"I love you!" "[insert appropriate reply here]"
October 10, 2012 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Best way to respond to an unrequited "I love you"?

I have been involved with someone long-distance since July. This weekend we are going to be seeing each other, and I have good reason to believe I'll be hearing those three little words. I like her a lot, and want to keep seeing her, and I think we're actually on the same page about the nature of our relationship right now. I'm just not there right now; I can't say "I love you" back. She is a very direct, honest, and sane person, so I don't anticipate any drama. I want to respond in some way that says, "I'm not there but it doesn't freak me out that you are," that isn't awkward, and that doesn't sound like I'm dodging the issue. At the same time, I don't want to launch into a paragraph that makes it come off like I think it's a huge big deal. I'm thinking of a single sentence, something like, "you're so awesome!" and a hug. Give me some options to mull over on my 23-hour train ride.
posted by not that girl to Human Relations (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Just tell her what you told us.

Don't do the "you're so awesome" thing. It's patronizing.

Also, I feel like by keeping your actual feelings unspoken, she will probably read something negative. Why not just say, "I'm crazy about you, I'm happy in our relationship, but I just can't say those words back to you yet."

Unless, of course, none of that is true and you actually aren't that excited about her. In which case, sure, be all "you're awesome!" or "I know." or some other flippant movie line that communicates "fuck off and die" in an unspoken sort of way.
posted by Sara C. at 8:08 AM on October 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

Oh, no. No to "you're so awesome". That's one hell of a smack in the face.

Just say what you've said here, 'I know, and I wish I could say the same, but I'm just not there yet'.

Anything else is a flat-out rejection, which I'm sure you don't mean. Acknowledge her feelings, and leave the door open to you coming along eventually. You have to leave that door open.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:10 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh god, just be clear about your feelings. I've had responses back like "Thanks!" and "I know" and it's just brutal.

If I had something back like "I really like you, I'm not there yet but it makes me happy that you are and I love how our relationship is progressing" -- well, that would make me pretty happy.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:11 AM on October 10, 2012 [44 favorites]

Agreed. "You're so awesome" will not give the impression you want. I once tried "I appreciate the sentiment," which went over okay, but in retrospect makes me cringe :)

Now I would say:

"I'm really into you and happy with the way things are going between us. I know I want to be able to say those words to you, but I'm just not ready yet! I hope you understand!"
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 8:13 AM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

I like her a lot, and want to keep seeing her, and I think we're actually on the same page about the nature of our relationship right now. I'm just not there right now;

Basically a more complimentary version of this. AkA how you feel.
posted by French Fry at 8:17 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Whip out your iPod and play cortex's (I Don't Know If I Love You But) I Like Like You A Lot.

More realistically, I definitely agree with those who say to explicitly say that you're not there yet, but you like the way things are going. If you're pretty sure your feelings for her are still growing, let her know that.
posted by MsMolly at 8:19 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think that these suggestions are good.

I might preface whatever reaction you have with a long, deep, heartfelt kiss, so her body also gets the message how into her you are, even if you can't utter that sentence as of yet.
posted by Danf at 8:19 AM on October 10, 2012

Wait, how do you know she's going to say that? Has she said other similar things? I just wouldn't stress TOO much that she might say that and oh gosh what are you going to say because it might run the visit off track.

I wouldn't say "I know," because that might be weird, but just saying you're not ready to say I love you but are enjoying the time together, I think that's great.
posted by sweetkid at 8:20 AM on October 10, 2012

Agreed with above.

Can you maybe run a little interference on this in the mean time? Maybe in a particularly nice and romantic moment you share, say something along the lines of how you really feel so close to her and that this is the best relationship you have had, and while you would never say "I love you" when you weren't ready, you DO feel that you will get there eventually?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:24 AM on October 10, 2012

Pre-empt her. There are so many better words than love when it's so early, words that more accurately reflect what you're feeling. So guide her gently by introducing the word you want yourself. Tell her you adore her, or you dig her, or roll your eyes and say irillyrillylikeyou. She'll follow suit. It's a call-and-response and a huge relief.
posted by mochapickle at 8:24 AM on October 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

What mochapickle just said.

Unless you are ready to talk a bit with her about where you both are at, where you are going, and how you are doing it.

It's good to be honest and open.
It's great to find someone you can be honest and open with.
posted by BadMiker at 8:31 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I said "I love you" to my boyfriend about four months in and he wasn't ready. His reaction was perfect: he kissed me, then said that it was great that I felt that way and that I was so willing to be open with him about it. He said he knew that he would feel the same way someday soon, but he didn't feel right saying it back right now.
posted by anotheraccount at 8:46 AM on October 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

You could say "I think I do to, but I'll let you know soon." And then smile and wink and hug her.
posted by katypickle at 8:49 AM on October 10, 2012

Best answer: I was once in a similar position, and said almost exactly what Isingthebodyelectric suggests, and while my beau was a wee bit disappointed, we had a nice cuddle and he seemed to appreciate the fact that I wanted to be sincere and wholehearted when I was ready to say it. A month or two later, when I was ready, it meant more - I think - to both of us.
posted by pammeke at 8:50 AM on October 10, 2012

I have a feeling I'm going to be burned at the stake for saying this, but here goes:

Why not just say it back? Look, I fully understand the importance of "love" and how powerful that word is (I've been married for almost 15 years, and still say it and mean it everyday), but what is gained by insisting on getting to some exact right place before you say it? Does it mean it will hurt less if the relationship ends? Does it mean that this other person has less of a claim to your honesty and faithfulness? Why not just define for yourself that whatever affection and care you have for this person, right now in this moment, can be called "love," and make that other person the happiest they have ever been for just a few minutes? Even if your feelings never develop into what could objectively be called "love" (whatever that means), why not celebrate what you have in the moment instead of coldly calculating just exactly how many percentage points of your heart this person occupies?

I don't know, I mean, I get the desire to be fully honest, but maybe spend the ride thinking about adjusting in your mind just what "love" means to you?
posted by Rock Steady at 8:52 AM on October 10, 2012 [24 favorites]

Mod note: This is a response from an anonymous commenter.
I was on the giving end of an unrequited “I love you” last weekend. I didn’t expect it to be requited, and my biggest hesitation was that I was afraid the recipient might interpret it as something I was saying in order to elicit a specific response (that is, “I love you too”.) What they did was squeeze me tighter and kiss me, and said “thank you.”

I suppose that’s supposed to be a “kiss off” answer, but I thought it was super, and am feeling sunny and happy about the situation. I do think the immediate and ongoing physical reassurance was key – my lover didn’t pull away or start acting weird or act weirded out. My love was and is freely offered, for the pleasure of loving them, and I cared most about it being received as a pleasure and not as some kind of burden.

I think that body language and tone of voice are going to be much more important than using just the right words, and I think that those non-verbal cues are going to depend on your attitude – if you go into this all freaked out, your gf is going to pick up on that. If you go into it with the attitude of “she cares about me and I care about her, and things are great even though we are feeling different things”, then you’ll communicate that by your behavior. Being too wordy and over-explainy actually might be too much in the moment.

Think of the moment in terms of responding to her, instead of defending your lack of reciprocation.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:53 AM on October 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

Anon. commenter is spot on. "Hearing that makes me so happy! Thank you!"
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:23 AM on October 10, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. This is so helpful, in lieu of having time for a cup of coffee with a crew of girlfriends.
posted by not that girl at 9:27 AM on October 10, 2012

I gave an "I love you" and received a "Thank you" and I was kind of bummed. But we're married now, so obviously I got over it. However, when he said "I love you," I laughed at him because I already knew it (we were living together and just got a puppy and were exhausted from puppy raising and why would you do that with someone you didn't love and trust?). He got over that, too.
posted by spec80 at 9:49 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've been on the giving AND receiving end of an unrequited "I love you."

When I was the one saying it - the guy hugged me, then reassured me that he liked me a whole hell of a lot, but wasn't sure he felt that - those words carried major weight with him, was all. He reiterated he liked me a hell of a lot and wanted to stay with me and the relationship; he just didn't want to lie to me and tell me he loved me to when he wasn't sure he was ready to say that yet. That was tremendously reassuring. ...He was never able to say it in the rest of the time we were dating, but I often felt like saying it, and after we had that talk, he would simply respond by hugging me and saying "I'm so glad you're here" or "I'm so grateful for you" or something else similarly warm and bonding-sounding.

When I was on the receiving end, I was kind of lucky because the guy sort of blurted it out unexpectedly, and so he immediately launched into a whole sort of minor panic attack of"Uh, I mean, this is great but I'm not ready for us to like meet each other's parents or anything, or..." babbling. So I told him basically what the other guy had told me - that I was thrilled he was here and I was touched he said that, but I'd also promised myself I'd never say those words unless I knew I meant them. And I was close, but I wasn't quite ready to say that yet, but the second I knew I was ready, I would indeed tell him. That worked great for him and me. (Of course, one week later we both said it again to each other and both meant it, so yeah. But I'm sure respecting each others' comfort and communicating with each other honestly helped us get to that point a hell of a lot faster.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:38 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I once dated a guy who wasn't quite there yet, although we actually talked about that before either of us had actually said it; he told me several times that he liked me SO much and wanted there to be a word between "like" and "love" that he could use. I appreciated his candor while I was sorting out my own feelings. We've been together 22 years. Honesty rocks.
posted by Occula at 10:50 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I said "I love you" to my partner before he was comfortable saying it to me. It was in April, I had said it a few times really quickly at the end of phone calls, but I decided I wanted to say it for real, in person. We were lying on our backs in Union Square Park, and I said it. "I love you." While I don't remember exactly what he said in return, I know that we had a long conversation about how, for me, it is important to tell people I love them as soon as possible, and as often as possible*, but that for him, it was important to wait until he was absolutely sure.

What happened next, I've written about in an earlier thread:
Three months later, as we rode the Cyclone on Coney Island, without thinking about it, he yelled out "I love you!" as we giddily crashed through the roller coaster's turns. I made no reaction—I hadn't heard it. Realizing I'd missed it, he could have said nothing, but he decided that his instincts were right, and he told me again when we got off the ride. It was much, much sweeter than if he'd said it begrudgingly three months before.
All of this is to say that because I knew his reasons for not saying "I love you," and because they were clearly sincere, and his actions were compassionate and respectful, I did not mind at all that he waited. I'm sure you will be sincere, compassionate, and respectful, too. Have a good time!

*My grandparents died suddenly in a car wreck right after having an argument over the phone with my dad. He did not tell him that he loved them during that phone call, and I'm terrified of ever being in such a position.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:33 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think life is too short to be cling to honesty this way, I agree with one of the previous posters who said you should just say it back. Are you always going to stress about exact words and timings and always make sure you are 100% honest? Well, good luck with that! Being together often means knowing when to lie or not comment as long as you keep with the general spirit of the truth and you are not malicious. Is ruining or at least lessening your partners important moment worth it? Or you could think of it another way: Do you love cats? Do you love pizza? Do you love your niece? Your friends? Potatoes? (or whatever things you love). But you don't love this person? Seems unfair and love is such a hard concept to pin down anyway. The world could use more love in general, don't be stingy!
posted by meepmeow at 12:20 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can speak from my experience as someone who felt exactly the same way you do now with my current partner--he told me he loved me, I freaked out a little bit and told him that I felt warm feelings but couldn't quite say it yet...and he hasn't said it again in the past 2 years we've been together since. We've talked about it, and he says that it made him uncomfortable to say something he knows I can't respond to in kind. What this type of calculation can create is an awkward situation where certain language just becomes taboo, and since you're already the type of person to bean plate this a little bit (as am I) it gets really difficult later to be the one who initiates the love-word when you've already established a pattern of not saying it. I'm bringing a bit of baggage to this, but it's really hard for me to get around this personally and I don't want that to happen to anyone else!

I have to stand with Rock Steady here. Words like "love" are defined more by the person saying them rather than a cultural language-game thing. Don't respond "grudgingly", but really evaluate whether this is as frightening as it seems. Maybe a discussion about not saying it "casually" (i.e. every time you get off the phone, end of emails etc) can alleviate some of the problem you have with the use of "Love" between the two of you?
posted by zinful at 2:28 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

From personal experience, don't say "aww, I'm flattered!"
posted by prefpara at 5:23 AM on October 11, 2012

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