Image: Penny Whitehouse
Image: Penny Whitehouse


The first time I said “I love you”

Five writers on the first time they uttered those three little words

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By Zoë Beaty on


My typically lilac childhood bedroom, the summer before he went away to university and I would be left hopelessly bereft for months. He raced round in his mum’s Citroën C3 one night during his A-Levels to confess, hastily, that he had sort of kissed another girl. I was 16, we’d been dating for months and I was infatuated by this very slightly older boy, who was talented and funny and sporty and who bought me obtuse poetry books. I was more hurt than I let on but, in my quiet, he went on to explain that it was OK. It didn’t mean anything. Less than nothing. Because his meandering commitment and questionable "experience", as he put it, had shown him something: he loved me. 

It meant so much that it put my fears about this other girl, who I had seen crush cans on her washboard abs in the pub, in a locked-up box. I had long been obsessed with love stories and now I had one. And, in some ways, this other girl only made the prize – the declaration – more intoxicating. He stayed over and we gazed at each other for most of the night. I doubted if he truly loved me at that point (no), or if it was a cheap use of the words – which meant so much to me – to plaster over his guilt (yes), but, for me, it was true anyway. Somehow I loved him fearlessly and we stayed together for two very happy years until, quite suddenly, the words stopped meaning anything and we said them to other people instead. 

I've said "I love you" few times since – selectively and cautiously, at the start of new love, flippantly and dutifully at times. None have been quite so memorable. But is saying "I love you" always unforgettable? Or, is it sometimes best forgotten? Five writers discuss their first time and why it meant so much – or so little – to them. 

"It was simple good manners" – Tanya Gold

I was 16: self-loathing, anxious and dimly aware of the possibility of being unlovable, but childhood divorce does that to you. You don’t see love, so you don’t know how to do it. I had known him since primary school. He was handsome, talkative, popular, with two brothers and wealthy parents. He was interested in me, but I don’t know why. I just wanted a boyfriend, a romantic life of my own, an escape. We slept together one February afternoon in his parents’ house, after school, because sex, then, was love. I felt nothing during the encounter except a blazing sense of social acceptance. “I love you,” he said afterwards, mindlessly, although, in retrospect, I was grateful he said it. It was, after all, the done thing – it was simple good manners. “I love you too,” I replied mindlessly.

I didn’t trust the words before, and haven't since. They are, for me, a charm against future grief – you say it in the hope they will not hurt you, but they do, and they are a cliché. We fell into a relationship in which we groped the other for something it couldn’t give, all the while saying, “I love you.”

"we danced to Counting Crows’ Mr Jones and he said into my ear, 'Je pense que je t’aime'" - Lucy Vine

For such a long time, I felt like I would never fall in love. I felt like I was the last person to get there, the only one I knew who couldn’t sing the songs and really understand what they meant. In hindsight, 19 doesn’t seem so very late to the party. When it did happen, it started quietly, over the course of my first year at university, a slow burn building in my stomach whenever I was around my friend, James*.

When we all left for the summer, I could hardly stand it. It was the days before WhatsApp and we hardly spoke at all. So, when we finally saw each other again that autumn, I kissed him. We started going out – my first “proper” boyfriend – and that slow burn very quickly overwhelmed all other feelings. It was all that seemed important. A couple of months later, at a Christmas party, we danced to Counting Crows’ Mr Jones, and he said into my ear, “Je pense que je t’aime.” He wasn't French. I felt my whole body go red as I said, “What? What?” But he just shook his head, embarrassed. My GCSE French seemed like a long, blurry time ago and I was too afraid to risk it. Back at home, I rang my linguist sister for confirmation and, the next night, lying with him in my dark room in a flatshare, I shyly said, “Je pense que je t’aime aussi.” I’d say it was worth the wait.

"I said them because I wanted to, or because I thought I should Want to" - Reni Eddo-Lodge 

I was in the first half of my teenage years. Me and the boy I'd very quickly grown close to took up our usual residence​ next to his parents' big bay windows that let the light in and overlooked a park. Our favourite pastime was people-watching. I started to make up a story but, before I could finish, he'd grabbed my hand and said the three words. Stunned, I said them back.

Hours later, at home, I thought about the words again and wondered if I said them because I wanted to, or because I thought I should.

Nevertheless, at school the next day, I dutifully let all my friends know that me and so-and-so were now boyfriend and girlfriend. That's when it all started to fall apart, although maybe that was a good thing. 

I might not remember the first time I told that person 'I love you', but I do remember the last, and know now that love is less about marking out the beginning, and more staying away from the end

My friends were happy for me. We spoke about it on MSN Messenger incessantly. But then one of the girls' cousins worked out that she went to school with him. She was sure that he was planning a cinema date with her friend the following Saturday. The grapevine grew. Two more of his girlfriends crossed my radar. In the spirit of solidarity, we added each other on MSN, plotted and dumped him en masse. 

Looking back, the teenage thrill of an "I love you" was about status, and letting your peers know you were wanted. That's not to say it didn't mean anything. But the more private my love life has become, the more gravity those words have held.

"I don’t remember the exact first time I first said 'I love you'" - Bridget Minamore

The first time you tell someone you love them is supposed to be a confessional fraught with anticipation, or something so obvious it doesn’t need to be said, or easy and exciting and fuelled with the knowledge that the person you’re saying it to feels the exact same way. The first time you tell someone you love them is supposed to be a lot of things, but the one thing it’s not supposed to be? Unmemorable.

I don’t remember the exact first time I first said “I love you” to the first person I was in love with. I’m notorious for being bad at defining relationships, and have always been someone who falls for their friends. I’m also a person who loves their friends, who tells their friends “I love you” all the time. So, those “three little words” were never a boldly said declaration, but instead a horribly sudden realisation one day that something had changed in my voice. That I had been saying “I love you” differently for a while, because my feelings had changed and I hadn’t even noticed.

The first time we say “I love you” is ultimately unimportant – instead, it’s the feeling, the weight behind the words. I might not remember the first time I told that person “I love you”, but I do remember the last, and know now that love is less about marking out the beginning, and more staying away from the end.

"My initial 'I love you' was more of a 'Phew!'" – Daisy Buchanan

Technically, I typed it. I was 15, in the throes of my first love affair, and channelling all of my romantic passion into long, poorly punctuated emails that I sent daily from my Yahoo account. I wasn’t the first to declare, but I remember being in a rush to return the sentiment, knowing that it’s hard for 15-year-old boys to open up about their feelings and I couldn’t bear it if my boyfriend felt hurt or rejected. As soon as I pressed send, it seemed urgent to say it out loud. I dialled his landline so that I could say it out loud and very nearly had an embarrassing exchange with his dad.

I did love him, but it wasn’t until we broke up that I realised I could have fallen in love with his best mate just as easily, or the boy who sat behind him on the bus. As a teenager, I loved the idea of love as if it were a band and I was an obsessive fan. I was desperate to be grown-up. I longed to belong to someone. I was insecure and lonely, and worried that no one would ever choose me or find me beautiful. My initial “I love you” was really more of a “Phew!”

I’m more than twice as old as I was then and I’m certainly not twice as wise – but I do try to think more carefully about when to say it, and who to say it to. However, I don’t regret any of the “I love yous” of my lifetime – at the time, I meant every one. Still, when I say it to my husband I think it means the most. Now, “I love you” doesn’t mean “I’m so pleased you picked me” or “I belong to you”. It means “I choose you”. 

Love Stories: This week on The Pool, our writers are discussing love and relationships


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Image: Penny Whitehouse
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