When I was 16, my boyfriend of two weeks told me these three delicate words after a blissful afternoon of sneaking kisses on my bed as my mom worked in the garden outside. 

I was stunned. I couldn’t say it back, despite my ever-present, people-pleasing tendencies. I hugged him, and said “Thank you”. Probably the worst-ever time to be courteous. 

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As the years progressed, I sensed a pattern. After dating a guy for about three months, boom! “I love you”. Always from his lips to my face. Never the other way around. This might have something to do with my 13-year-old self, and my mom telling me to never let a boy dump me. Since that day, this fear of ever being rejected, haunted me. Reject away, no problem! But girls don’t get rejected. 

Telling a guy that you love him first, and him potentially thanking you, an abomination in ‘girl world’ terms. 

“Society has placed a burden on people by over rating these three words. It adds so much unnecessary pressure to a situation. It symbolises certain feelings we long for: to feel safe, contained and secure. To feel less lonely and less anxious,” says Marlene Wasserman, a clinical sexologist and couple’s therapist at Dr. Eve.

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With my last partner, I wanted to tell him a few times. I walked around holding in this big secret that I was dying to spill. But I put a verbal block on my feelings, and refused to allow myself to say it first. I knew I loved him, but I wasn’t sure he loved me… yet. 

We put an unnecessary expiry date on everything. Three months = love. Some people take longer to mature. You don’t want an “I love you” that’s out of obligation. That almost means less than nothing. 

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You want to feel that the love is real, otherwise it’s like being gifted a voucher for Christmas. You know it’s a gift, but you can’t feel the love. 

In movies we see men surprising women with an “I love you” all the time. But what has always bothered me is the way in which women reciprocate the gesture. Like she’s been holding it in for so long she’s about to pop like an overinflated balloon. Like me, she’s been waiting quietly for him to say it as she couldn’t. Wouldn’t dare.

As women, we continue to protect men’s masculinity and entitlement by giving them this responsibility, says Wasserman. It places an unnecessary and unhealthy responsibility on men to take the lead. 

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“It’s like we perpetuate the idea that masculinity makes them stronger to bare rejection.” She adds that because so many men aren’t as in touch with their emotions, saying “I love you” is not even a big deal for them. 

Learnt behaviour has led us to this place. But maybe it is time to unlearn and rethink our approach to love? We’ve done it with marriage, relationships and every other traditional structure in our world, why not the “I love you”? 

“For some people, expressing the words ‘I love you’ is less important than showing it. Words of affirmation is one way to ‘express love’. Buying gifts, spending quality time together, physical touch and/or acts of service are other ways of communicating and showing that you care,” says dating and life coach, Shelley Lewin.

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My ex’s love language was ‘giving’. Practical things I needed in my life like an electric toothbrush, a new knife and fixing things around my flat. He gave love. 

Lewin says, however, you must be honest with yourself in a relationship. If hearing the words is important, it might be worthwhile to have a conversation to explore how your partners feels about expressing words of love and affection. Until you make it clear to them that you prefer for them to be expressive, don’t assume there is anything wrong. 

She does add, however, that if they say it too soon - that is when you do not feel comfortable to receive it, when it feels invasive, pressured and demanding a reciprocal response - then it is a red flag: it may well be the beginning of a controlling partner. 

Does hearing a premature "I love you" send you packing, or are you often the party who waits with batted breath to hear the magic phrase? Share your experiences with us here.

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