How ‘I Love You’ Ruined My Relationship (Essay)

Illustration by David Bennett.

Words by Jon Peltz. Art by David Bennett.

We made out once, while she was in town over spring break. When she’d go back to school, we’d text like mad–every single day of the semester. This was when emojis were new and you had to know about the international keyboard settings to use them.

Classes drifted by, and all I had to show for them were dozens of texts; insipidly obvious attempts to impress and humor her. Just a few more months until the semester ends, I thought, I have to keep just texting her until then. She would return along with summer, and she’d be my girlfriend.

When she did return, I immediately pounced on every moment I could spend with her. While to her it was a summer fling, in my head–poisoned with attention and love–we were going to spend eternity together and make love to oblivion.

She was the first person I was ever seriously intimate with, and that made things go faster for me. During our third or fourth shtupp, I was ready to profess my love for her. I remember more about what I was thinking and feeling than any of the physical nature of speaking it. I was so terrified. When it finally came out, in its shaky, pathetically muttered form, I felt relieved. Only there was no response from the person right across from me–just empty breathing. I was confused as to what to do. Do I say it again? “Um, hey, I don’t know if you heard me, but I LOVE YOU! GOT IT?” Do we stop having sex to discuss what just happened? Do we keep going? We opted for the latter. Rather than embracing the reality of the situation, the simplicity of the non-response, I deluded myself into believing that she simply hadn’t heard me. One of the most recognizable and powerful phrases that can be spoken had simply gone unnoticed. Wishful thinking.

Speaking with her now, she doesn’t remember it being such “a big deal”: “I thought you didn’t really mean it, or you flipped out and I was just thinking, Oh whatever,” she tells me. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. You should have brought it up more if you did feel that way, or just said it again in a way that was obvious that we both knew…you…said that.”

As the relationship went on, I continued to bottle my feelings. Every day, I thought of saying it again, but I was too scared to. If she didn’t feel the same way, then what would it matter? If I got too clingy, it could cause this summer of sex, this house of cards to come crashing down. As we watched more Degrassi and went to happy hours and waste time, I could remember the tension throbbing in my head and chest from things unsaid.

Summer wasn’t going to last forever, and time until her next semester was fast approaching. The night before she left, I sort of let everything out in one unhealthy burst. I reiterated my love for her, and doubled down, albeit too late, on the idea that we should stay together. I even said those three words again, finally. At that point, saying the three words was just an uncomfortable formality, like trying to return food at a restaurant.

It’s easy to look back on a point in a relationship and from there go in different potential directions. She agrees today that if I had either not said those words or had said them with more conviction, “Things would have gone differently,” and made reference to the classic Ashton Kutcher joint, The Butterfly Effect. It’s not just what you say, but when and how you say it. Relationships are sort of petri dishes of self-expression, and if I hadn’t fucked that whole thing up, I would never have moved up the ranks in the healthy relationship department.

Wait, I’m still single…

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