My Girlfriend Said She Loved Me. Should I Say It Back Even if I’m Not Sure?

I’ve been dating my girlfriend for more than six months now, and we’ve been going along really well ever since we first met. Time together is always of quality, and I care a lot about her.

A few weeks ago, she told me for the first time that she loved me. Although her words meant a lot to me, it led me to believe that I wasn’t sure I actually loved her — though I care deeply about our relationship. Is it wrong to say “I love you” if I am not sure I’m actually in love? I’m afraid this could lead us to end our relationship otherwise.— Name Withheld, France

From the Ethicist:

Having watched a few romantic comedies in my life — or has it been a few thousand? — I am familiar with this quandary. One partner worries about having derailed a relationship by blurting out “I love you” too soon. Or is flummoxed by the surprise declaration. Or wonders why “I love you” is answered only with “Ditto,” “Same” or “Back at ya.” All that seems true to life. So is the fact that people in relationships are highly adept at drawing distinctions within the language of devotion: “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” Or: “I do love you, but not that way.”

What’s worth bearing in mind is that an avowal of love can have meanings beyond its words. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas made much about the difference between the saying and the said. The “said” is just the content of whatever proposition you’ve asserted. But the “saying” is an act — a way of opening yourself up to another. Your girlfriend, beyond expressing her sense of desire and devotion, was making herself vulnerable, perhaps signaling her commitment to the relationship and testing whether you reciprocated it.

That’s clearly the effect it had, given your current soul-searching. I’d suggest that you try speaking to her — opening yourself up to her — with a full heart. As your copine surely knows, people in a couple who come to love each other don’t necessarily do so simultaneously. It sounds as if she’s willing to give you time and space to develop your feelings at your own pace. And an honest conversation is how the deeper ethical work of love happens — the work of seeing, honoring and caring.

But if she has a vision of a shared future that doesn’t resonate with you — if you consider the relationship comfortable but not necessarily for keeps? In that case, exaggerating your feelings in order to preserve the status quo would amount to “breadcrumbing”: leading her on, and preventing her from moving along with her life. The prototype breadcrumber is the manipulative cad who just wants to keep all options open on a Friday night. More typical breadcrumbers, I suspect, are driven not by cynicism but by uncertainty, and by a desire to avoid conflict. They may tell themselves that they’re being kind as they postpone a reckoning. And we all know how that movie ends.

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