My first boyfriend told me he loved me just a few weeks into our relationship. I was not quite as comfortable saying it so quickly. I felt like he would have a certain power of me once I uttered those three words — perhaps he’d feel like he could get away with more without me leaving if that emotion were tying me to him. Plus, I wasn’t sure how to know if I was in love; I’d been warned about how easily love can be confused with lust

Nevertheless, I caved and said it just a few weeks later. After that, it felt our relationship had reached a new stage. We weren’t just two people who liked each other; we were a couple in love

Others seem to share the belief that the first “I love you” is kind of a big deal. “Saying ‘I love you’ always meant making myself vulnerable to the person I’m with,” explains Elizabeth*, a 20-year-old woman in Tampa, Florida. “I feel like I become this smaller, unsexier version of myself where I’m begging for attention. I’ve lost that upper hand of being carefree and fun to be around.”

The many meanings of the L word

People often take the leap of saying “I love you” during an emotional turning point in the relationship, one where one or both partners feels closer to the other than they previously did, says mental health consultant Adina Mahalli, MSW.

One thing that “I love you” indicates is that your feelings about that person are far more than being physically attracted to or even liking the person, she says. “This attachment can raise your expectations of the relationship as a whole.”

The conditions that have to be met before you say the L word differ from person to person, though. Some people, for instance, need to feel confident that the relationship is going somewhere. Molly, a 25-year-old writer, was scared to say it to her first boyfriend because she felt it made her vulnerable if things didn’t work out. But she had an easier time with her current partner because it felt like a natural progression to an already close and secure relationship. 

The words “I love you” can also signify a certain level of commitment. Libby Rego, a 41-year-old teacher in Los Angeles, says her fiancé didn’t want to exchange “I love you”s for a while because he had just gotten divorced and wished to avoid jumping into another serious relationship. 

When “I love you” isn’t as big of a deal

However, “I love you” may not mean as much to everyone. Sometimes, people feel pressure to say “I love you” at a certain stage of the relationship. Jac-Henry Owens, a 22-year-old security officer in the U.K., has said it when he didn’t mean it because he liked the other person and wanted the relationship to work out, which he now regrets. 

Some experts believe using the L word can be a tactic to escalate a physical relationship. A study of heterosexual couples in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that, while most people believe women are eager for declarations of love and men are less demonstrative, men are most likely to say “I love you” first — which the authors unromantically suggest they do to avoid “the costs of missing a potential low-cost mating opportunity.” They also found that men respond more positively to “I love you”s from a partner, especially before the couple has had sex, which they believe supports this theory (though that’s a stereotype in of itself, and one that socialization likely plays a large role in). 

On the flip side, “I love you” can have platonic meanings — which can create confusion among partners who were previously friends. Elizabeth told her first girlfriend, with whom she’d been friends for over a year, that she loved her after two months of dating, not realizing in the moment that it had different connotations now that they were romantically involved. 

“We were laughing at something, and she IMMEDIATELY stopped laughing. I was mortified,” she remembers. “Another couple months later, when we actually did say it to each other. She said, ‘You said it before once, I think, but I just laughed it off.’”

When people don’t say “I love you”

While some might say “I love you” when they don’t mean it, others may not say it when they do mean it, which could be a result of how they express love, says Carrie Krawiec, LMFT.

“Some people express love in predominantly verbal ways, like flat-out saying ‘I love you,’ whereas others feel more comfortable expressing it with actions such as physical affection, quality time, acts of service, or buying gifts,” she says. “Some people may think these behaviors are self-evident, but others may need to hear the actual words to feel fulfilled.” To avoid miscommunication between two partners who express themselves in different ways, Krawiec recommends both take the love languages quiz

Even when someone is expressing themselves verbally, “I love you” may not be their phrase of choice — but that doesn’t mean the love isn’t there. “I remember when my husband and I first started dating and one of the questions my mother and girlfriends asked was, ‘Does he say ‘I love you?’ My answer was, ‘No… but he says, ‘good morning,’ and it’s exactly the same,” says Sondra Stewart, a 53-year-old relationship coach in New York. “I was telling my husband about this one day — that even though he was only saying ‘good morning’ I felt he was really saying ‘I love you.’ He responded by referencing “The Princess Bride.” In that film, whenever the farm boy, Westley, replies to the Princess Buttercup, he says ‘as you wish,’ which she realizes means ‘I love you.’”

It’s not important exactly how someone says “I love you” as long as the message is clear to both parties, but achieving this clarity may require a conversation. “Gaining awareness of your own style and a dating partner’s helps to develop understanding and shared communication,” says Krawiec. “People with a deeper awareness of their own and others’ hopes, fears, dreams, wishes, histories, memories, and painful experiences associated with different things are more resilient to misunderstandings and conflicts that arise when we jump to conclusions about why a person is or isn’t saying or doing what we think they should.”

*Name has been changed to protect innocent daters.