Thursday, March 31, 2011

When to say “I love you” (and when to keep quiet)

Few things are more memorable than the magical, angst-ridden, fingers-crossed, breath-held, passion-filled moment when either you or your date says, “I love you.” The phrase is much more than three little words. It’s also a silent question. As in, “Do you love me, too?” Properly managing this moment can spell the difference between euphoria and humiliation. Tips:
  • Wait at least several months, a minimum of three but preferably longer, before confessing your true love — even if you feel it on the first night. It takes a while to gain and build trust. Zooming ahead too fast can easily backfire, and it’s really embarrassing to find out you changed your mind and you don’t really love ’em.
  • If your date says, “I love you” and you don’t love your date back, don’t say “Love you, too” just to be nice. You’ll open a can of worms that’ll only make a gigantic mess.
  • If you’ve been together a while and you’re just waiting for your date to spill the beans first, take a chance and tell him or her how you feel. Your date may be waiting for you to take the plunge.
  • Realize that “love” doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone. For some, the word “love” is followed by the word “marriage.” For others, “love” is always followed by “ya.” Make sure you’re clear on how you feel before putting your feelings into words, and give a thought to the way your date might receive what you’re about to say.
  • Understand that true love implies commitment. If you’re not ready to be monogamous, connected, open, and loving, don’t say “I love you” just yet.
  • If the only time you’re tempted to confess love is during sex or when you’re apart, close your mouth, open your eyes, and see what’s really going on.

How to Sharing Feelings

Setting guidelines on when to share feelings is a bit trickier. Admittedly, the coin of the realm for dating is feelings and intimacy, but in the early stages of dating, everything is a bit fragile. What you’re trying to do at this point is to set a firm foundation for everything to follow — but what this everything entails is almost impossible to predict.
A new dating situation is an investment between the two of you. You need to establish the ground rules together and get a feel for who both of you are and what you want all the while watching the interest mount, getting a return on your investment, and trusting the stability and reliability of the institution (that is, the idea that neither of you is going to rip the other off). Building this kind of trust takes a bit of time. Just as if you were to borrow money from a bank and be late on your first payment, the bank very well may see you as a bad credit risk and recall the loan. But if you’ve had the loan for years and have never been late or missed a payment, being late or missing a payment in year three will feel very different to both you and the bank.
When you share feelings, follow these basic rules:
  • Be a tad cautious. Over exuberance (for example, taking a pledge of undying love) can feel pretty scary if it’s in the first 15 minutes of a date. No, you don’t have to be Gary Cooper, strong and silent, or Mata Hari, the keeper of mysterious secrets, but blurting out unformed and unexamined feelings à la Pee-wee Herman can scare the daylights out of both of you.
  • Live with a feeling a bit before you express it. Make sure that what you’re saying is true for more than the moment. If you’ve just tripped over your date’s tennis shoe and you’re feeling angry, saying “I hate you, you slob” probably reflects emotions stronger than you’ll be feeling in ten minutes. If the sentiment isn’t going to be true for more than ten minutes, stifle it.
  • Get some perspective on your own emotions and some control over your mouth before you speak. Otherwise, you can mislead yourself and your date. Saying “I love you” when you mean “Thank you” or “I’d like to have sex,” for example, isn’t fair or kosher, and it misleads both of you. As the two of you get to know each other better and feel safer and more comfortable with one another and develop some history, your words will have a context and can be evaluated that way. You’ll have a track record together and will have enough experience to know what is characteristic and what isn’t.
  • In deciding what feelings to share and when, think about what would be reasonable to expect at any given time. A promise of undying love and devotion on the first date might feel kinda cool until you think it through. All of us long to be loved and appreciated, but on the first date? Nice — sorta — but completely unbelievable except in movies or romance novels or from folks who are a bit unbalanced, really needy, or really manipulative. So although “I really had a great time with you and I’d like to do it again. How about you?” isn’t quite as flamboyant as “Will you marry me? I knew from the first moment (five minutes ago) that you were the one,” it is a lot more believable. If you want to tell your grandchildren “We knew from the very first moment” 50 years from now, okay, but when in doubt, go slowly.
Guys’ proposing marriage on the first date is sorta cute and makes a girl feel really special. It also offsets the notion that all men are commitmentphobes who love ’em and leave ’em. But it is pure fantasy at best and blatant manipulation at worst. Dating should be fun, not a mind game or delusion.
So do share your feelings, but beware of temper and elation. Make sure they’re feelings you’ve been feeling for more than one second and can live with in an hour or two or a day or two. If you really must say it, finesse a bit — for example, “I know it’s too soon to be feeling this, but it sure feels good to me right now” — and then laugh sweetly. Trust is a fragile thing. You need to trust not only each other, but yourself.

Things to tell if asked or pushed

The preceding sections outline the type of information you should share at some point in the relationship. But what about the information that you’re not obligated to share but have been asked for? You know the type of questions: the ones — like “How many relationships have you been in?” — that come out when you least expect it and leave you sputtering in your dessert. Do you avoid answering? Subtly change the subject? Look at your date like it’s none of his or her business (which it isn’t, really)? Or just ’fess up? Although historical accuracy isn’t required in answering a question like this — in other words, you can avoid giving too much detail (think of Andie MacDowell’s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral) — if you stonewall completely, you’re likely to make your date think you have something to hide. So the best answer is to give a brief history — more or less what you’d put on an entry in who’s who in American dating circles — and then move on without editorial comment that includes who, how long, how many, or preferred positions. Some questions are so hard to answer that you really should feel compelled to answer only if you’re pushed — that is, if your date won’t let the subject drop and not answering is likely to hurt the relationship more than a tactful but honest answer would. Some questions that fall into this category are
  • Why didn’t you have an orgasm?
  • What is wrong with me?
  • Why don’t you like my friend?