You Need Help: My Partner Won’t Say “I Love You”

Q:

Hi team!

I’ve been with my partner for over two years now. Many things are going well — we have moved in together and have a lovely little gay life in the city. She is supportive, has a wonderful family, thinks I’m funny, and is so hot.

About five months into dating, I said ‘I love you’ first while hugging goodbye after a date. She immediately stiffened up and responded with ‘what?’. A month after that, she wanted to break up and said it was because she was worried I liked her more than she liked me. (I was devastated). However, a few days later she texted saying she wanted to get back together.

One relationship issue we have is different love languages — I like physical touch, although it isn’t the most important thing for me in a relationship. Her love languages are quality time, acts of service, and words of affirmation. I am fine not tearing each other’s clothes off all the time like in the beginning of a relationship, but I worry that maybe if she were with the right person she would want more intimacy and say the L word without hiccups.

Despite not receiving an ideal response the first time around, it was true to my heart and I was prepared to say it first without hearing it back. However, it’s been over two years and she still hasn’t said it! I’ve given cards with those three words but have not heard them yet come out of her mouth, onto paper or through text.

The closest thing that recently happened was someone at the club asked us if we were in love and she said yes.

Is it silly to be hung up on this? Is this just a result of not communicating well? How do I broach the subject without saying it again and having it fall flat on my face?

A:

I told my first girlfriend I loved her after three weeks. In my defense, I was only 18 and, unbeknownst to either of us, we were both queer women. She said nothing in response, opting instead to kiss me on the nose.

I spent the next months biting my tongue, trying my best not to say it again, even as my infatuation grew, our relationship deepened, and we lost our virginities to one another. Finally, after four months, as we swayed together at a concert, she turned to me and shouted, “I love you!”

We spent the next eight months loving each other the best we knew how. Our age, our maturity, our compatibility, put a limit on how that love could manifest. Then our relationship became long distance and those limits increased. Finally, one day over FaceTime, she told me that she didn’t love me anymore. She didn’t want to break up, because maybe that love could come back, but she just thought I should know.

I responded by spending money I didn’t have on her birthday present, a failed attempt to win back her emotions. We dated for three more months without love. She cheated on me. And then she broke up with me.

There’s another version of this story I could tell. I could share with you our first dates, our best moments together, the reasons why I fell in love with her, and all the reasons I fought to sustain that love. There were a lot of good times, and at 18 and 20, a lot of good times is better than most.

But I tell this version, because I know how it feels to love someone more than they love you. I also know there’s an alternative.

I said, “I love you” first in my next serious relationship too. This time she said it back right away — in part, because I waited longer, a bit slower to give my love away. Throughout that relationship we said, “I love you” a reasonable amount and loved each other a reasonable amount. I’d traded the all-consuming love of my first relationship for something I deemed more mature. It wasn’t the most passionate, but it was equal. I read tweets from self-taught therapy experts about how “butterflies in your stomach” was a sign of instability, not love, and took comfort in the affirmation that I was now doing relationships right.

We spent years together, we built a life together, and we loved each other the best we knew how. But then I got bored. I wanted to feel passion again. I was a 25-year-old living out her dream of being a transsexual lesbian — I shouldn’t be relating to middle-aged heterosexual men on sitcoms. I decided that if the choices were between loving someone furiously without return and loving someone without passion then instability was for me.

Again, there’s another version of this story. I could share how meaningful it was to have this stable love while transitioning, how this person became my family at a time when I felt most distant from the family I’d been given. I could share the many good times — and even exciting times! — we did have.

But I tell this version, because at the time my approach to maturity was in itself immature. I know now there was yet another alternative.

When my current girlfriend and I started dating, we both had our walls up, mine due to my two previous relationships. Neither of us were necessarily looking for a relationship — or, at least, we were scared of what would happen if we found one.

My U-Haul tendencies of my youth had been replaced with an opposing lesbian stereotype: the slow-burn. We met doing a Zoom event at the start of the pandemic and casually flirted on Instagram and Twitter for a year before I asked her to FaceTime. Then we FaceTimed once a week for two months before cautiously deciding to meet. Our governments had other plans — the Canadian/US border was still closed, so it would be another three months before we could finally meet in-person. We approached our meeting with skepticism, but after a week together, our long-held walls started crumbling down.

It already felt so different from my previous relationships. At once, it was easier and more exciting. And yet, I still wanted to prove something to myself. My last remaining wall told me that I needed to wait to say, “I love you.” For once, I wouldn’t be the one to say it first.

During our second in-person week together, seven months after we started FaceTiming, my girlfriend said, “I love you.” We’d talked enough about our pasts, hinted at love enough times, that she figured I’d been waiting. I smiled. “I love you too,” I said back. And then I added, like a person who is both an earth sign and could probably use more therapy, “I won!” Thankfully, she laughed.

This was a year and a half ago and the “I won” feels even sillier now than it did then. Because when you’re really in love and when someone is really in love with you, who says it first, and how much it’s said, isn’t something you think about. You feel too secure for all that. My girlfriend and I say, “I love you” so much I couldn’t tally it if I tried. It’s never forced. We both just feel inspired to say it to each other all the time. Maybe one of us says something that’s very us, or maybe we just look at the other person from across the room, and can’t help blurting it out.

At 18 and 21, I had too much personal growth left to do to properly love or be loved. I know the problems in my first two partnerships were as much on me as on them or our compatibility. But my God is it a comfort to realize in my adulthood that the options are not between loving someone too much or not enough. You can love so big and be loved just as big right back. Not only is it possible, but it’s what you deserve.

I’m hesitant to tell friends of mine they should break up with partners, so I’m definitely not going to tell you, anonymous letter writer I don’t know, that you should break up with your partner. And, in fact, I know from my first relationship, that being told to break up with someone you love does not mean you’ll actually do it.

Maybe right now, your current relationship is what you need, it’s the step you’re at in life. But I want you to know that you deserve more. You deserve someone who says, “I love you” so much you never have to doubt it’s true. You deserve someone who wants to fuck you so often you feel like the sexiest person alive. If those are things you want — not everyone does! — then you deserve them, and can find them. You also deserve someone you feel comfortable enough with to express these desires to without fear.

During my first relationship, I was convinced we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. I’ve moved past those kinds of adolescent dramatics. I don’t know what the future holds. But I know that my current girlfriend has forever changed my expectations of love. I know it’s possible to be with someone for over two years and still feel that early relationship excitement. I know it’s possible to feel that excitement reciprocated right back. I know it’s possible to feel all this while building something safe and real.

For now, I do think you need to talk to your girlfriend. You need to express your wants and needs that aren’t being fulfilled. Tell her your desire for more physical intimacy, tell her your desire to hear, “I love you.” Maybe she’s giving you everything she’d give to anyone. Maybe she’s just not the right partner for you. As scary as it may feel, communication is the first step toward the relationship you deserve, whether that’s with your girlfriend or not.

If, to use your words, you fall flat on your face, just know that’s okay. The bruises will fade, the scars will heal, and someday you’ll find someone new, someone who will forever change your expectations of love.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 568 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. Stellar advice, Drew! Letter writer, it is not silly AT ALL to feel unhappy about not hearing “I love you” from someone you have expressed love for over and over again. I wonder if she can’t say “I love you”, what else can’t she say? What other big emotions is she hiding from? How do you both communicate when it comes to other things in your relationship? Sometimes one thing can show you a pattern before you even realize it. It’s possible your girlfriend has some baggage she needs to work through and you can stay together while she does that, but you deserve to be loved openly and enthusiastically. I’m not sure if this is the best partner for you at this time.

  2. Yeah two years is too long to not say it especially for lesbians that’s like five years !
    Also I’m young but wouldn’t mind relating to middle aged dudes in sitcoms. NOT ray ramano

  3. This is lovely advice.

    I’ll add my own experience: After a few months of dating my partner, I started feeling like I wanted to say “I love you,” but I was nervous that they wouldn’t say it back, or they wouldn’t feel that way, or maybe we were just having a cute fling and not an “I love you ” kind of situation, etc etc. So I used my words and I told my partner, “um, I want to tell you that I love you, but I don’t know if it’s too soon or if you’ll freak out or what.” And they responded by asking, “well, what does ‘I love you’ MEAN to you?”

    And then we had a great conversation about how we also like to tell our friends (and our pets, lol) that we love them, and how is romantic partnership love different or similar, and how could we be even more specific in our expressions of love: “I adore you,” “You are incredibly handsome,” “I feel so safe with you,” “You are the bravest person I know,” etc. We also affirmed in that conversation that saying “I love you” never requires an automatic “I love you too” response from the other person. It’s more important to express what feels true in that moment than having an auto-response.

    Long story to say, sometimes I think “I love you” is overused and we assume that it means the same thing to everyone, and it’s useful to dig into the “what does it MEAN?” question with your partner. And, two years is a long-ass time, and a pretty different thing than two months. I wish you best of luck figuring it out, LW!

    • Love this. There are different loves and different ways to say ILY. When I was 18 I dated someone I played hard to get for a good 6 months with before realizing I did like them. Three months later as we were hanging up a call for the night they said “I love you” then said “I mean I miss you”. Well I felt like I loved them too so I said it back. Never heard them say it again the rest of the 3.9 yrs we were together but they did say “I miss you” a lot so I was like maybe that’s their phrase. We were so young but who knows. I hated they said “thank you” though when I said ILY.

  4. Drew, you are such a wonderful writer! Everything you write has such flow and wit and gravitas. The subject never matters even though your subjects are consistently great also. Thank you for your writing and perspective.

  5. Excellent advice! I feel like I’m currently in the middle ground, trying to figure out of it is possible for me to have the exciting love without it being damaging. I take a lot of comfort in hearing your experience with navigating those feelings.

  6. “I told my first girlfriend I loved her after three weeks. In my defense, I was only 18” no offense but why do you say that like it’s a bad thing? Does being eighten you stupid? Does saying I love you three weeks into a relationship naive or premature? No. It does not. my great grandparents got married two weeks after knowing each other. And they got married at nineteen and seventeen. THEY WERE TOGETHER FOR SEVENTY FIVE YEARS. I have said I love you the first night i met someone! STOP MAKING FUN OF ME!!!!

  7. This was great advice, your experiences were very helpful and I liked that you offer the OP multiple routes/solutions :) I agree there are multiple ways to say “I love you” but at the same time everyone deserves there needs to be met.

    hope everything works out ❤️

  8. This was a lovely piece of writing but I feel a bit like LW and Drew were both let down by this as an answer to a YNH column – this comes off pretty self-absorbed as an answer to someone else’s question. If this answer had been reframed as a standalone essay I’d have loved it, if LW had gotten an answer that wasn’t someone else’s autobiography I’d have enjoyed it a lot more too.

  9. I’m still healing from a traumatic break up around the new year. It was a short relationship but my first queer sapphic one. I was positively insatiable around this person and found them so beautiful it hurt. But physical affection wasn’t their love language. They were also someone who had a lot of demons and in the end the break up had nothing to do with me. Which is a very hard thing to logically accept as I’ve been prone to blaming myself for everything (I’m in therapy). I guess my long winded point with this, is as much as that break up gutted me, it made me realize certain things I can’t compromise on. Physical touch as a love language is one of them. Words of affirmation are another. This advice made me feel very hopeful and is a reminder of the kind of love I am looking for and I refuse to settle for less.

    I’m also a Capricorn sun and would also say, “I win!”

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