Dear Just The Tips,
I’ve been dating someone for a couple of months. It still feels early in the relationship to me, but we’ve been spending so much time together and having such great sex that in some ways it feels like the only thing left to say is, “I love you.”
However, I’m wary of saying it because it can feel like I’m trying to make things “serious.” There’s something that feels so final about it but also predictable, like thousands of movie moments running through my head. My question is: how long do you have to wait to tell someone you love them?
Lovelorn in New England
I’ll start with an anecdote about a friend who was cheating on her long-term boyfriend and found herself having anal sex for the first time with somebody she knew fairly well. She was having such a good time that she blurted out:
“I love you!” (long pause) “…in my ass.”
I relay this story to you in part to remind you that we experience love at the most unlikely moments. It’s never “too soon” or “too late” to express your affection for somebody. If you watched Interstellar and took its pseudoscience to heart you’ll know that just like McConaughey’s acting career, love is multidimensional, difficult to predict and sometimes cheesy, but on the whole transcendent.
Sometimes when we think about love in romantic terms we corrupt it. Do you think of friendships or family relationships as having “early” or “late” phases to them? Do you cast them as “serious” or “casual?” Rarely do we place those kinds of value judgements on any relationship that isn’t romantic. But for some reason when it comes to the big L we get pretty fatootsed about time lines, levels of commitment and expectations.
It’s understandable. We share more of ourselves with romantic partners than with anyone. But it can become dangerous when we allow that anxiety and desire to distract us from enjoying the process of falling in love. It doesn’t have to be that way. As a wise Argentinian woman said to me once: “Katherine, this idea of ‘I Love you’ is so American! In Argentina we say ‘I love you’ on the dance floor, because it means I want to be with you right now!”
I’m intrigued by what you say are the “movie moments” flashing through your head. As you know, real life expressions of love are rarely cinematic. You can’t jump cut away from a person’s face when you see that they’re shocked and dismayed. You can’t put in a swelling John Williams-esque score as you utter the words. Life and love aren’t like the movies because we have little control over them. However, we can look to the silver screen to help us think through an approach to saying, or not saying, the L word.
In honor of Awards Season, I present to you, a cinefile’s guide to saying (or not saying) “I Love You.”
Find a different way to say it: a la Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love.
You say that “it almost feels like there’s nothing left to say.” I know the feeling but sometimes instead of jumping to “I love you” it can be wise to get a bit more specific about your experience of that other person a la Punch Drunk Love.
Propose other activities: a la Rose DeWitt Bukater in Titanic.
Sometimes we say to “I love you” because we feel like things are getting wildly intimate and we want a promise of longevity. Whether or not you decide to say “I love you,” don’t let it be a stopping point. Find new ways of expressing your feelings of love, arousal and intimacy that feel simultaneously fun and serious.
Negotiate: a la Quincy McCall in Love and Basketball.
What do you want out of this “I love you” thing? Do you wish you had the permission to call at odd hours? To invite somebody home for thanksgiving? To demand to know their whereabouts on a Friday night? Do you believe that if you say “I love you,” you will have some kind of explicit or implicit “right” within the relationship to do those things? These are not good reasons to express your love for the first time. Don’t. But do try having this kind of conversation.
On the other hand, if you feel it, say it: a la Dory in Finding Nemo.
Do you feel a kind of ecstasy that you have rarely if ever felt with this person? Do you feel that they have expanded your consciousness, supported you emotionally, challenged you mentally or amazed you physically and are you searching for a way in our limited language to express your cocktail of joy, gratitude and elation? Are you at home when you’re with this person? Then you must. Today. Yesterday. Tomorrow!
Ask yourself: Are you obsessed? a la Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.
I’ve loved many people in many ways. When the timing is right, it’s easy. The word love flows out of my mouth like honey. But when I’m obsessed with them is when things get weird. Obsession is love’s shadow. It masquerades as love and sometimes dances a tarantella with love but ultimately it is more about you reifying yourself than it is about expanding with another person. Ask yourself: Am I obsessed? For reference see the above.
Acknowledge that it’s already true: a la Han Solo.
It sounds like you already know what’s up. There will come a point where you just need to say it because you can’t hold it in any longer. When happens after that you have no control over what the other person say. Ask yourself: what am I afraid they will say? One of my favorite responses to “I love you” has always been, “I know,” because it seems callous but it actually means that the other person has already been receiving your love.
Risk heartbreak a la The Red Balloon.
Even if your heart does get stomped on, even if you say “I Love You” and are met with a blank stare and a slow backing out of the room, there are a thousand other hearts out there just waiting for the chance to love you.
Try saying it in a different language (like, really different): a la Last Tango in Paris.
Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris is known for a certain incendiary scene involving butter, but my favorite was always the one where they refuse to name themselves. How might you might express your love if you had no words available to you? Do that.
Just watch this movie.
I can’t even give you a clip. Just go watch the whole damn movie. I don’t remember them ever saying “I love you” in the entire thing but I’ve never felt so in love as I did watching that film. Probably because it’s 3.5 hours long and its length allows for something closer to the true experience of love–an unnameable thing happening all around you, out of your control and at once obsessive, transcendent, inarticulatable. Watch it alone, watch it with your lover, watch it twice, three times, 5 times. Decide that you hate it and then watch it again. Because after all, that’s love, right?
I leave you with that epic film for the same reason I started by sharing such a silly anecdote: to remind you that love has infinite shades. When you find one that feels warmest to you, add yourself to the canon of love. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be original and just…