I started writing a post on May-December relationships and I felt pulled in a different direction as I thought back on some of my past loves. Sit tight for May-December, I’ll finish it next. For now, hold my hand as we venture down the rabbit hole of the L-word, with all its social trappings and knee-jerk reactions.
I can tell you with absolute clarity all the details surrounding the first time those words slipped from my lips in a romantic relationship. I was 19 and dating my first real boyfriend, Dave. We’d been together for a couple of months and I knew I was falling in love with him. That reckless, headfirst, no holds barred kind of love that seems so effortless before your first couple of heartbreaks. We were laying in bed talking and I wanted so badly to tell him I loved him. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. I loved him. I knew I loved him. This was what love felt like, it had to be. But I didn’t want to be the first to say it because… what if he didn’t feel the same?
I had this internal argument with myself for a few minutes as I struggled to keep the words from leaping out of my mouth.
And then… he said it. First he said he was “falling in love” with me, and then he corrected himself. “No, I’m not falling. I’m in love with you. I love you, Jess.”
I was so overwhelmed in that moment. I cried. It was the first time a guy told me he loved me. I immediately reciprocated and then we laughed about how both of us had been laying there, trying to play it cool, trying to temper ourselves from these dangerous love feelings. It was so delightful and wonderful, one of the most beautiful experiences I think a person can have. That first time you exchange “I love you’s” with someone you’re truly, head over heels, skipping on clouds over.
Ahhh, I loved Dave. I envisioned myself marrying him. He took me to South Carolina over the holidays to meet his family, and I love them too. We dated a little over a year and then… he dumped me. Dave turned out to have a jealous streak. I’ll save that story for another post.
The end of the first ILU
Cue: heartbreak. You guys, I can tell you the actual titles of the songs I made a playlist of to sulk in during that bitter heartbreak. If you ever need a good cry session, pop on a couple of these classic 90s songs to get the feels rolling.
- Nothing compares 2 U (Sinead O’Connor)
- Shimmer (Fuel)
- Stay (Lisa Loeb)
- A long December (Counting Crows)
- Brick (Ben Folds Five)
- I can’t make you love me (Bonnie Rait)
- Everybody hurts (R.E.M.)
- Far behind (Candlebox)
Every night for about two weeks, I poured a bath, lit candles, and listened to my heartbreak playlist as I sobbed in the bathtub and lamented the fact that I would never find love again.
Then, I inevitably rebounded back to the land of the living, made out with a new guy, and voila! Heartbreak cured.
Beating “I love you” to a bloody pulp
My next two boyfriends from my early 20s told me they loved me quickly – maybe within a couple of weeks. I said it back, caught up in the feeling of being told I was loved, but not quite loving them back yet. I even got engaged to one of them (but he turned out to be a lying career criminal whose dark past I stumbled upon on New Years Eve in 2003). I became a little more guarded after the breakup with the criminal, less willing to throw around the L-word with such ease.
Then came Blake.
The wrecking ball.
I dated Blake off and on for nearly 5 years. I was enamored with his prestigious resume. I enjoyed exploring and adventuring with him. I thought I was in love. Looking back… I’m not sure I ever was.
Regardless, Blake and I were in a relationship for about 6 months before I love you’s were exchanged. He said it first during his last day in Florida – he was in the military and was moving to the northeast for a year. We’d decided we would do the long-distance thing before we’d even said we loved one another. Blake was definitely a commitment-phobe, taped up with issues that kept him closed off and never truly available to me on any real level. I remember standing outside of his apartment, leaning against my car, kissing him before I left that last day. He was finishing loading his stuff into a trailer and would be leaving Florida that afternoon. I wondered if he was going to say it. I wondered what we were, what we were doing.
He pulled away from me after a kiss and looked at me with this calculated, quintessential Blake stare, and declared, “I DO love you.”
I have to say that was the most bizarre first I-love-you of my life. It felt rehearsed and forced. Like, yeah, I do love you. Okay? Like a forced moment of emotion, perhaps. At any rate, I said it back and hurled myself into a relationship that would gobble me up for the next 4+ years, leaving me questioning and doubting most everything about myself.
That time I love him, but didn’t tell him
After I finally peeled myself from the wreckage of my relationship with Blake, I was resolute not to fall in love again. The next guy I loved… I did not tell him. There was a lot to like about Mike and after several months I knew I was in love. After just two months of dating, he flew me up to Connecticut to meet his mom and brother (both of whom I adored). But I soon got cold feet, overwhelmed by the scary feelings of love (and still not recovered from Blake), and I ended it before either of us had the chance to share our feelings for one another.
That time he didn’t say it back
Several years ago, I was dating a cop. I was 100%, absolutely, crazy in love with this man. Loved him. I mean.. LOVE. He was separated and going through a divorce when I met him, so I tried to keep it cool and casual. We always had so much fun together – I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much as I did with Joe. Gradually, we went from hanging out to being in a committed relationship. We’d been exclusive for almost a year and I love you’s had yet to be exchanged. I knew I loved Joe. I mean, there was no doubt in my mind. But I was waiting for him to say it first. Or trying to, anyways.
He called me one night to let me know he was going on a SWAT call-out. He was a SWAT team leader and a call-out wasn’t anything particularly unusual. What was unusual was that for several hours, I did not hear back from him. By the next morning I was in a near panic, consumed with fears that something had happened to him. And something that really struck me in those moments was the realization that if something did happen to him… or either one of us for that matter… I could lose the chance to tell him how I felt.
So I made a decision. For the first time in my life… I would be the first to say I love you.
And the next night, I did. I was snuggled up on his chest while we laid in bed when I decided to do it. I started by telling him how worried I’d been the night before, and my realization that if something happened to either of us, the opportunity to tell him how I felt would be forever missed. I paused, giving him a moment to see where I was going… maybe secretly hoping he’d jump in and say it first. But he laid there quietly.
So then I said it. Those three little words. “I love you.” My heart felt like it was going to explode.
And my worst fear happened. He didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes. We laid there awkwardly while I silently chided myself for being such an idiot, such a fool. After what seemed like 17 hours, but was probably two minutes, he replied.
I allowed that to soak in.
I kept hearing it over and over in my head. “Thank you.” The worst response to a declaration of love. The worst. It felt like the worst in that moment, anyways. We laid in bed for a few more minutes of silence and then I had to go. Well, I didn’t have to leave, but I needed to. I needed to get in my car and drive down the interstate while I cried at my stupidity. He gave me a hug after he walked me to the door…but frankly, I half expected a handshake.
“Thank you.” “Thank you.” “Thank you.” “Thank you.” “Thank you.” ohmygod it wouldn’t stop. He looked at me and said something as I walked out the door, probably “drive safe” or “call me when you get home.” But all I could hear was “Thank you.”
I left Joe’s house feeling like a buffoon and had a total meltdown during my drive home. I would have given anything to go back in time and take back those words. Anything. I felt like such an idiot. He’d probably never want to see me again. I was sure he’d ignore my calls – that is, if I ever got up the nerve to call him again. This was the worst. The literal worst. I told myself that never again would I be the first to toss out those godforsaken words.
So… it ended up not being the total disaster I thought it would be. A couple weeks later, Joe told me he loved me. In between, it felt like my I love you to him had been hanging hauntingly in the air every time we were together (which was basically every day). He explained that the night I said it, he knew he loved be back. But I caught him off guard. He hadn’t been ready to say it back. Looking back, that was actually a cool thing. I wouldn’t have wanted him to reciprocate if it wasn’t something he was ready to say.
In the years since my relationship with Joe, I’ve had three relatively short-term relationships, all with declarations of love (they said it first… I’m quite sure I’ll never be the first to declare love again)… but I’m not really sure there was much love there. Lust, maybe. A lot of like, yeah. But not real love.
I’m not sure there’s a term much more loaded than “I love you.” Perhaps “God” – people have all kinds of reactions to that word. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable telling people I love them (friends, family members, acquaintances). Love is such a wonderful thing. It’s a wonderful feeling to give and receive. But love on a romantic level is much more sticky, risky. Over the last year, I’ve took two stabs at the possibility of love. You can read about those disasters here and here. I think that perhaps, one day, I will choose to open myself back up to all the potential messiness that I associate with romantic I love you’s. But I don’t seem to be on any sort of quest for it right now. My journey is more inward at the moment… maybe I’m developing myself into the best future partner I can be for someone… and maybe he’s out there doing the same. Or maybe not. I have to say… my life is full and wonderful just the way it is right now, and for that I am extremely thankful.
Thanks for wandering down this reflection road with me – it’s been fun and valuable, as always 🙂 Leave your comments below – I’d love to know your thoughts and experiences with the L-word <3