The first “I love you” means something different to everyone. Some people are incredibly eager to say it, regardless of how long they’ve been seeing a partner. Others bide their time, waiting for that perfect moment. Maybe you’re anxious to drop the “L” word in a semi-new relationship, and fear it’s too early. Or, you might be grappling with how to say “I love you” in the midst of hardship, unsure if it can make a difference when things feel difficult. No matter what guidelines you follow when sharing those three little words, take some inspiration from these heartfelt stories and “aha” moments, straight from 18 O.school readers.
We use first names only for the sake of protecting anonymity for those who request it.
1. “I knew I was falling for her pretty much right away, but it’s easy to feel love when everything is perfect. If you still love someone when it’s no longer convenient, or when the initial butterflies are gone, then it’s time to tell them.” - Eli, 27
2. “I was in a long distance relationship at the time. There had been countless ups and downs with regards to that. Miscommunications on the phone, late night panic attacks before he visited and after he left. It wasn’t easy. On one of his visits, when he was about to go back to London, we had a day out in one of my favorite DC neighborhoods. We ended the day sitting on a bench, watching the water, and talking about our future. While I was talking about the life I didn’t even fully realize I had envisioned with him, I looked up at him and knew I was in love with him. That it was time.” - Neveen, 23
3. “This is way, way, way back; the first time I spent the weekend with Jay in Maryland. I was packing my bags, about to go back to my house in New Jersey. I just thought: ‘we’ve had the most amazing weekend, I’m feeling so warmly towards him, I’m going to tell him I love him.’ He came up the stairs, into the doorway, and just spat it out, ‘I love you.’ And I went, ‘that’s exactly what I was about to say!’ We argued over who said it first for 24 years.” -Judith, 80
4. “Sometimes, when the moment is right, just speaking the words ‘I love you’ can’t actually come close to what you’re really feeling. You could feel tempted to just blurt it out when emotions are running high, but there’s a time to just sit in that feeling with your partner. Enjoy the silence.” - Nelson, 33
5. “Falling in love with him snuck up on me. We were months into a relationship that felt like a slow burn. I started feeling affection, then longing to hang out with him, then this feeling like I couldn’t stop smiling when he was around. One day I was very tired and he carried me to bed. My heart kind of kicked me in the stomach like, ‘okay, it’s time.’ I knew I was ready because it felt so genuine — like a ‘thank you.’” -Isabel, 24
6. “When my partner, who I thought I might marry, broke my trust, I thought I would never say I loved them again. We tried taking space, couples’ therapy, and rebuilding. We both really wanted to make it right again and to make it work. Slowly, painfully, we did meet in the middle again. Things started to return to normal. He told me he loved me again, like it was the first time. I had a really hard time with that. I had to relearn what it felt like to love him after that betrayal. Once I said it back, I felt I had learned this valuable lesson about how easy it is to say ‘I love you’ at your happiest, but so much more meaningful when you say it against the odds.” -Ginger, 29
7. “ ‘I love you’ spilled out of his mouth a month after we started dating. Flustered, he told me that I didn’t have to say it back. I didn’t. I wasn’t there yet, and I didn’t want to lie and say that I was. A few weeks later, he was very sick with a stomach bug and I devoted all my time to caring for him. In those moments, I felt so much love. He was lying in bed while I folded socks and he told me again that he loved me. This time, I said it back.” -Hannah, 21
8. “I’ve only been in love once, and I knew it was love very early on. I’m still in that same relationship, three years later. I didn’t know what love meant, but I didn’t know how else to express to my partner that I felt truly committed to our relationship even though it felt so new, and we were young. I told him I loved two months in, and I’ve never looked back.” -Jackie, 26
9. “Saying ‘I love you’ felt like a regular, mundane thing with Matt. As natural as anything. We were just laying in bed, laughing and talking, and he turned over to smile at me. We both knew. In my experience, it was easier than saying ‘I like you.’ Honestly, ‘like’ and ‘love’ seemed to come arm and arm for me. The minute I knew that I liked him, I knew I loved him too.” -Andie, 30
10. “As we were saying goodbye one morning, I told him I loved him by accident. It just kind of slipped out! We both smiled and just acted like it didn’t happen. Later that evening, he said it back.” -Elissa, 26
11. “Telling him I loved him was ridiculously hard, even though I felt it so deeply, and had been feeling it from very early on in the relationship. I thought I wasn’t in the right place personally to accept or reciprocate love. Looking back, I was hesitating about all the wrong things. When he told me for the first time, I didn’t say it back, I actually think I answered, ‘Why are you being so difficult?’ When I finally worked up the nerve to admit my feelings, it was the happiest and more liberating feeling. I’m so lucky he never gave up.” -Aidan, 29
12. “I met Gail at a time in my life when I was looking for a ‘higher purpose.’ I was always in awe of her boldness, especially in her sense of self. She inspired me to be equally bold. That’s really what made me fall in love with her. A few months into dating, I told her on a frozen yogurt date. I felt like she wanted me to say it first, but I was waiting for the most romantic moment. Eventually, I just came to terms with the fact that love isn’t champagne and charcuterie, especially with Gail. She sees the best version of every circumstance, and of me. That’s really what made me go, ‘wow, I love this woman.’” -Reena, 35
13. “When I first came to the realization I was in love, it was like the ‘aha’ moment of figuring out a puzzle. But I wasn’t fully aware I was even building that puzzle in the first place. It was as if my subconscious was slowly figuring out how all the pieces fit together, but it was only in placing that last piece that my conscious was able to step in and view the whole image.” -Tyler, 26
14. “A few months into dating Tess, I literally felt like I was always walking around with ‘I love you’ on the tip of my tongue. Seriously, every silence I wanted to fill with ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ I felt like it was going to burst out of me. I tried, ‘I adore you,’ ‘I’m smitten with you,’ ‘I like you a lot,’ but eventually they weren’t enough. ‘I love you’ fit better.” -Jonathan, 31
15. “I knew from the first time I met Jack that he was very special. We were immediately drawn to each other - some may say it was that cliche ‘spark.’ I just had a feeling about him, like he was already everything I could want or need. About a week after we made it ‘official,’ I had already planned to go home for a few weeks. My feelings only grew for him when we were apart, and when I got back, he told me he loved me and I said it back. I’ve told him every day since.” -Susie, 24
16. “I didn’t follow any ‘so-called’ rules. It was too early, and he hadn’t said it yet. I was just so excited to find out that being in love was as beautiful and exciting as it’s made out to be. It felt like a shame to keep such a magical discovery a secret. So, I told him.” -Meera, 34
17. “The first time I was in love, it was as simple as knowing I was just perfectly, incandescently happy with my best friend in the world. Sharing those words with someone doesn’t have to be about a grand gesture or a great romance. Is that person your closest friend? Is there nothing you wouldn’t want to do without them? Sometimes it’s as easy as that.” -Caroline, 25
18. “Every time I’ve been in love, I’ve really struggled with when or how to put it into words. But I know that each of those loves had this in common: It became love when it’s no longer a ‘me’ but ‘an us.’ When I find myself sharing her happiness and her troubles, when there’s a sense of ‘togetherness’ to everything, that’s when I know it’s time to use those three words.” -Joel, 27
The bottom line
Everyone’s experiences with saying “I love you” is different. While it can be difficult to find the right way and time to say it, many people feel a sense of relief, or a weight lifted once they put it out there. Saying “I love you” is a deeply personal decision, and sometimes you know when you know. Other times, it can be helpful to hear about other people’s experiences to give you a little needed motivation and bravery to take the leap.