"I love you." Those three words carry so much weight, they can literally make or break a relationship — especially if they're said too early or late. In love, timing can be everything, and nowhere is that more apparent than when it's first expressed.
So what does it mean when someone you're gaga over utters that phrase too early in your relationship? It could be a major red flag, say experts. Or it could just mean he's caught up in the moment.
"'I love you' shouldn't be said lightly," says "Dr. Romance" Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. "If it is, it's meaningless."
Here are seven signs your guy is saying those three magic words too soon.
1. You haven't been dating for at least three to six months
Of course, there are always exceptions if you've been spending every waking minute together vs. only seeing each other once or twice a week. But in general, if your guy tells you he loves you before you've been dating for three to six months, he could be mistaking love for something else.
"I'm a big believer in time. I wouldn't feel really confident if someone is saying it before six months because what they are is infatuated," says sociologist Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Washington and the author of The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples. "Am I going to bet the farm on that?"
2. You haven't had sex yet
If you haven't yet slept together and he says "I love you," watch out. It could be a ploy to get you into bed.
"A man may say 'I love you' during sex, or to obtain sex, but don't necessarily think he really thought it through or means it," warns Tessina. "It's not a commitment in any way."
3. You haven't spent enough time together to form a good foundation for a relationship
It sounds pretty simple, but plenty of us are just caught up in the moment when the L word is first uttered. But if you haven't spent real, quality time together and your relationship still feels on shaky ground, there isn't enough there yet for it to be true love.
"Any time before you've spent time together and gotten to know each other is way too soon for either of you to say 'I love you,'" says Tessina. "There's no way either of you can know. I believe 'love at first sight' is only in hindsight."
She says many of the couples she counsels come to her with high expectations of "instant" relationships and romance, and equally high frustration levels when things don't unfold that way.
"Internet dating, coupled with movie and TV images of instant 'love at first sight' create expectations that prohibit people from getting to know anything about the character of the person they're dating, and don't give the couples a chance to develop what I call the 'infrastructure' of a long-lasting relationship," Tessina says.
4. Your guy is unwilling to commit to a future with you
Many women assume that "I love you" means he's in for the long haul. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. If he says it but can't back it up with a commitment of some kind to you, tread lightly.
"In general, when the woman hears a man say 'I love you,' she doesn't think he's just saying 'That's what I feel like this minute,'" Schwartz says. "She's thinking there's the implicit promise of a much deeper relationship and this could lead to a commitment ... [as if he's] saying, 'I want to spend the rest of my life with you.'" If he says it because he's just "feeling loving at the time" but hasn't considered what the relationship means to him, it might be a red flag.
5. He says it in the heat of the moment
Too often, a guy will tell a girl he loves her when they're kissing, having sex or caught up in the excitement of the "honeymoon stage." If that happens in your relationship, don't take it too seriously quite yet.
If you're in that infatuation phase, "saying 'I love you' is more about your feeling of being excited and stimulated and wanting to have a stronger connection," says Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D., a licensed couples therapist and the author of Now You Want Me, Now You Don't!. "It has little to do with 'loving' the other, because that would involve empathy, tolerance and acceptance of who they are."
6. He says it after a milestone experience you share, but your relationship isn't there yet
Maybe a relative has just died, or one of you has landed a new job. When you go through an experience like that together, it can be bonding and make you feel full of love for each other. But is it really love? Not necessarily, if the rest of your relationship doesn't measure up.
"Depending on the context, those three words can [be said] because he has just given you a surprise party, or stood up for you against a chastising parent or spent lavishly on you," says Raymond. "It varies with the ebb and flow of the connection."
7. You aren't even close to feeling like you love him.
If the man you're dating tells you he loves you and you don't feel that way at all, then it's probably premature. So take it with a grain of salt.
"If a woman is not even close to that in her emotions for him, then she might veer away because she doesn't feel anything like that toward him and doesn't want to lead him on," Schwartz says. "If somebody says 'I love you' way before you're in that position, it's a high-risk maneuver. It can scare somebody off."
So what do you do if your guys drops the "L" word and you feel like it's too soon? Talk to him about it, suggests Tessina.
"Ask him what he means," she advises. "Why does he love you? Is it a commitment? If it's really time to say it, you should be able to discuss it with each other. If asking scares him away, he didn't mean it anyway."
But if those three words do happen to be uttered early in your relationship, it's not always the kiss of death. Sometimes, it can actually be a positive.
"If you really love the person and it's not just about your hormones raging, it's never too soon," Raymond says. "It's an expression of your esteem and recognition of their good qualities. Why not think of it as saying something nice about the other one?"
Beware of those seven gags not to fall victim and always check EAchamps for more tips