The question of when to say “I love you” in a relationship is a contentious one. In the many conversations I’ve had on the topic, the consensus seems to be that three months in is the sweet spot. But that feels like a lifetime to me. In all my serious relationships, the L-word was dropped closer to three weeks. And at the risk of sounding delusional, I often feel like I’m in love with someone after, like, three days.
I get that declaring love in less time than it takes to complete a juice cleanse seems deranged. You don’t want “I love you” to feel like the emotional equivalent of drunk sex—reckless, overeager, and hangover-inducing. But strategically withholding it to achieve some arbitrary “appropriate” benchmark feels depressing. If the goal is to be truthful and vaguely sane, when is the right time to say “I love you”?
My worst “I love you” story is from back in my mid-20s. Tragically, it was one of those ‘I like you more than you like me’ situations, and I couldn’t work up the courage to vomit my feelings onto his sandwich-stained sheets without guaranteed reciprocation. But after four months, while in a post-sex haze, it all came rushing out. His response was simply: “Uh-huh.” We went on to date for two more years. The word “love” was never mentioned again.
My most recent “I love you” was directed at my current boyfriend. We met two years ago, and I vividly remember walking home after our first date and thinking, Oh no. I had that sinking feeling—the one that says, This person could really fuck me up. For me, falling in love often feels ominous, because there’s so much potential for hurt, rejection, and loss. Like, even if it all works out exactly as you hoped, you’re both eventually going to die. And probably not simultaneously.
We said “I love you” after dating for nine days. Fast, even by my slutty standards. He said it first, and I loved him even more for saying it. What’s braver than saying “I love you” first? But inevitably, the following day I couldn’t help but think, Wait... are we insane?! Is this just manic infatuation? Which leads to yet another question: How do you know if you actually love someone, or if you’re just high AF on dopamine and cum?
My friend Emma, a seductively irreverent economics professor, has a far more cautious take on love than me. “Maybe I’m cynical,” Emma said, “but I’m wary when a guy says ‘I love you’ too soon—not because I think he’s lying, but because it reveals a narrow view of love. I prefer to look at how someone behaves. Even though I can be seduced by words, they don’t count for much to me.” She shrugged. “But then, I’m traumatized by my mother who would always say ‘I love you’ and then act otherwise, so I have experience with those words being empty.”
I get it. Dropping love too quickly can lessen its weight. But then, what do you call that feeling you get when you meet someone, and the world seems to shrink down to the size of their face? You think about them 24/7—it’s as if they’ve hijacked your brain. You want to fuck them until you can’t walk, but you also want to put your head under their T-shirt and stay there forever. Doesn’t that count for something?
“I would be a hypocrite to say I haven’t had intense feelings for someone on sight,” Emma said. “But it takes me about a year and a half to truly feel that someone knows and loves me and that I feel the same. Ultimately, I care more about being understood than being loved.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Basically, if you say ‘I love you’ before three months in, you look like a psycho.”
But if falling in love is a form of temporary insanity—duh?—then isn’t looking like a psycho just par for the course? For proof of the madness of love, look no further than the research of anthropologist Helen Fisher. When Fisher put a group of people who were newly in love into an MRI brain scanner, she found that the same region of your brain lights up when you’re “on love” as when you’re high on cocaine.
But like, do you trust your feelings or decisions on coke? The last time I took cocaine, I stomped into a bar in Bushwick, attached myself to a woman with “FUN” tattooed on her neck, declared her my best friend, and then made enthusiastic plans to drive with her and her bandmates to Rockaway Beach at 9 a.m. the following morning. When I woke up at 3 p.m. the next afternoon, you could not have paid me to remember her face. Not exactly the ideal state for profound personal disclosures.
And yet, my relationship with my boyfriend has lasted. So now I can look back and think: Duh, obviously I was right! But is it just luck? Because when it doesn’t work out, it’s so easy to shame yourself for believing the high. Is it better to wait to see if the feeling endures, or should you take a leap of faith?
“Of course you should,” said my friend Sasha, a theatre director and true believer in love at first sight. “In each of my four big relationships, ‘I love you’ was said within the first two weeks. I just think that’s normal and actually quite heartening. Because you do kind of just know.”
Sasha met Ezra as an undergrad at NYU. “I was sitting in the classroom, and this young professor walks in,” she recalled. “I remember what he was wearing—a plum-colored paisley shirt, blue jeans, an Orioles baseball cap, and a green backpack. I remember where the windows in the room were and who was sitting next to me. And as he spoke, my peripheral vision diminished around him, and I just thought, I must have him in my life. It was physiological.” But when she left class, it occurred to her, “This is a disaster. I was burdened by it, because I was stuck with this enormous need.”
She knew it was love. And that love never really went away, for the next 25 years. She got on with her life, had relationships, got married and divorced. But she and Ezra remained friends, having annual dinners every year. Until last summer, when dinner became a date. They’ve been living together ever since.
“The ancient Greeks had the idea that love was a God in the form of a blind baby,” Sasha said. “Cupid is not just a baby with the common sense of a baby—meaning no sense at all—but a blind baby that randomly shoots arrows, and you can get shot at any moment.” To date, she says, that’s the best explanation of love anyone has to offer.
The phrase “falling in love” is also pretty spot on. Falling is easy; gravity does the work. But falling out of a 15-story building is terrifying. “It’s scary to think that something has been chosen for you,” Sasha continued. “Especially in our secular urban existence, where we really think we’re in control of our lives.” In other words, love doesn’t care about your five-year plan. Maybe saying “I love you” is a way of accepting your fate; submitting to something that is neither sane nor rational.
I once heard someone say that making art should feel as urgent as having to pee. It always stuck with me. And I think this can also apply to love. Maybe the right time to say “I love you” is when it feels urgent—when it would feel painful not to and/or might give you a UTI. It’s so rare and incredible to be comprehensively turned on by someone. Saying “I love you” feels euphoric, like a release. In other words, a verbal orgasm.