The words “I love you,” spoken for the first time, are milestones that let you know where a romantic relationship stands.

In one memorable “Seinfeld” episode, Jerry asks George if he told his girlfriend he loved her. “Oh, I had no choice,” he replied. “She squeezed it out of me! She’d tell me she loved me. All right, at first, I just look at her. I’d go, ‘Oh, really?’ or ‘Boy, that’s, that’s something.’ But eventually you have to come back with ‘Well, I love you.’ You know, you can only hold out for so long!”

Knowing just when to say “I love you” can be difficult for some people. “Just saying those three words too early could complicate the relationship,” said Jonathan Bennett, an owner of Double Trust Dating, which provides coaching, classes and support for those seeking relationships. “On the other hand, if you don’t say it, the relationship might never progress.”

A study conducted last year by the Ascent, a subsidiary of the financial services company Motley Fool, found that a majority of the 1,012 couples interviewed across the country didn’t tell their partners “I love you” until six months into the relationship.

Jennie Marie Battistin, the founder of the Hope Therapy Center in Burbank, Calif., which provides family and couples therapy, contends that if it’s been six months and your significant other can’t look deeply into your eyes and confess his or her love, it might be time to say “next.”

Men and women tend to say “I love you” at different times in a relationship. In our own romantic research, 10 couples shared how their stories played out.

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A year into their relationship, which began in 2016, Jaime Salinas was driving Camille Bryant home in San Francisco when traffic became backed up. She asked him to pull over at the closest red light so she could run the extra block home. “As I was getting out of the car, I blurted out, ‘Bye, I love you,’” said Ms. Bryant, 30, an account director at a public relations and creative agency. “It had been something I had wanted to say for a couple months. But this particular day, it just came out. I was horrified.”

In a moment of panic Ms. Bryant tried to cover it up. “Sorry. I was thinking about my dad,” she said. “I felt my face go fully red and hot, swung open the car door and jumped out. Jaime started laughing, rolled down the window and shouted, “I love you, too.”

Mr. Salinas, 38, a vice president at a bank, didn’t take it as a big deal that they hadn’t said it to each other. “I just figured it would happen during one of our alcohol-fueled nights out when our defenses were down and our moods were sky high.”

The couple have now been dating for four years and are planning to live together soon.

Adita Shekar and Dalmar Hussein, both 35, met in 1995 in the fifth grade while living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They kept in touch after their families left Africa, and in 2002, both ended up majoring in business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They started dating in their junior year.

Mr. Hussein doesn’t remember the first time he said “I love you,” but he does remember the first time he told Ms. Shekar that he loved Simba, her dog.

“Simba and I had had a rough start,” said Mr. Hussein, the head of user research for Tally, a Boston-based start-up company that helps consumers pay down credit cards and save money on interest. “Whenever I showed up, he’d gently but firmly separate me from Adita if I hugged her for too long,” he said. “Six months into our relationship, I had fallen in love with him.” One evening, as they were taking a walk, Mr. Hussein turned to Ms. Shekar and said “I … I think I love Simba.”

Mr. Hussein says his family was more of the “show-don’t-tell” variety. “I think the words ‘I love’ were as close to the real deal as I was capable of then,” he said.

But one afternoon, a few months into their relationship, without warning, Ms. Shekar turned to ask Mr. Hussein if he loved her. “His reaction was priceless — a lot of stuttering, long-windy explanations of ‘it’s hard to put into words how I feel’, and some very mixed messages came out,” said Ms. Shekar, who runs a personal finance firm designed for couples.

“I looked at him straight in the eyes, and said, ‘Yeah, you love me.’ For whatever reason, that’s all it took to break the ice,” she said.

Ms. Shekar and Mr. Hussein, who have been married five years, live in San Francisco with their two rescue dogs, Ziggy and Goose.

Nicholas Wolaver and Valentina Kucheriavenko met at a jazz concert during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Ms. Kucheriavenko, now 33, a language instructor and translator, had arrived after the concert’s first number and was quickly ushered to a seat next to Mr. Wolaver, now 44 and an executive at an Atlanta-based public relations firm.

From his appearance, she could tell he was American, which piqued her curiosity because most of the audience was Russian. The two chatted throughout the concert. “I had a feeling that our unexpected meeting was really special,” she said, “a kind of serendipity or chance encounter that was meant to happen.”

They kept in touch over the next four years and began a romantic relationship after reuniting at the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. When they were saying their goodbyes at the Seoul airport, Ms. Kucheriavenko invited Mr. Wolaver to join her in Istanbul in the spring.

Mr. Wolaver waited until the Turkey visit in May 2018 to say “I love you,” or “Ya lyublyu tebya” in Russian.

Ms. Kucheriavenko reciprocated with “I love you” in English, and they’ve been an international couple ever since, traveling to each other’s homeland and visiting about every three months in Vienna, Venice, Paris, and Barcelona, Spain.

JC Ways and Mark James have been together for nearly five years after meeting on the dating app Tinder. But after the couple, who live in Britain, had been dating for several months neither had wanted to be the first to say “I love you.”

“There’s always that fear that the other person may just think of you as a good friend or a friend with ‘benefits,’” said Mr. Ways, 26, who works at the Sex Toy Collective. “Imagine saying ‘I love you’ only to find out that the other person doesn’t feel the same way? You’re putting your heart on the line.”

Saying “I love you,” he said, conjured up a similar fear of rejection when he came out as gay to his family.

Mr. James, 23, an administrative assistant, told his parents that he was gay early into his relationship with Mr. Ways. He felt very vulnerable and couldn’t handle saying “I love you” in person. So he decided to do it on WhatsApp. “I could type ‘I love you’ into my phone, throw the phone to the other side of the room, and wait for a ping.”

Mr. Ways responded with “Oh you do?” and Mr. James said “I hope that’s OK.”

“I assured him it was OK,” Mr. Ways said, “and I immediately called on the phone to say ‘I love you, too.’”

Angela Farr Schiller, the director of arts education for ArtsBridge Foundation, an Atlanta area nonprofit organization, and Robert Swift Jr., an instructional designer at Kennesaw State University, met five years ago at a Black Faculty and Staff Caucus hosted by Kennesaw State, where they were both working at the time.

“I was running late, so I entered quietly and found a seat in the back of the room,” said Ms. Schiller, 43. “Once I got settled, I noticed one of the most gorgeous men I had ever seen.” After the event, while shaking hands and introducing herself to people, she looked up and saw him approach. “I was intrigued right away.”

The feelings were mutual and the two began seeing each other regularly.

“Robert was the first to say, “I love you,” Ms. Schiller said. “One night after dating for about two months, he called and said there was something that he needed to tell me, but he wanted to say it in person. My instinct told me that he was going to say he loved me, but I wanted to be sure, because I had definitely been feeling that way.”

He planned to tell her the next day, she decided to drive over to his house that evening.

“He opened the door, invited me in, and sat me down on the sofa. My heart was racing. Although I was pretty sure of what he wanted to say, I wasn’t 100 percent. He proceeded to tell me that he had fallen in love with me and wanted us to be together.”

They have lived together the last two years.

“Since the pandemic, our lives have changed,” Ms. Schiller said. “We are very social people.”

Because of quarantine guidelines, they haven’t been able to socialize like before. “It is bringing us closer because there are no other distractions, just us, 24 hours a day,” she said. “This pandemic is scary. I am grateful that I don’t have to go through it alone and I’m with someone who makes me laugh.”

Allie Fleder, 32, met Annie Burns, 33, in April 2013 at lesbian night in a gay bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Two weeks later Ms. Felder told Ms. Burns that she loved her over dinner in the West Village. “Allie choked on her wine in shock and thought I was crazy,” Ms. Fleder said. “But she said it back to me the next month and we’ve been saying it every day for seven years.”

Ms. Fleder is the chief operating officer of SimplyWise, a start-up company that helps people with financial decisions about retirement. Ms. Burns is a film producer for a social impact agency. Both started new jobs during the pandemic.

“We work crazy hours all week and weekend as we try to build relationships with our new co-workers over Zoom calls, and seek to understand the new realities for our new companies given the crisis,” Ms. Fleder said. “But we feel extremely lucky to be working, while so many of our friends have been furloughed or laid off.”

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Deborah Cohan and Mike Robertson had their first date in December 2012 after meeting through Match.com.

“For me, it was definitely love at first sight,” said Ms. Cohan, 50, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. “What is indelible in my head and heart is how he approached me, walking from his car toward a bench I was sitting on. He had his arms outstretched, his smile was huge, and we immediately hugged tight. Eleven hours later we said good night and agreed to meet the next Saturday in Charleston. We’ve spent nearly every weekend together since.”

Mr. Robertson, 60, the senior director of media relations at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C., says he had no real expectations when they first met. “I went on Match simply to have someone to occasionally meet for dinner or go for a run with or something fun,” he said. “It soon was clear that there was more going on here and I felt I could be more fully myself with Deborah.”

For more than seven years, the couple have been in a long-distance relationship.

The first time Ms. Cohan told Mr. Robertson she loved him was on a Christmas card, just three and a half weeks after they met. “I was the first one to say it to him,” she said. “He was separated when we met. Because South Carolina divorce law is completely archaic and takes a year, his divorce wasn’t finalized until mid-October 2013. I sensed he needed to be finally divorced to be able to comfortably utter ‘I love you’ to another woman. So, I waited two weeks after his court date.”

The couple had enjoyed an amazing weekend together and when it came time for Ms. Cohan to head back home, they hugged and kissed and she suddenly blurted out, “If I don’t tell you this, I think I’m going to explode.’ “He looked at me like ‘Yeah, OK, what is it?’ and I said ‘I love you.’ His reply was really special. He said ‘I know you do. I can feel it.’ And he told me he loved me also.”

Credit…Cari Nystrom

When Seth Hoffman started dating Damona Resnick in 2003, he didn’t really understand love. He had never been in a serious relationship before. “My only reference points came from movies and TV shows,” said Mr. Hoffman, who is a television writer. “It seemed that to be in love with someone meant that you felt an all-consuming rush of adrenaline every time you saw them and unbearable longing every time you were away from them.”

After 10 months of dating, the relationship was going well. “We just fit together perfectly,” Mr. Hoffman said. “But I wasn’t feeling the feelings I thought I should, so I had trouble saying the words ‘I love you.’ I didn’t want to lie to her. They’re important words and I wanted to make sure I felt them when I said them.”

Ms. Resnick, a dating coach and podcast host, also felt that the relationship was going well, but she was terrified to say the words and scare him off.

Finally, they went on a weekend getaway. Ms. Resnick bought a card that said “I love you.” They made dinner together and she sneaked the card under his plate.

“I nervously ate my dinner wondering if/when he would discover the card and what he would say,” she said. “He finally noticed it when he cleared the table. I waited anxiously as he opened the card and read it silently. After a few seconds, which seemed like hours, he looked up and said, “I love you, too.”

“Looking back, it’s clear I was in love with Damona for months before she gave me that card,” Mr. Hoffman said. “Reading her words that night flipped a switch in my brain.”

The couple, now married for 13 years, have two children, ages 9 and 5, and live in Los Angeles.

Erynne Jones admits that her boyfriend, Xuanya Zhang, who goes by Bill, is by far the more romantic of the two.

As an 18 year old, he had arrived in the United States from China with limited English. “Little did I know, dating would be even harder,” he said.

But when Mr. Zhang, 29, met Ms. Jones, 34, through the dating app OkCupid in 2018, he said “the romantic side of me, which had been under so much baggage, finally got a break.”

“Several months into our relationship, neither of us had said the forbidden L word,” Mr. Zhang said.

He decided to say “I love you” to Ms. Jones on May 20. He said he thought of saying it in Chinese — wu er ling, pronounced wo ai ni — sounded “dorky.”

“I held her in my arms from behind and whispered in my dorky roundabout way, ‘I love you.’”

Then he asked her if she knew why he had sent a gift to her on May 20. He told her, “Because in Chinese, May 20 is pronounced similarly to I love you in Chinese.”

“Aww, are you trying to say something to me?” Ms. Jones asked him. The she added, “Yes, babe. I love you — wo ai ni.”

Leslie Forde was the first to say “I love you” in her relationship with Keith Gabryelski. He responded with a “thank you.”

Mr. Gabryelski, a software engineer, doesn’t remember saying that. “I remember a pause and Leslie repeating herself and possibly asking something close to, ‘Do you have a response?’ I wasn’t blindsided, but I was unprepared.”

With two divorces under his belt, Mr. Gabryelski said his thoughts were to not lead anyone down a path that would result in an expectation of a marriage proposal. “If that meant pushing Leslie away, well that would be a cost.”

Also recovering from a divorce, Ms. Forde, the founder of Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs, a support platform for mothers, was feeling rudderless and disconnected. She was happy to be in the relationship, but had not expected to fall in love again. “I felt silly as a woman in my 30s hiding my feelings for him,” she said, “so I tried to explain why I was so concerned about him not saying it.”

Mr. Gabryelski said he told her, “I’ll say it when I believe it. I am not jumping into another relationship that will end horribly.”

It took several months for Mr. Gabryelski to say it back. They were at a bar listening to music. Ms. Forde remembers him saying it quietly and without fanfare as if he had said it many times before.

The couple, who live in Boston, will be celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary in July. They have two children, a boy, 9, and a girl, 5.

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