Have you ever had someone who’s in love try to explain being in love to you? Yeah, it’s really annoying—primarily because they tend to dole out vague platitudes like “when you know you know,” or “it just hits you.”
Thanks. Clears that right up.
That said, the love-afflicted aren’t entirely wrong. As ambiguous (and frustrating) as it is, this whole love thing can’t be labelled, numbered or categorised.
“When it comes to love, we don’t have any idea what we’re talking about,” says Lawrence Siegel, clinical psychologist and AASECT-certified sex therapist. “We’re so caught up in doing love right that we’re lost from the very beginning.”
Okay. Great. Now that we know that everyone is confused, when is the right time to tell someone you love them? If there’s no benchmark or timeline, and every couple is different, what do you actually need to know?
Well, do you feel it?
We can make this article as much of a playbook about when to say “I love you” as you like. But when push comes to shove, it’s fairly simple: Do you feel it?
“The right time to say it is when it feels right,” says Siegel. “But that becomes a complicated process. If people are more clear about what it is they are trying to say when they say it, that might give them a better guide in following their instincts. I think there’s more about when you shouldn’t say it.”
Is it love or infatuation?
Being smitten can be Step 1 to love, but it’s not quite love…yet.
“Look at any kind of flame. The top part of the flicker, where it dances, is the most mesmerizing,” says Siegel. “But the real burn is at the base. So even when the flickering dies down, how much is still simmering underneath?”
Ask yourself: If the skin-deep attraction fades, what do you have left? Your partner might be hot, adventurous, bold, financially sound, a foodie—whatever you’re attracted to. But if you look at them for their least attractive qualities and are pretty set to stick around, you may be onto something.
Do you feel that you have to?
When it comes to relationships, there are a lot of “shoulds” or “should nots.” You should be prepared to compromise. You should not forget a birthday.
You also should not say “I love you” if you feel that you are under any sort of obligation. “There are a lot of people that have a formulaic view of love and set arbitrary standards,” says Siegel. “For example, people think they’re supposed to say it three months in, or they say it because their partner says it.”
If it’s not a feeling that comes from inside you, you should NOT say it. Saying “I love you” out of obligation is only going to get you into trouble down the road and will potentially hurt the person you likely do have feelings for, even if those feelings aren’t exactly love.
“Instead it’s good to discuss the status of feelings and levels of the relationship, and where you both do bond and connect,” Siegel says. “This all or nothing stuff doesn’t end well.”
Assess the Timing
So let’s say you do feel it, and you know you’re definitely, 100% in love. Well, congratulations! But before you open your mouth to say it, it’s important to assess the timing. Are you, or have you just finished, having sex? Likely best to wait. Sex is a vulnerable activity in itself, and throwing love in there for the first time is going to make it confusing and perhaps a tad like an emotional ambush.
Are you feeling insecure and want to say it for some sort of validation? Again, probably best to wait. Saying it out of insecurity or possessiveness as it relates to insecurity is not the recipe for getting a wholehearted “I love you” back.
This article originally appeared on Men’s Health US.
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