step toward marriage.
But, no matter the cultural and familial context, saying it too soon can have negative effects on your relationship, particularly if you’re not on the same page emotionally with your partner. “To avoid misunderstandings, you need to be clear with your partner about how much love you feel for them,” Mann says. “That doesn’t mean you need to formally say ‘I love you’ in a public way, but it does mean you should be able to describe your feelings in detail.” Fortunately, there are several signs that you’re on the right track.