We’ve all heard the saying “Love is a verb” — it’s not something you can just “feel.” Love encompasses a wide range of emotions and behaviors, from the deepest interpersonal affection to a desire for certain virtues or good habits. It can even apply to nonhuman animals or to principles and religious beliefs. That’s a big umbrella, and it’s no wonder that different people and cultures have their own definition of love. Even the phrase itself is subject to interpretation, with “I love you” implying very different things to some people and nothing at all to others.
In fact, deciding whether to say “I love you” to your partner can be one of the biggest decisions a couple makes in a relationship. Some people find it difficult to speak those words if they haven’t felt in that place for a long time, while others feel ready right away. In fact, there is no specific timeline for when someone feels like it’s time to say those three little words. But some clues can help you figure out if you are ready, or if your partner is.
A lot of us may have had the experience of falling in love for the first time and being utterly smitten. Your hands might have shook, your palms might be sweaty, and you might have said something completely asinine in your excitement. You may have even tripped spectacularly while trying to saunter away, but you probably didn’t care because you couldn’t stop thinking about that person.
While it’s not scientifically proven, some researchers believe there are three biologically-defined phases of love: lust, attachment, and infatuation. Lust is fueled by hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, which promote sexual desire. Attachment is a feeling of security and trust that develops in long-term relationships. Infatuation is a state of intense emotions such as attraction and desire, which can lead to obsession. True, unconditional love is a beautiful fusion of those three states that evolves over time.
But is that truly unconditional? After all, every relationship has its conditions. If your partner isn’t respectful of your boundaries, you may need to reassess your feelings for them. It’s also worth remembering that the feelings you have for a partner can change over time. For example, if you initially fell in love with a particular quality about them, such as their sense of humor or intelligence, it’s possible that over time your appreciation for those qualities could fade.
That’s why it’s important to communicate your feelings early on in a relationship and be open to discussing them with your partner. By talking about your feelings, you can work together to make sure they are happy and healthy, which will create a stronger foundation for the future of your relationship. If you are still uncertain about when to say those magical words, consider using the Gottman Institute’s “Love Maps” card deck on their app, which gives you open-ended questions to ask your partner about your relationship.