…. can mean very different things at different stages of a relationship and when you say it in a heterosexual relationship can be quite different according to gender.
Studies have shown men tend to say it earlier than women in a relationship, which could date back to our primal beginnings. What this means is that it might be a way of securing the mate for procreation, while women tend to wait until later in the relationship, perhaps after a sexual encounter, because they have more skin in the game. In other words, for women, sex brings the possibility of having a lot of responsibility – child caring being the biggest. Women have more at stake and will not say I Love You as easily as men might. Women also have that nurturing motherly emotional component and need to have that solidly established before proclaiming true love. Men may also say it earlier than women in a relationship simply because of the adaptive cultural component of men taking the lead. Men often lead the idea of sex so they may also lead this proclamation of love. They are the ones who propose, so this too makes sense. Men may appreciate hearing a woman say I Love You postcoital rather than before, since this perhaps establishes her appreciation of his affection.
Was this the case for your present or past relationships? If you are in a 10+ year relationship, you likely don’t even remember who said it first. Between diaper changes, daycare pick-up drop-off schedules, home-schooling, and refinancing the mortgage, who has time to even think about this let alone place food on the table. However, let’s be realistic, there is very little that is more important than establishing what love and commitment means to one another through this chaos.
“ Think of showing your affection routinely as ‘preventative medicine’ that limits the risk of having an emotional heart attack.“
Are the words I Love You said out loud? If they are, is it simply as part of a ritual? Maybe you have made it part of a habit every morning or every night… which is great, as long as you mean it and you are acting it. How do you show it? Do you do it in a way that fulfills each other’s needs, or do you show it in a way you would like to be shown love. This needs to be examined very closely and established early in the relationship. Think of showing your affection routinely as ‘preventative medicine’ that limits the risk of having an emotional heart attack.
So again, what does saying I Love You mean to you now? I see the meaning of true love taking on different connotations over the life span of a relationship.
In the beginning stages of a romantic relationship, call it the ‘honeymoon phase’, it’s meaning seems to fit more with the passion each individual is experiencing. Think about it – during this stage, the simple thought of this special person makes you smile brilliantly, even if you are in the middle of overly-stuffed Covid-inhabited grimy bus ride home at the end of a long day. Love equals passion at this point of the relationship journey.
In a ‘mature’ relationship, now with post menopause and testosterone levels dropping, what does saying I Love You mean? You are not bunnies anymore, and Spring in Winnipeg does not last 365 days of the year so, again, what does saying I Love You mean to you now?
For strong and mature healthy marriages, it may simply mean, “I will take care of you no matter what comes our way,” or “We have each other’s back no matter what,” or… “You are my world,” or “You make my world a better place”. This is very personal, and I would encourage you to take the time to write out what saying I Love You to my partner means to me right now. Write it out and present it in a special card to your partner – you will not regret this.
For the 25+ year mature relationships, where the passion has completely fizzled, then saying I Love You is likely very different than above. I am speaking about relationships that are ending or has ended. At this stage I hope that it is mutual, but for some cases, it may be one partner that is feeling this more than another.
In such cases, the meaning might be more of, ‘I love you and I want you to be happy, but that may not be with me’. It could mean “I love you as the father/mother of my child/children and I could never have done it without you and thank you for those years.” Finally, “I never want harm to come to you, and I want the best for you”.
Of course, it is sad when this occurs in a relationship, but you need to give yourself permission to let that go without guilt. Typically, the children are older in this case, and you are likely financially more secure than any other time in your relationship, so it will be okay.
Life has always been uncertain, and it will continue to be uncertain. Covid-19 has made us realize this more than ever. Can we be preventative in order to do our best for this not to happen to our relationship? Yes, of course we can. However, if you find yourselves in this spot right now, in that your love for this person is not what it once was, then it is okay to feel like this. Just be sure to talk to someone other than an immediate close acquaintance to ensure this is what is best for you. Seek out an experienced marriage therapist to talk through your feelings so that you may feel more secure in your decision.