I asked my male friends about this asinine advice, and dammit, they agreed.
Over the break, Broadsheet received a tip regarding the following story, originally carried on the sex site The Frisky, and picked up by CNN: “Why Women Shouldn’t Say ‘I Love You First.’”
“At the risk of having my feminist card revoked, I think it’s naive for a woman to utter those three little words before a man does,” writes Wendy Atterberry, being careful to explain that it’s fine for a woman to make a first move, even propose, “but an ‘I love you’ uttered too soon, before the man has processed his feelings and reached the same level of adoration could end a relationship that just as easily could have had an eternal shelf life.”
Oy, already. It’s the kind of story that can’t help being irritating: First of all, because it’s a glib service piece in which advice about profound life experiences is shoehorned into a few measly grafs; second of all, because it’s dumb. It’s asinine, right? At least that was my impression, which is why I decided to e-mail it to a handful of my male friends — my smart, incisive, agreeing-with-me-about-many-things-over-pints-of-beer friends — and get their take, at which point I discovered … they agreed with the article?
“I actually think that woman has a point,” said the first to reply. “Most guys are emotionally retarded, especially in their youth. So telling a guy you love him before he has figured out what’s going on in his own head does carry some risk.”
The second said, “I’m basically in agreement with the article. It’s just statistically less common to hear of girls getting weirded out and bailing on a relationship after the L word, so as a rule of thumb I think it’s fine. There’s never anything wrong with playing your cards close to the vest in any serious situation, right?”
The third asked if he really had to read the article, because it looked stupid.
I had to question my initial irritation. Had I overreacted? Was there some wisdom here? I am, after all, poisoned by the residue of too many bad advice columns on how to win your man — the rules, the fucking rules — but the truth is that I don’t think you should win your man. I think a man who would bolt after you told him you loved him probably wasn’t the right dude for you, friend; that maybe you should reevaluate what you mean when you say “I love you.” Guys I’ve dated have said those words first; I have, too. It’s a beautiful, painful, corny, clichéd little dance — probably the most enduring dating tradition in a non-dating age when you can fall hard for someone before you’ve even met them in person — and call me old-fashioned, but I really don’t think that dance should be performed by one. The tension, the delicious friction, is about who will spill first and how it will be received. (Wow, did that sound really dirty? Well, I love you, too.)
Now, I have dated men who told me those words first and quite early — early enough that it felt false and unearned. So if there is a peril for either gender running this gambit, maybe that’s it. “Getting the ‘I love you’ early is like getting the foie gras for your appetizer at the French restaurant in town,” wrote one friend. ”Tasty, even transcendent, but afterwards you really aren’t that hungry for your entrée, the anticipation/desire is gone.” Or, as another buddy of mine put it: ”Maybe better advice is, ‘Don’t say I love you until you’re 100 percent sure.’”
So, just as I thought I had this figured out — shut your mouth for a while, people, and don’t let the booze get to you — yet another male friend e-mailed me to contradict everything everyone else had said before him. “I think I’d prefer it if the woman said ‘I love you’ first,” he wrote. “But I’m the kind of guy who always likes to know where he stands, even if I don’t necessarily like it, without having to intuit the answer based on signs and whatnot.”
So there you have it, folks. Breaking news: People are different.
Sarah Hepola is an editor at Salon. More Sarah Hepola.
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