Why should ‘I love you’ be scary?

I was thinking about this the other day. Setting aside the problems of the different meanings behind the phrase, why is it a potentially scary thing to say for the first time in a relationship, or to be told?

Even though love is a beautiful thing, here’s what I came up with: telling someone you love them for the first time is unilaterally transgressing the unspoken limits of the existing relationship. And what’s more, it’s doing so non-consensually and without negotiation. Any other relationship development – you’d like to start having sex, dating more formally, move in together – can be conducted as a negotiation and posed as a question. But you don’t ask someone for their permission to love them, and you can’t ask someone not to love you after all. You can try and change your behaviour, or ask other people to change theirs, but saying “I love you” states it as an unarguable fact; no debating, no changing it.

Obviously, the hope (and more often than not the reality) is a wonderful outcome, and discovering that love is reciprocated. But the only comparable act I can come up with – where one person can single-handedly make a change to the shape of the relationship from then on – is breaking up with someone :/

This sounds terribly doom-laden. I swear I’m a fluffy romantic really!


4 responses to “Why should ‘I love you’ be scary?

  1. Interesting take! I’ve wondered the same thing from time to time, and always thought it was more because the person saying it is making themselves vulnerable…or rather, they already are vulnerable, but now they’re letting the other person know how much power they hold.

    • Belatedly – yes, this too! As a speech act, there’s a whole lot tied up in it. No wonder we put such cultural weight on it as a Thing in relationships. Vulnerability comes with any admission of something that wasn’t previously known; it’s that dance of intimacy when you’re first getting to know someone (not just in a romantic context) – you reveal something a bit personal about yourself, and the other person responds with sympathy or interest, or reveals something of a similar level about themselves, and so you edge towards greater intimacy. Misreading that by giving something incredibly personal to someone you’ve just met, or responding with horror rather than interest or sympathy to a revelation, stops the process dead.

  2. Declaring your love really is non-consensual, isn’t it? I’d not thought of it that way and it definitely explains why it’s so scary. You’re stepping into the unknown.

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