By Kimberly Zapata
Growing up, I said “I love you” a lot.
I loved my parents, my grandparents, my brother, my cousins, and my friends. I loved my dog, my bird, my hamster, my cat, my fish, and I loved my first boyfriend. (I loved my second, third, and fourth boyfriends too.) But that was because, when I was young, I didn’t give too much weight to those words. I didn’t consider what they meant, or could mean. They were just sounds and letters.
They were a way of expressing a complex emotion I didn’t understand but knew I should feel. It wasn’t until I met my husband that I realized the gravity of these three words.
It wasn’t until I said them — by accident — one cold, winter afternoon that I realized I had made a mistake. I had to take those three words back.
You see, on the day in question, I was standing on my grandmother’s front porch. I could feel the heat of the winter sun struggling to warm my back as I waved goodbye to my best friend turned boyfriend. To my new and all too perfect love.
He was smiling and waving back, yelling things like “I’ll call you later” and “see you tomorrow,” but when he reached the corner he uttered four words which caught me off guard: “Bye. I love you.”
Before I could stop and think, I took our relationship to the next level. Before I could stop and think I responded, “I love you too.”
Immediately, I regretted getting caught up in the movie-like moment. I regretted my decision to use those three words so carelessly, especially since those words made my boyfriend smile in a way I had never seen him smile before. (Afterwards he skipped — literally skipped — down the street.) But why?
I had said these words many times before, without thinking and without feeling, so why did this time cause me so much stress and grief? Why was I so afraid? What about this time was so damn different?
Instead of committing to my words, I disowned them. That night, while talking to my boyfriend over the phone, I told him I had to take my earlier affirmation back. I told him I didn’t love him and I couldn’t say it, at least not now. Not yet.
To say I hurt him would be an understatement. He was morose, disheartened, and discouraged. He felt dejected and rejected, but I didn’t take my words back because I wanted to cause him pain or break his heart. I “took it back” because I did care about him. Because I felt something special. Something different. I took it back because this time was the first time in my life I believed those words could be true, and in that moment I knew I couldn’t say “I love you” until I meant it. Completely. Totally. And with all my heart.
He was special — those words were special — and I had to wait.
I needed to wait.
Make no mistake, I know this approach isn’t for everyone. In fact, you may be shaking your head because love is risky. It is unstable and unknown and there is no way to know, at least not in the beginning. In the beginning it is nothing more than a seed planted, an idea which has the potential to grow but remains stuck in the dirt. For me, that wasn’t enough. I had to tend to root that seed — and see it sprout — before opening up.
I had to process my feelings before diving in.
Plus, if I didn’t take it back, our relationship would have been founded on a lie. An anxious, awkward, and painful lie. It would have been unfair to me and unfair to him. (Even though “taking it back” may have been unfair too.)
So I stuck with my gut and followed my heart. I waited to say “I love you,” and we continued as we had previously — we took our relationship one day, one date, and one conversation at a time.
Eventually, the feelings intensified and my resolve solidified. Eventually, I spoke those words, and when I did they meant so much more because my boyfriend knew I believed them and meant them. He knew how deeply I felt them. Waiting made the words more powerful.
This post originally appeared on Little Things.