When your S.O. starts saying “I love you” too soon for comfort, it can throw you a serious curveball. When your relationship has been going smoothly for awhile, it’s natural to assume the L-bomb is going to get dropped at some point. But when you’re not ready to meet them halfway, how are you supposed to react?
If you know your relationship is more of a casual thing for you, it makes sense to cut bait and move on before your respective feelings get any more mismatched. But if you actually like your S.O. (despite their apparent inability to read the dang room), things can get a little more complicated.
“It’s difficult because, especially in the early stages of a relationship, the pacing and timing is really critical,” says relationship psychologist Karin Anderson, Ph.D. “It’s so much easier and less awkward if you’re on the same tempo.”
While it’s tempting to pretend you didn’t hear it if your date says the L-word before you’re there, Anderson says it’s really better to acknowledge it right away. Jocelyn Charnas, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, agrees. “You have to look at it this way: If you’re going to be in a relationship with someone, you have to be able to have difficult conversations with them.”
Anderson recommends trying something like, “That feels so great to hear and I’m really excited about this relationship too. I just want to keep things moving and keep building our momentum.” It’s also a good idea to throw in something like, “I’m not quite there yet, but I’m crazy about you and so excited about our future,” just to clarify where you’re coming from.
Whatever you do, don’t say “I love you” back if you don’t actually mean it. “If you do and you don’t mean it, you’re introducing dishonesty into your relationship,” Anderson says. “To outright lie is a horrible idea.”
Of course, your S.O. is going to want to hear those three little words back at some point—something that becomes painfully obvious when they keep saying them to you. How much time do you have before you need to make a move? Charnas says there’s no set timeframe for this, but it’s a good idea to take stock of your own feelings and why this particular “I love you” made you feel uncomfortable. It could be that it feels inauthentic—maybe your S.O. said it after only a month of dating, which makes you question whether those feelings are for real.
But it also may simply be that you’re moving at a different pace and express yourself emotionally in a different way. “That might make somebody more inclined to say it earlier, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” she says. It just might feel a little awkward for a bit.
If you feel like things are solid otherwise, Anderson says you shouldn’t feel pressure to cave and start saying “I love you” too soon for your liking. “A new person shows up in your life and they’re suddenly supposed to be your everything…that doesn’t honor the rest of your life,” she says. “You can rush a good thing. Take your time.”