You Need Help: When Is it Love?


I’m in a relationship and this question is keeping me up at night. What is love? Am I in it? Am I falling into it? Should I stop? Do I tell her?

Why does no one tell you these things in school!?

Much love

– confused.

p.s: I tried googling. The internet has been no help.


It’s a summer day between 4th and 5th grade and I’m swimming at my friend Zach’s house. We’re floating around the pool talking about our crushes — as if the word crush can sum up the feelings bursting inside me.

I ask Zach if he’s in love with his crush and he says he isn’t sure. He asks me the same question.

“I think it’s 80% love and 20% like,” I say thoughtfully as if love is a simple equation.

“I think I’m more 50% love and 50% like,” he responds following my lead.

Neither of us see our crushes the entire summer.

Eight and a half years later I’m a freshman in college and I’m in my first real relationship. I’ve never had sex before and neither has she and she’s older and she’s ready and I’m younger and I’m not. In fact, I hadn’t even considered the possibility of us having sex until she asks why it hasn’t happened yet.

I ask a friend if I’ll ever feel ready or if I should just do it. She tells me that she waited until she and her boyfriend had said, “I love you.” She’s happy about that decision. It felt good to lose her virginity to someone she loved.

The next day, lying in my dorm room bed, after something I would now very much call sex but at the time did not, I tell my girlfriend I love her. We’ve been together for less than six weeks. She says nothing, but smiles and kisses my forehead.

A week later we have sex. Two months later she tells me she loves me for the first time.

Six years later I’m three years into another relationship. We live together. We share a life together. We’ve shared lives together. It’s been years since I first said I love you and she said it back (immediately!) even if later she teased me for how quickly I said it. At this point we say “I love you” as thoughtlessly as we say hello and goodbye. But sometimes we say it with more meaning really thinking about how lucky we are to be in love — even if it won’t last much longer.

All three of these stories describe love. When I used the word as a child, a teen, and a young adult it felt true and that’s all that matters. Where did we learn this hesitation to use the word love? For me, I got it from sitcoms — the cliché plot line where someone is anxious to say “I love you” for the first time. The words gained a meaning never assigned in other contexts. To say “I love you” was not an expression of feeling as much as it was a marker of what you wanted from a relationship. How odd to say “I love you” to a friend and then start dating them and suddenly feel the need to stop.

I’m not saying this word doesn’t hold meaning — I’m saying the opposite. This word holds so many meanings. Are you in love? I don’t know! Are you?

Only you get to decide what the word means to you and whether that meaning is right for your current feelings. But if it does feel right don’t silence that out of fear you’re not using it right. Someday you might look at this person and think all those months ago, all those years ago that feeling I thought was love was just a crush, but now I’m really in love with her. Or someday you might meet someone new and think the same. That doesn’t negate the feelings you have now.

We want to be able to quantify these things, because we want reassurance that we’re making the right choices. We want to be able to say that we’re at 80% love and 20% like. We want to be able to say we’re in love so that means we should have sex with someone. We want to be able to say we’ve been with this person for three years so now we really know what love feels like. But life and romance and choices and, yes, love just aren’t that simple.

Part of falling in love is trusting yourself — trusting yourself to open up, to be vulnerable, to take a chance on another person. That is itself an act of love. Just one more meaning to add to the list.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

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 553 articles for us.


  1. I start thinking of myself as being in love with someone at the point that I begin having overwhelming urges to tell them that I love them. I don’t really think of “love” as a discrete emotional state so much as I think of “I love you” as a shorthand to communicate a certain level of warm tingly mushy feelings and maybe bondedness and admiration.

Comments are closed.