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As sentences go, “I love you” is a pretty simple one.

Yet in spite of its unassuming appearance, this short phrase can carry a *lot* of meaning — as evidenced by the fact that people often spend plenty of time agonizing over when to say it for the first time, or whether to say it at all.

If you’re hoping for a quick answer to the question, “When should I tell my partner I love them?” we have to let you down. As with most questions about matters of the heart, there’s no single, straightforward answer.

Love, after all, means something a little different for everyone. Some people consider confessing their love a momentous occasion that requires careful consideration. Others say the words easily, with no concerns over how they’ll be received.

So no, there’s no set timeline for saying those three small but powerful words. All the same, a few key clues can offer more insight on not just when you might be ready to say them, but when your partner might be ready to hear them.

Maybe you feel those words bubbling up whenever you’re around the person, and you find yourself pressing your lips firmly closed to hold them back.

At the same time, though, you might worry: Is it too soon? Do I really love them? What if they don’t feel the same?

Your imagination might even suggest possible scenarios, like stunned silence, laughter, or a swift rejection.

So, you decide to wait, until you’re more sure of them as well as yourself. As you wait, you wonder, “Exactly how long *should* I wait?”

The answer varies for everyone. But a 2011 research review did attempt to identify some common patterns around the act of saying “I love you.”

In a set of six studies, researchers explored why and when partners in heterosexual relationships communicate commitment, plus potential reactions to those declarations of love. (They noted that they only included male-female couples because they didn’t have enough data from LGB+ couples.)

Their findings suggest:

  • Men often think about expressing feelings of love first. On average, it took them 97.3 days to consider saying “I love you,” while it took women just about 138 days to consider saying the words.
  • Men didn’t just think about confessing before women. They were also more likely to say “I love you” first.
  • While men tended to consider confessions of love acceptable after about a month or so, women tended to say it was better to wait 2 to 3 months or so.
  • Confessions of love generally inspired feelings of happiness, but men felt more positive about confessions that happened before the relationship became sexual. Women experienced more positive emotions when men said “I love you” after becoming physically intimate.

Basically, people often begin to consider saying “I love you” somewhere around a few months into a relationship.

Romantic love often progresses through three general stages: lust, attraction, and attachment. These stages can affect your brain and body in different ways. Plus, not everyone will go through these stages the same way — if at all.

Lust

The early phases of a romantic relationship can be pretty, well, lustful. Testosterone and estrogen may ramp up your libido, helping fuel the first few weeks (or months) where you can’t seem to keep from touching. Staying in (in bed, that is) usually sounds like a great idea.

Lust doesn’t always become love, or even mutual attraction. Some mostly physical relationships tend to lose their spark and fizzle out before too long.

In the same way, love doesn’t need to grow out of lust at all. Many asexual people may skip this stage completely.

Attraction

Of course, you can also feel some attraction that goes beyond sexual desire. Attraction can flourish alongside lust, or independently of any physical intimacy.

During this stage, your brain releases more of the hormones dopamine (linked to rewards and motivation) and norepinephrine (linked to the fight or flight response). At the same time, it produces less serotonin, a hormone that plays a part in mood, appetite, sleep, and sexual function.

These changing hormone levels can leave you feeling energized, even though you might have less appetite or need for sleep. You might also feel euphoric, or lightheaded and excited, at the merest thought of the person you’ve fallen for.

Attachment

Helped along by hormones like oxytocin, your romantic feelings might eventually stabilize into a more lasting attachment. You’ll recognize this stage when you begin to think about commitment over “just having fun” or “seeing what happens.”

While that early euphoria may have faded, feelings of closeness and deeper affection have grown in its place. You might feel a bond forming, and you may want to nurture it long term.

If you’ve reached this stage, you could, quite possibly, be in love.

Some people share their feelings as soon as they notice the first urge to say them. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t hurt to take some time to think, either.

You can’t truly love someone before you get to know them, no matter what countless pop songs and media love stories suggest. In fact, a 2017 study suggests that so-called “love at first sight” might be better described as “attraction at first sight.”

As you sort through your feelings, ask yourself if you’ve noticed any of these key signs of love:

  • You see them as a whole person. In other words, you acknowledge and accept not just their positive traits, but also the slightly less positive ones. That could include their habit of telling long-winded stories, when you really just want the highlights.
  • You’re curious about all aspects of your partner. That includes their past relationships, family, childhood, present likes and dislikes, and future goals and plans.
  • You want to support them without feeling a need to change them.
  • You want to spend time together and miss them when you’re apart. But you also recognize that you have independent interests and respect their need to spend time alone, or with other friends.
  • The time you spend together involves life responsibilities, like chores and errands, as well as relaxation and fun, but you enjoy it all the same.
  • You trust them when they aren’t around and feel safe and secure when they are.
  • You’re starting to imagine (or loosely plan) a future together. You may even talk about it as a couple.
  • You don’t just want to tell them how you feel, you want to share those feelings with everyone you know.
  • You want your friends and loved ones to meet them and think as highly of them as you do.

At the end of the day, maybe you just know your life is better with them around, and you want to keep it that way.

Saying “I love you,” at least in the context of a romantic relationship or love interest, does typically suggest a desire for increased commitment. That’s one reason why you might feel a little nervous before saying those words.

What if the person you love doesn’t love you in the same way, or want the same type of commitment? Maybe they do have the same feelings, but they want something a little (or a lot) different from a relationship.

Once you feel ready to express your feelings and work toward something more lasting, a good first step might involve starting a conversation about your relationship. You can talk about your goals, boundaries, and long-term compatibility.

A few questions to ask your partner, and consider for yourself:

  • What does commitment mean to you? Are you monogamous, comfortable opening things up, or strictly non-monogamous?
  • How do you define your personal and relationship boundaries? What are your needs for alone time? How about time with your partner? Do you prefer a lot of communication when apart, or just a little? How do you feel about friendships with ex-partners? What do you consider cheating?
  • Do you have similar interests and personal values? You certainly don’t need to have all the same interests or beliefs. That said, things may not go swimmingly if one of you envisions a future filled with bike camping trips and the other really dislikes leaving the comforts of home. Some partners do build successful relationships in spite of different hobbies, religious faiths, or political beliefs. But talking about these values early on can help you determine your long-term compatibility.
  • What do you want for the future? Do you hope to move in together, get married, or have children? Are these goals flexible or nonnegotiable?

Think of your relationship like Rome: You can’t build it in a single day. These conversations will take some time, so expect some ongoing dialogue. All that discussion has a benefit, though — it usually helps strengthen your bond.

You and your partner won’t automatically fall in love at the same time, and that’s absolutely fine.

Romantic feelings naturally develop at different rates. It’s also worth considering that some people feel more secure and confident when it comes to accepting love’s risks.

Loving someone means accepting some risk of rejection and heartbreak, which leaves you in a vulnerable position. You could simply need a little more time to come to terms with that new vulnerability.

Experiences in previous relationships can also make it more difficult to acknowledge and trust your own feelings. They can even inspire some doubts about your ability to fall in love.

These experiences can make it harder not just to recognize your feelings, but also to feel comfortable expressing them. They might include:

Wondering about your own attachment style and how it might affect your relationships? Check out our guide.

How to respond when you aren’t sure how you feel

It’s never wrong to take time to consider your own feelings when a partner says, “I love you.”

Instead of replying in kind before you truly mean it, consider trying out one of these starter phrases:

  • “I love spending time with you.”
  • “I feel so happy around you.”
  • “I appreciate you so much.”
  • “I love how close we’ve become.”
  • “I’m really excited about what we have, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.”
  • “I really care about you, but I’m not sure yet if I can call those feelings ‘love.'”

You might feel tempted to wisecrack “I know,” à la Han Solo, but just be prepared — some partners may not find this all that amusing.

Open communication serves as an important foundation of any relationship, in large part because it factors into so many aspects of lasting intimacy:

  • revisiting boundaries
  • talking about things you’d like to try in bed
  • expressing feelings of appreciation and love
  • resolving conflict
  • sharing difficult emotions

It often becomes easier to trust someone when you know you can tell them anything that comes to mind and count on them to listen with empathy and try to understand your perspective.

Remember, someone who really does love you will have patience and respect your needs. They won’t pressure you to say something you aren’t ready to say.

It could be time to reevaluate the relationship if:

  • They seem insistent on you confessing your love.
  • They don’t show any desire for commitment.
  • The relationship never becomes more intimate.
  • They love you, but you don’t know if you can love them in the same way.
  • You feel stuck waiting for the relationship to progress.

You can’t take a test to determine whether you’re in love or not. You mostly have to follow your heart, so to speak. If you feel the urge to confess your love to your partner, once you’ve acknowledged those feelings for yourself, there’s no need to wait a set length of time.

Don’t worry if they don’t respond immediately. Love takes a different route for everyone, but expressing genuine feelings can often strengthen a relationship.

Plus, there’s always the chance your “I love you” could help them realize they feel the same way.

Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.