We all have a lot of love to give (all kinds of love in all kinds of ways!) but dropping the L-bomb and actually telling your partner “hey, I love you/am in love with you” in any relationship means things are moving to the next level. Which is why it is actually possible to say those three words a bit too soon and scare your beloved like a frightened baby deer.
When anyone makes this weighty statement super-early in a relationship, it raises questions about whether or not the person is genuine or just caught up in the moment — or whether they’re listening to all the feelings involved or over-prioritizing their own. While early relationship feels (and hormones) can be intoxicating, relationship experts warn that it might be a red flag if you or your partner is too quick to say, “I love you.”
“‘I love you’ shouldn’t be said lightly,” says “Dr. Romance” Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist and author of Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. “If it is, it’s meaningless.”
Here are some signs it’s a bit premature to be saying those three magic words — so you can be sure that when you say them they really mean something.
You haven’t been dating for at least three to six months
Of course, there are always exceptions, like if you’ve been spending every waking minute together versus only seeing each other once or twice a week. But in general, if you say, “I love you,” before dating for three to six months, you could be mistaking love for something else.
“I’m a big believer in time. I wouldn’t feel really confident if someone is saying it before six months because what they are is infatuated,” says sociologist Pepper Schwartz, a professor at the University of Washington and the author of The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples.
You haven’t had sex yet
If you haven’t yet slept together and someone says, “I love you,” watch out. It could be a ploy to get you into bed. Tessina says a person may say, “I love you,” during sex or to obtain sex, but they might not have really thought it through or mean it. If you’re the one who said it because you were caught up in the moment, you might want to crack a joke about how great the romp was that it made you exaggerate a little. Either way, it’s not a commitment in any way, says Tessina.
You haven’t spent enough time together to form a good foundation for a relationship
It sounds simple, but plenty of us are just caught up in the moment when the L-word is first uttered. But if you haven’t spent real quality time together and your relationship still feels on shaky ground, there isn’t enough there yet for it to be true love.
“Any time before you’ve spent time together and gotten to know each other is way too soon for either of you to say, ‘I love you,’” says Tessina. “There’s no way either of you can know. I believe ‘love at first sight’ is only in hindsight.”
She says many of the couples she counsels come to her with high expectations of “instant” relationships and romance and equally high frustration levels when things don’t unfold that way. “Internet dating, coupled with movie and TV images of instant ‘love at first sight’ create expectations that prohibit people from getting to know anything about the character of the person they’re dating and don’t give the couples a chance to develop what I call the ‘infrastructure’ of a long-lasting relationship,” Tessina says.
You or your partner can’t commit to a future
Many people assume that “I love you” means the person they’re dating is in it for the long haul. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case — in fact, that’s an entirely separate conversation you should have in order to gauge each other’s feelings. If your partner says they love you but can’t back it up with a commitment of some kind, tread lightly.
Schwartz says that in general, when a person hears their partner say, “I love you,” they don’t automatically think their partner is saying, “That’s what I feel like this minute” — instead, they’re thinking there’s the implicit promise of a much deeper relationship and the words could lead to a commitment, as if their partner is saying, “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
If your partner says it because they’re just feeling loving at the time but haven’t considered what the relationship means to them, it might be a red flag.
You say it right after an intense experience
Maybe a relative has just died or one of you has landed a new job. When you go through a life-changing experience like that together, it can be bonding and make you feel full of love for each other. But is it really love? Not necessarily if the rest of your relationship doesn’t measure up.
“Depending on the context, those three words can [be said] because [they have] just given you a surprise party or stood up for you against a chastising parent or spent lavishly on you,” says Raymond. “It varies with the ebb and flow of the connection.”
Originally published April 2015. Updated June 2020.