It’s always a tender moment in the movies when the star says “I love you” to his or her romantic match. The response is always a heartfelt “I love you, too” and they kiss as the credits roll. Ah, movies; if only they had anything at all to do with reality.
The great modern philosopher George Costanza once described the “I love you” as a pretty big matzo ball left hanging out. It might be even bigger for the receiver, who may struggle to come up with an appropriate response, especially when the “I love you” response doesn’t roll easily off the tongue. The fact is that you don’t have to say “I love you” back, and there are relatively few situations where you should.
Do You Love the Person Who Says “I Love You”?
This question may seem pretty basic, but it really is the primary deciding factor in what your response will be. If you don’t love the person who says it to you, there really aren’t many reasons why you would say I love you back, unless you’re evil, and then you can pretty much say what you need to along your path to world domination. For most of us, saying “I love you” to someone you don’t really love is just about the cruelest thing you can do.
The loving response that you don’t mean only leads to problems in the future. The next thing you know, the person is going to be introducing you to their parents and talking about wedding plans and all those other frightening things that go with being “in love.” A little honesty now can save you a lot of hassle in the future.
How Does The “L” Word Make You Feel?
Maybe you’re not sure if you love the person who’s saying it to you at the time. What do you do at that time? Well, in that case you need to see how the phrase makes you feel.
If the “I love you” makes you throw up a little in your mouth, an in-kind response is probably not appropriate. Similarly, if your first thought upon hearing the tender words is “Oh crap,” you might want to think of something different to say in response, or maybe fake a seizure.
If, on the other hand, you feel all warm and fuzzy and you really, really want to say “I love you” to this person, your heart is probably telling you it’s the right move.
What is the Danger by Not Saying “I Love You” Back?
Every now and then you get into one of those awkward moments when you have to say something even though you don’t entirely want to. When your girlfriend is pregnant and the father is holding a shotgun, an “I love you” response is probably a good idea, regardless of what you’re feeling.
Similarly, if you’re in a hostage situation and the armed kidnapper says “I love you and I don’t want you to get hurt; you can go,” it’s okay to throw back an “I love you” so he doesn’t change his mind as you’re scurrying out the door. In fact, whenever guns are involved, an “I love you” response may not be a bad idea, for reasons of self-preservation.
When you and your spouse are on the edge of a bitter divorce and you’re staying together for the sake of the kids, and your once-beloved says “I love you” as you’re taking the kids to school, shouting back “Up yours” would probably not be as appropriate as the expected response.
If you’re a single woman and a dying 108 year-old billionaire says “I love you, will you marry me,” nobody would blame you if your gut response was an enthusiastic declaration of love.
What Are Alternatives to Saying “I Love You” Back?
So you’ve decided this is not a situation where you have to give the “I love you” response. Now what? Do you stare at them blankly? Do you pretend that you’re choking? What is the appropriate non-loving response to those three sweet little words?
First off, there’s “Thank you.” It’s appropriate, it’s friendly, it’s not entirely ripping the speaker’s heart out and stomping on it, but it’s making no promises in return. For a more smug response, made famous in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”, there’s “I know.” To bring things down a notch, you could say “I really, really like you—let’s see where it goes from there.”
If things are getting way out of hand, you might just need to say the infamous “Slow down, I just met you this morning,” or something to that effect. Hopefully, it doesn’t come down to “I loathe you,” but again, you have to go with your heart.
Every situation is different, and just because somebody says “I love you,” it doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to give the same response. Consider the situation carefully, think about your own feelings, and say what feels right, or what you have to if you want to avoid getting shot.