We’re Talking Marriage, but He Won’t Say “I Love You”

Since when is "I Love You" scarier than wedding planning?

Q: My boyfriend and I have been together eight months. From the very beginning, our relationship has moved fast on almost every level, which I took to mean that we were both ready and eager to build a forever kind of partnership.

Lately we’ve started having more serious talks. Some life things, about kids and where we’d live. We’ve also started talking about hypothetical weddings: band vs. DJ, buffet vs. plated, what kind of backdrops he envisions for pictures. Then a few weeks ago he asked me if I had an idea what kind of ring I’d like. I did some research in the next few days and when I mentioned a few, he said, “Those are definitely doable.” YAY!

I am very excited about all of this and plunged down the rabbit hole of wedding planning. I didn’t keep it a secret. He’s looked at some places online with me and looked at some other details on my Pinterest board and said he would definitely step in to help me color coordinate when we’re ready to plan for real (I got a little carried away with ALL THE FLOWERS).

The only hold-up is that he hasn’t said that he loves me yet. He had gotten out of a serious relationship about six months before we started dating—together for six years and had bought the ring but never asked her, she gave him a “now or never” and he said he couldn’t do it. So I didn’t want to pressure him or rush him, but I realize now being direct and pressuring are different things.

So today I said directly that I feel crazy that I started planning this fantasy wedding when we haven’t even said we love each other yet. I love him, and the lack of verbal assurance makes me sad. He said he wasn’t sure why he hadn’t said it yet, but he rushed into saying “love” in his last relationship and that failed, and he didn’t want to fail again.

While I a hundred percent understand not wanting to rush, I don’t see how talking about rings and asking me if I’d be willing to move to follow his job is taking things slow. I asked him if he sees us moving in the love and marriage direction and he said definitely, of course, without a doubt. I guess my question is should I take a step back on the wedding planning and the relationship? I definitely don’t want to walk away from him, but I am terrified that I’m going to invest so much of myself and fall harder and harder for someone who will ultimately not love me back (or not love me back “enough” to get married, which is what happened in his last relationship). I feel like the more I daydream about our wedding and we build our lives together, the more I’m setting myself up to be spectacularly destroyed. Am I just insecure?

—Scared of Love

A: Dear SOL,

Not insecure. Wanting to be sure that the feelings are mutual is totally reasonable and fair. Caution is a good thing!

There are a few things his reluctance could mean. Is he not ready right now, but eventually he will be?  (It happens. There’s nothing innately wrong with two partners who are moving at slightly different speeds.) Or is he holding onto baggage from the past and acting out of fear rooted in old mistakes? Or is he chronically adverse to commitment-type moves and it’s got nothing to do with you or anyone else? Or will he never be ready, he has a sense that you guys aren’t a good fit and doesn’t know how to articulate it?

Those possibilities range from meh, pretty positive to very nervous-making. All of them point to your gut instinct being right: guard yourself. That doesn’t mean you need to pull back or break up. You like him, you’re enjoying your time together. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to do that while you sort out the rest.

The balance here is to set up boundaries with the worst-case scenario in mind, without completely buying into that worst-case scenario too prematurely. Put another way: what will you regret if this all ends dismally? But try to answer that without convincing yourself, “This all will end dismally.”

In relationships, and particularly as women, we’re expected to throw caution to the wind and set aside practicality for love. We’re expected to avoid being “that girl” who has expectations. We’re supposed to be chill and give our partners whatever time and space they request. We’re expected to risk it all for love. And sometimes… our partners aren’t risking anything. Which is a pretty unfair (and sometimes unsafe) balance of power. There’s always a certain amount of vulnerability in being in a relationship. But, it’s only fair to assess whether you’re the only one making yourself vulnerable and he’s calling every shot.

Meanwhile, I’d encourage him to sort out what this all means for him. Something’s not fitting together here. Freaking out over commitment is normal, but doesn’t make much sense when you’re pushing toward ring purchases and DJ selections. Planning to marry someone inherently means “I love you.” So he needs to figure out if there’s something specifically about that “L” word that sets him off. Or maybe he’s flippantly tossing around this wedding planning stuff, but doesn’t actually mean it as much as he thinks he does. Or maybe there are some gut-level feelings about your relationship that he’s unwilling to look in the face. You know what helps when you’re trying to sort through all of that? Yep, a counselor. Not being ready for next steps isn’t always a definitive sign that you should talk to someone. But the fact that he thinks it’s got something to do with stuff in his past indicates it might help.

Talking about things together will help, seeing a counselor might also. But the big thing here is a whole ton of introspection for your own self. Determine how vulnerable you’re willing to make yourself with this guy, and do it without worrying about being “insecure” or “that girl.”

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTION, PLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ALSO ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)

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