BRENT STOLLER

Writer. Advice giver. Peanut butter and chocolate enthusiast.

Advice for the Modern Man: Those Three Little Words

Couple in love

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(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)

I’m 23 years old and have been seeing someone for about three months now. Things started off slowly but are getting to be serious — it’s as serious a relationship as I’ve been in. This is new territory for me, but the man I’m dating is a few years older and has been in years-long relationships before.

Recently, after hanging out with friends, we were saying goodbye to each other, exchanging those passionate, “Don’t leave me” kisses, when I heard him mumble something. Between my infatuation and our friends talking nearby, it didn’t register what he had said to me. But a moment later as he walked out the door, it clicked: I love you. I think he said, “I love you,” but I can’t say for sure.

And now I don’t know what to do. He’s not one to talk about his feelings; he’s more of an actions-speak-louder type of guy. This makes him hard to read at times, and it prevents us from talking about our emotions.

On one hand, I want to bring it up, because I do truly love him and want him to know that. But what if I mention it and it turns out that’s not what he said? What if we’re not on the same page?

On the other hand, if I don’t bring it up and he did say I love you, I don’t want him to assume I heard him, ignored him and don’t feel the same way.

I take saying “I love you” very seriously, and I don’t want to mess this up. Any advice?
–Distracted by Love; Houston, TX

George: I might tell her that I love her.

Jerry: Well, that’s a big move, Georgie boy. Are you confident in the ‘I love you’ return?

George: Fifty-fifty.

Jerry: ‘Cause if you don’t get that return, that’s a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.

Considering you’re only 23, I’m guessing you don’t remember that exchange from the Seinfeld episode, “The Face Painter.” (It originally aired when you were a toddler.)

But it perfectly captures the stress, uncertainty and overall impact that initial “I love you” can have on a relationship.

Three words. Three syllables. Eight total letters. How can one sentence have so much power?

Well, not only is it the most meaningful verbal expression of emotions, its utterance marks the first time a couple measures how much they care for one another.

You can go on dates, you can have your first kiss and you can spend the night together. But you can do all those things without being in the same place emotionally — and without addressing that discrepancy.

But when someone says, “I love you,” they’re drawing a straightforward, pass-fail line in the sand. And if the two parties are on opposing sides, it can spell the end of the partnership.

Just ask George. He ultimately decided to tell his girlfriend he loved her, and she told him she was ready for dinner.

“You have any idea how fast these things deteriorate when there’s an ‘I love you’ out of the bag?” he tells Jerry. “You can’t have a relationship where one person says, ‘I love you,’ and the other says, ‘I’m hungry, let’s get something to eat.’”

Unfortunately, that’s true in most cases. But fortunately for me, it wasn’t in mine.

It took me forever to tell my now-wife, Emily, that I loved her. FOR-EVER — and well after she had told me.

It wasn’t because I didn’t care for her deeply enough, because I did. It was that I couldn’t connect with those emotions. I had (and still have, to an extent) all sorts of walls up that blocked me from feeling those feelings, even though on some level I knew they were there.

But I wasn’t going to say it just to say it. I wanted to be able to say it and mean it.

Emily and I talked about my issues a bunch, so she knew what I was dealing with, and she knew I was doing my best to work through it. Still, it had to have been hell on her.

For a long, long time, she’d tell me she loved me, and I just wouldn’t say anything back. Even though we both knew my silence was coming, it was like an awkward, heartbreaking scene in a rom-com every time we said goodbye or hung up the phone.

I felt like the world’s cruelest mute, but Emily, G-d bless her, hung in there like a champ, and did so much, much longer than most people would have.

Why? I don’t know. But obviously I’m thankful she did. I guess she thought our relationship was worth waiting for, and she figured that, even though we weren’t on the same side of the “I love you” line at the time, we would be one day. And sitting through the silence would eventually pay off.

She loved me, and above all else, that’s what mattered to her.

I’d say the same thing about you. You love your boyfriend. To me, that’s the most important thing here — not what he did or didn’t say, or what he might or might not do if you bring up this “incident.”

You love him, so you should tell him.

I understand this is uncharted territory for you, but three months is a reasonable point in the relationship to start having this type of conversation.

And while I do believe timing is critical in relationships — it’s one of THE most important factors — I also believe that if a relationship is right, it’s right. It doesn’t have to unfold in a uniform manner. The balance of power can seesaw back and forth, because the underlying feelings are strong enough to support it until each side finds its equilibrium.

If you decide to tell your boyfriend that you love him, there are two potential outcomes:

He’ll say it back, or he won’t.

And out of those responses, he’ll either figure out what he has to do to keep you, or he’ll start looking for a way to leave you.

Regardless, drawing that line in the sand will force him to confront how he feels — something that doesn’t come easy for him — and it’ll push your relationship, for better or worse, that much closer toward its eventual fate.

Behold the power of the matzo ball.

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This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.

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