Love is a tricky thing—and it’s even trickier when your girlfriend expresses that she’s in love with you before you’ve personally reached that milestone. In fact, you may have been taken completely off guard after the L-bomb was dropped. If that’s you and you’re unsure about what you should say or do now that it’s out there and you know she’s expecting a response, there are a few things it helps to know.
If it’s a relationship you’re not too sure about, now’s the time to analyze where you see yourself as a couple. Or, maybe you’re feeling like you’re in love with her too, but you’re just not sure yet and need more time.
No matter where you find yourself, here are a few things to do from this point forward.
Don’t say it back if you don’t mean it.
There’s a lot of pressure to follow up an “I love you” with an “I love you too,” but the worst thing you can do is express an emotion that’s not there yet. Yes, she’s probably hoping that’s your response, but you shouldn’t fake feelings. Let her know how much it means to you that she feels that way. You can also follow it up with “I’ve really enjoyed all the time we’ve spent together.” But don’t lie or, even worse, brush off her sentiment and pretend you didn’t hear her.
If she gets upset, stay honest.
Tell her that you have very strong feelings for her, but you don’t want to toss around the word unless you’re sure you mean it. Yes, she might be hurt by this—but she’ll be less hurt than if she knew you lied to her to try and save face. With love comes the possibility of an actual future together, and that’s a big life change for both of you. Just make sure to stay optimistic, and don’t make her feel bad for expressing herself. Saying “I love you” to someone puts you in a vulnerable place, so make sure you don’t respond in a way that makes her feel stupid for sharing how she feels.
Figure out of it’s love.
The word gets tossed around so much that sometimes it’s hard to know if you really love someone, or would just love to be in love with them. When you get either good or bad news, do you tell her first? Do you consider your girlfriend to be a close friend? Can you imagine spending a major holiday without her? Does her company make every experience better? Do you smile every time you think about her? Then it could be love.
If you do love her, let her know.
Saying “I love you” back doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy a ring, but if she’s someone who means the world to you, let her know. That way, she’ll know you’re both on the same page and you can work on growing your relationship together.
If you feel nervous, maybe things are happening too soon for you.
Relationships all happen at different paces. Some people date for a decade before getting married, others jump into a serious commitment very quickly. But if she says “I love you” and your gut feeling is to feel a little sick and panic, that could be your body telling you that things are happening uncomfortably quick. There’s no reason to rush a good relationship. Trust your own instincts, and feel free to dial it back a bit if she’s moving things forward too quickly for you.
Be open if you’re flustered.
She knows that saying you love someone is a big step forward. If you’re tripping on words as a response, don’t be apologetic—it’s likely you were caught off guard. Being honest about being flustered is much better than pretending she didn’t say it, or leaving the room to avoid a response back.
Evaluate your relationship up to this point.
Be honest—is this what you want? Hopefully, it is. When a partnership reaches the point of love, it’s make it or break it time. Either you’re in it for the long haul, or it’s time to part ways because the two of you want different things. If you’ve never had the marriage or kids discussion, now would be a good time. Those things are hard to compromise on, and if you’re serious about your girlfriend, you need to evaluate her future desires.
Do something nice for her.
Again, telling someone you love them is very hard to do. If this girl is someone you want to keep in your life for a long time, you should show her how much you appreciate her. Take her out to dinner, or maybe book a special weekend vacation just for the two of you. If this relationship is the one, these will just be incredible memories you can reflect on later.
When someone says “I love you,” they’re looking for the relationship to upgrade to the next level. If you feel the same way, don’t be afraid to make that big step. But if you’re not there yet, don’t lie or dodge responding. It may be that you get there one day, or you may realize that you care deeply for her but don’t see your feelings going any farther than that. Whatever happens, be honest about how you feel and respectful of her feelings and where she’s at. It will be a hard conversation, and incredibly awkward, but you’ll be glad you were true to your feelings.