There we were, just the two of us relaxing on the living room couch in an empty house all to ourselves—except I wasn’t relaxed at all. I was bursting at the seams.
It was during Christmas and we had just come back from a party where I had witnessed my shiny new boyfriend being his amazing self with his family and neighbours. While watching him, a feeling hit me hard: I had fallen in love.
But wait—wasn’t it too soon to feel like this? I mean, we had only known each other for five and a half weeks at that point, and “officially exclusive” for just two-and-a-half. I didn’t want to scare him away.
I couldn’t concentrate on our conversation on the couch because the voice in my head was yelling, “Tell him you love him!” But just as I would open my mouth to say it, I stopped, reminding myself it was too soon to drop the L-bomb. He could tell I was feeling off and asked me what was up. I took a deep breath and covered his eyes with my hands—shielding the possible look of rejection as I said it.
“Now don’t say it back if you don’t mean it,” I told him. “But I love you.”
It turns out, he had planned to say it first to me on New Year’s Eve, but also thought the timing might be too soon. That’s when I realized, not only were my boyfriend and I in love, but we had almost let the fear of messing up the “perfect timing” dictate our relationship.
Relationship timelines have been a hot topic this past year. Celebrity couples like Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger, Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin, and Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas have either gotten engaged or married in what we’d typically consider a short amount of time. And if my experience, and the head-over-heels love of #Prick, is any indication, maybe we need to break up with our conventional understanding of when things should happen in a relationship.
How do you know when to say “I love you”?
Worrying about the “perfect timing” when it comes to relationship milestones—like confessing your love, or getting engaged or married for example—is futile, but we tend to do it anyway. Our reasons for worrying about it can be based on anything, from the pressure to follow those social norms, to your own irrefutable desire to be in a relationship, says Jessica O’Reilly, a sexologist and relationship expert.
“We’re often hung up on timelines to our own detriment,” she explains. “While some of us clearly have more leeway to break away from social norms—and this privilege is rooted in race, age, ability, income and other factors—many of us simply don’t realize that we have a choice.”
Yes, for some people, aspects like religion may be a driver of a relationship’s course. Whether it’s an individual choice or family expectations, some faiths require certain traditions or timelines be followed and they remain deeply important. But for others, myself included, we’d rather stick to arbitrary guidelines because it’s what we know—rather than finding happiness in our own way at our own pace.
For some of us, it may seem that a longer dating courtship before marriage makes for a better relationship—and social norms still very much determine how we operate. According to a 2017 poll of 4,000 recently married couples by British wedding planning app Bridebook, most couples are together for an average of nearly five years before getting married. Breaking down what happens during that time, the app found that couples date for about a year and a half before moving in together and then live together for almost two years before getting engaged.
The important thing to remember, though, is that every couple is different and every relationship is different. In the end, when it comes to declaring your love or making a commitment, it should be the gesture that counts—not the timing, says O’Reilly.
“Timing certainly matters for important conversations,” she says. “You don’t want to discuss sensitive topics if you don’t have privacy and adequate time to engage in a meaningful discussion. But the timing of romantic gestures like saying ‘I love you’ or getting engaged is not particularly important in the big picture.”
So, if there’s no formula to follow, how do you know when to take the leap?
Say it whenever you feel that way without making too many calculations about timing, Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeév, a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, writes in Psychology Today. O’Reilly agrees. “It’s easy to say ‘I love you,’ but it’s not always easy to express that love in a way that our partner understands and appreciates over the long term,” she says. “I’d be less concerned with the timing of when you say it and more focused on how you cultivate and show your love.”
Is waiting for the perfect moment hurting our relationships?
Simply put, yes.
“[Worrying about timing] can detract from happy, fulfilling and meaningful interactions,” she says. “The pressure to say it at the perfect moment may be rooted in the desire to be able to tell a romantic story, but romance isn’t the foundation of a lasting relationship.”
Rather, O’Reilly points out, putting in effort, being kind and being open to your partner’s needs and exceptions are all more important.
Now that time has passed since my boyfriend and I said those three big words, what O’Reilly is talking about is starting to sink in. I can go over the “what ifs” of my situation—what if we hadn’t said it that night, what if some interference had come along and dissolved our relationship before he had decided to say it on New Year’s—but it’s wasted energy. Instead, we’ve become more open with what we want for our future together. We plan to move in together, and have even brought up marriage and kids. Taking that chance of being vulnerable has helped both of us to be more honest towards one another. The gamble paid off (for our relationship anyway).
The reality of rejection
Listen, we might not all be lucky and hear an “I love you” back right away or a “yes” to an engagement proposal.
When it comes to relationships, trust and honesty are the most important things, not timing. In one of my previous long-term relationships—one where we were following the social norms of moving in after an “acceptable” amount of time—I had come to learn that my boyfriend was only with me because he was comfortable. I was willing to work at things while he would tell me what I thought I wanted to hear, but never followed through with promises.
“There is often an emotional gap between what we feel and what we express to our partners in terms of how we feel,” O’Reilly says. “Just because your partner can’t say it, doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.” And you won’t know unless you reveal your feelings and talk to them, says O’Reilly. Having that conversation—no matter how uncomfortable it may be—could be your moment to learn more about how they feel in the relationships and where they stand.
In hindsight, my hesitation on that couch over Christmas was just me being afraid of history repeating itself. But following social norms didn’t lead to lasting or meaningful love for me in the past, so why wouldn’t I try a different approach?