My boyfriend and I had been together for a year, and something felt a little off.
After all of that time, neither of us had said the “L” word to each other.
Some of you smart, successful, and fiercely independent millennial STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) women might be okay with that, enjoying the slow pace at which your newfound relationship is moving, while others might panic and wonder where the relationship is going.
I was the latter.
Phillip and I had been doing our thang as a couple, camping in the woods, skiing the slopes, slacklining at (national) parks, scrambling rocks to new heights…
We had our quarrels, too. He was always intense, passionate, when we argued, while I liked my dramatic exits from the room to cool off (neither of which I recommend).
When he and I started dating, I recall him mentioning that his sister and brother-in-law didn’t say “I love you” to each other until around a year, year and a half, into their relationship, and he wanted to do the same.
Whether or not you agree with this, I had several internal reactions that gave me an eye twitch.
“Wait, what?! Why won’t you just say it when you’re ready? Why wait an entire year? You’re just going to set a timer and then say it when it goes off?!”
“Wait, I need to wait until the one-year mark for him to express how he feels about me?”
“What if he still doesn’t feel that way after one year? Am I wasting my time?”
“This is just very strange.”
A part of me didn’t want to take what he said seriously.
Then a year came around, and he still hadn’t said it.
We were at his family cabin in Big Bear, CA, and I was worried.
Bad Day in Big Bear
It was 2015, an El Niño year, and toward the end of the decade-long southern California drought.
That weekend, Big Bear had gotten a huge snow dump that caused traffic up the fucking wazoo.
It was as if a bunch of snow gods had partied too hard and collectively barfed on the mountain from on high.
Everyone and their mother wanted to get some of that snow action in thirsty southern California, yet hardly any of them (unsurprisingly) knew how to drive in snow.
It was hard to get anywhere without having to sit on the road for at least 30 minutes, even to travel a couple of miles.
I was going to miss my next ski lesson that would help me work toward a season pass (talk about first world problems).
I was anxious, and Phillip was furious.
In a battle between Phillip and traffic, traffic usually wins, getting a rise out of him and sometimes prompting him to turn around just so he won’t have to sit in traffic.
In life coaching, we call that “negative” and contagious energy that drags us down “catabolic energy,” and the opposite is called “anabolic energy.”
And I say “contagious” because it started to get really tense between us.
I was scared to say anything–to express my discomfort with his fury, to calm him, even to calm myself–for fear I would step on one of his emotional landmines.
(Even a year into dating, we were still learning how to handle conflict, which is okay and normal.)
That tension continued when we finally got through the traffic and made it to the Bear Mountain Ski Resort.
And even then, with crowded slopes and long ski lift lines, he just wasn’t having it.
I felt disconnected from him because, as cheesy as it sounds, the catabolic energy overtook us.
He was frustrated the whole time and didn’t hold back, and all of the signs were telling me that he wasn’t going to say the “L” word this weekend.
I skied with sadness, waiting for the day to be over.
The Next Morning
Phillip and I had tension for lunch, dinner, and breakfast the next day.
We hardly spoke to each other, and I was dying to know what was on his mind.
“Has he been thinking what I’ve been thinking? Am I going to have to be the bigger one and break the ice, so to speak?”
I was nervous as fuck.
We sat silently in the living room, eating oatmeal.
Several minutes later, I opened my mouth, speaking each word cautiously as if one little trip could set off a Phillip alarm.
“It’s been a year and I want to tell you ‘I love you,’ but I’m afraid the feelings won’t be reciprocated,” I said, my voice shaking.
“I’m just not sure I love you back,” he said.
I felt broken hearing that, and this was the beginning of our first painful, mega-catastrophic fight.
A fly on the wall could see two people going at it like a TV drama, and I felt like meteors and lightning were striking the earth around us.
He fired at me about how his previous relationships made him afraid to love another woman.
I fired back, feeling victimized, asking why he would waste time with me if he felt like he couldn’t love another woman anymore.
He pivoted, saying he didn’t want to be with a woman who hadn’t lived on her own before, insinuating that I was irresponsible.
I fired back, although I don’t remember what I said after that.
We both ended up in tears, Phillip sitting at the edge of the bed, leaning his head against me while I stood.
Our TV drama was coming to an end, and in that moment, I thought we had made a breakthrough.
We tore through the cobwebs of our past to learn something about ourselves, and it seemed like we could move forward.
But he still didn’t say it back.
Even though it seemed like we were making strides, I felt very awkward on the multi-hour ride home.
On top of that, many people still couldn’t figure out how to drive down the mountain in the barfed-up snow conditions, and it was starting to get on Phillip’s nerves.
Still unsure of the state of our relationship, I desperately wanted to keep talking about that morning in the cabin.
“Would he ever say it back?” I wondered.
But I kept to myself, instead desperately waiting for our car ride to be over.
Eventually, he dropped me off at my parents’ house, and he returned to his parents’ house only three minutes away.
I immediately phoned a friend as if I were on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
And he told me some of the best, simplest dating advice I’d ever heard.
Want to know what he told me?
He said, “Just tell him how you feel about him. If he doesn’t say it back, then at least he knows how you feel because you’ve communicated it. If he doesn’t say it back, then maybe he’s not ready, and that’s okay. Maybe he’ll be ready later; if not, it’s up to you how you want to proceed.”
Feeling empowered after this conversation, I called Phillip to drop the “L” word on him.
“I know we had a rough weekend, but I want to tell you I love you, and it’s okay if you don’t feel the same way. I just wanted you to know, and there’s no pressure to say it back,” I told him.
“Oh yeah, I love you, too,” he responded.
Wait, what?! After all of that and he says it THAT easily?
The man drives me crazy to this day (and while I was writing this, he looked back on that time and told me his one-year plan to drop the “L” word was “dumb.” But he’s still cute, so I forgave him).
(Dating) Confidence Lessons
This story might seem a little unusual, given that science says men are more likely to fall in love first and express it first in a relationship.
However, in a world of ineffective dating advice, and as a certified life coach, I can easily say from experience that:
- There is no “one size fits all” answer to the question “When should I say ‘I love you,’ and who should be the first to say it?” Each couple has their unique story. However, I encourage you to trust your gut if it’s been a while (based on your definition of “a while”) and no one has said it, and to confront the situation to see if you’re wasting your time with that person.
- It helps to throw away the “shoulds” we were taught growing up and just do whatever the fuck we want (within our control). I encourage you to throw away old rules and come up with new ones you choose to live by.
Finally, I want to gift you smart, successful, and fiercely independent millennial STEM women with three confidence nuggets:
#1 You are a warrior, so stop fucking overthinking everything
It’s so, so easy to overthink what your partner said and how (s)he said it, to feel weak and embarrassed if you were to express your feelings without any reciprocation, and to worry about the long-term consequences.
But how much does it serve you to be a prisoner to your thoughts?
How much does it serve your relationship to make who says the “L” word first a competition?
How much does it serve you to be ego-driven when it comes to love?
I can tell you what can serve you, if you try it on for size: Be present; let the relationship develop organically; and however you feel, that’s how you feel, and those feelings deserve to be out there.
Don’t fight it.
#2 Learn to love your-fucking-self first
You’ve heard it time and time again, and we could always, always use a reminder.
I’d argue that self-love is the root of all confidence.
Let me put it this way: You are your own celebrity, your own hero, and you can always use your unique platform to spread love, both within yourself and with others.
Try to meditate on that: what makes you more than enough, what you have to contribute to the world, and why anyone would be lucky to have you.
What makes you that smart, successful, and fiercely independent millennial STEM woman?
Then, when you find yourself a quality mate, expressing your love will be a walk in the park.
#3 Look at the fucking best and worst case scenarios (and march on regardless)
Honestly, what are some best case scenarios for expressing and spreading love?
- You get to spread contagious anabolic (“positive”) energy.
- You get to attract that energy back.
- You get to advance your relationship.
- You get the world in the palm of your hands.
And really, what are some worst case scenarios?
- Your partner isn’t ready to say it back, or might never say it back.
- But now you’re enlightened to the situation and can decide what to do next (e.g., talk it out, accept it, be patient, dump him).
- Embarrassment, maybe? If you allow yourself to feel that way.
- And really, you didn’t die.
Are you having trouble expressing your love to another? Are you having trouble loving yourself? Does your partner struggle to express it to you? Are you questioning whether or not you even love him/her? Comment below or reach out to me in a safe space.