You might think: Just say it already! But there are no guidelines for when to pull the trigger. Picture: Flickr.com

Washington - It was at Costco that Justine Chen realised she was in love.

"I would never do this for anyone else," Chen told her boyfriend, while accompanying him for an eye exam there on a Saturday afternoon. It was sweaty and crowded, the wait longer than expected. 

And yet - rather than feel bored or aggravated over hours wasted on someone else's errands, she was perfectly happy in that beige, soulless warehouse in Glendale, California. It hit her during that trip, plus a follow-up the next weekend to pick up his glasses, that she didn't just like this guy. She loved him.

Yet Chen, 34, did not pronounce those words for the first time while surrounded by bags of oranges or supersize jugs of protein powder. She held on to them for months.

In the meantime, Chen's "Wow, I love this guy" euphoria spiraled into "Is it too soon?" anxiety. Like a good millennial, she Googled: When is an appropriate time to say "I love you"? Though Chen's research confirmed that their relationship was within the socially accepted range of three to six months, she waited. They took an out-of-town trip together, and still, she waited.

You might think: Just say it already! But there are no guidelines for when to pull the trigger. I've spoken to people who said it on a first date (don't worry - they're happily married!); within the first week; the first or second month; almost a year. Several people told me they've felt embarrassed or "behind" to be saying it for the first time in their late 20s or early 30s. When I told a dating coach I haven't said it romantically in 12 years, she became alarmed and offered me her services.

In the past decade, the anxiety over when to say "I love you" has been amped up by dating apps and sites, which make it increasingly easy to connect and disconnect. With more options, it's that much harder to find a match that lasts. 

Promising connections fizzle and disappear, often without warning or explanation. It can take couples three to six to nine months to decide to be exclusive, let alone feel ready to say, "I love you." Saying those three little words to a significant other has become a bigger deal than ever before.

It's not that daters aren't vocal about what they mean to one another in words, actions - and, unfortunately, inaction. Rather, it's that the expectations and assumptions surrounding this phrase have become so overblown. 

Through conversations with numerous daters and experts, it's clear that many of us would benefit from turning down the pressure - and conveying what we feel when we feel it.

The Washington Post