I don’t fall for people. People fall for me.
This isn’t me blowing smoke up my ass, saying I’m the universe’s gift to humankind. Rather, I know how to make people fall for me.
If you’ve been around the dating scene as much as me, you know how fucking brutal it is. Everyone has a different strategy to navigate the expansive sea. My strategy? I cast my net far and wide, reel in as many as I can, and turn on the charm. No, I don’t just turn it on. I crank my charm up to overdrive.
You see, on the one hand, I’m captivating and charismatic and fun to be around. But I’m also neurotic and high-strung and plagued with insecurities. So if I can dazzle you with my amazingness, then by the time all of my neuroses and quirks start coming through, you’ll already be smitten and won’t run away. Good strategy, no? (That one’s rhetorical.)
You can critique my technique and dissect my psyche, but the fact remains: I frequently charm my way into hearts. A lot of hearts.
But not all hearts.
Flashback to 2010. I had been dating this guy for a month. He was cute, smart, a good lover, and had a great circle of friends. But something perplexed me: he just didn’t seem that into me. Had I lost my charm? Was this guy somehow impervious to my patented dating technique? Was he gay???
In a classic want-what-you-can’t-have situation, his aloofness drove me wild with desire and kept me coming back for more. After five months, I still couldn’t figure it out. Somehow, despite myself, I was seriously falling for him.
Sure, he hadn’t made any sweeping gestures that revealed he was crazy-into me. But after five months, you wouldn’t still be seeing someone if you didn’t have decent feelings for them. Right? Right.
I remember the night I dropped the L-bomb on him as though pressing play on a video in my mind. I was at his place. We’d just had a particularly mind-blowing session and were nestled together, holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes as our heavy breathing returned to normal. Suddenly, I was completely overcome by an intense feeling of warmth, comfort, and pure happiness. It was like the sun had fallen from the sky, swung down to earth, and planted itself firmly in my chest. I only knew one concept that encompassed everything I felt in that moment.
Just as you involuntarily gasp for air after resurfacing from underwater, I needed to share what I was feeling, what I knew he must feel too (c’mon, sex isn’t that cosmically fantastic unless two people love each other).
The words slipped out of my mouth before I even knew what was happening:
“I love you.”
Ear-pounding, skull-crushing, unbearably heavy silence.
For what felt like an eternity, not a single sound was made. Not a single word uttered. Those feelings of warmth, comfort, and happiness? They all rolled into a big ball of dread and somehow, simultaneously, sunk to the pit of my stomach AND clogged my throat, threatening to cut off my air flow. The sun in my chest no longer glowed warmly, but instead scorched my insides, worse than the worst heartburn you can imagine. I felt a tidal wave crash down on me and, like a bad dream, I couldn’t pull myself up for air.
After an uncomfortably long time (truthfully, about 3 seconds) he replied:
“I’m not ready to say that back to you.”
Wha-BAM!!! The wrecking ball came crashing into my gut. My whole world spun out from under me. He doesn’t love me back.
Why does it hurt so much when someone doesn’t say “I love you” back? You feel like an idiot for mis-reading the signs and thinking you were on the same page. You feel vulnerable because you’ve let real emotions show. You feel stupid for taking a risk and having it smack you in the face.
Risk is inherently… well, erm, risky. Try doing something new, you risk not being good at it. Cross the street, you risk getting hit by a car. Fall in love with someone, you risk them not loving you back. And rejection fucking hurts.
Given how much all of the above sucks and how absolutely pathetic I was feeling after this incident, I am amazed that I stayed with this guy. But I did.
And looking back, I am very glad that I did.
As crazy as it sounds, here’s why it’s a good sign if someone doesn’t say “I love you” back.
You feel shitty right now? The alternative is even shittier.
What if, in a knee-jerk moment, the person says “I love you” back but doesn’t actually mean it? Sure, you get to exist in this beautiful, dreamy, fuzzy world where you dance with unicorns and shit rainbows. But it’s not real.
Best case: they’ve just lied to you about something pretty fucking big, but hey – they’ll eventually come around to your awesomeness and totally fall for you.
Worst case: they’ve just lied to you about something pretty fucking big and while you think you’re both falling more and more in love, they are trying to think of how to end it and inevitably CRUSH YOUR HEART INTO A BLOODY PULP AND WALK AWAY LEAVING YOU CRYING IN A CORNER. The worst case is pretty awful.
It takes fucking cajones to not say it back.
In that moment when “I love you” is busted out for the first time, if you don’t feel it back, there is an easy route and a hard one.
The easy route is four simple words: “I love you too.” This is great! Four magic words are uttered and everything is smoothed over. You’ll deal with this tiny white lie later (see above for two possible outcomes).
The far harder route is to be honest with yourself, acknowledge that while you care for the person in front of you, you just don’t love them, recognize that this revelation will cause the person a lot of pain but that it’s ultimately the best course of action because it’s honest, and think of how to phrase your response to (hopefully) dampen the nasty blow you are about to deliver. Oh– and do all of this in under 3 seconds to spare the person any more anguish than they’re already feeling.
If someone takes the hard route, not only does it speak to his or her character, but it shows that he or she respects you.
It paves the way for good habits.
Should you decide, for some craaazy reason, to take the emotional pummeling that is unrequited love and stay in the relationship, you’re probably on the road to good communication. The “I love you” conundrum is an important fork in the road. The honest things are often the hardest to say. You’ve just started a tough conversation that is only one of the many tough conversations you will have to have over the course of your relationship. Might as well get started early!
In a relationship as in life, you can’t avoid uncomfortable situations unless you stick your head in the sand. It is by existing in uncomfortable places that you grow.
In my case, this early honesty paved the way for marriage.
Two months later, when he was ready, he said he loved me back.
Looking back, when my future-husband didn’t say “I love you” in return, it was an indication of the relationship to come: honest, respectful, and full of carefully-navigated, uncomfortable conversations.