If you and your spouse have been together for several years, you've probably reached the point in your relationship where you're so comfortable that you no longer feel the need to do some of the things you once did in the beginning, like flirting all the time, giving "just because" gifts, and making sure your partner knows just how much you love them. Still doing all of these things several years in? Good for you! While all three are important, relationship experts agree that there's one that's most critical for the health of your union, and it's saying those three little words: "I love you."
Even if you think your partner knows this important bit of information—that you love him or her—saying it matters. "When spouses says 'I love you,' they are saying that they value both their spouse and their marriage," explains Ili Rivera-Walter, Ph.D., licensed marriage and family therapist and professor. "While the interpretation and importance of the message is specific to each individual and each marriage, overall, saying 'I love you' emphasizes care and commitment.
Saying "I love you" also sends a message of trust and commitment. "'I love you' can mean 'I love all of you'—quirks, differences, and all," says Anita Chlipala, Chicago-based licensed marriage and family therapist and author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple's Guide to Lasting Love. "It's a way to make you feel that your spouse accepts you as you are and this can give you a nice boost of confidence." It also adds a layer of security to the marriage, which is essential for allowing each partner to truly thrive in and out of the relationship.
Rivera-Walter points out that saying "I love you" also reinforces exclusivity, which in turn produces continued connection and safety in a marriage. "Because we say 'I love you' regularly to only a few people, these three little words carry big weight," she says. "When they are spoken, they awaken spouses to their significance to one another, and this significance defines the marital relationship as different and separate from all other relationships."
If you and your partner stop saying these three important words, or say them so infrequently that you can't remember the last time they were uttered, it can create doubt about your connection and can make one or both of you feel insecure, notes Chlipala. It can also create more conflict for a couple. "If these moments of connection decrease over time, couples could stop bidding for each other's attention in other ways too, and disconnection will soon become the norm for the marriage."
It's important to reiterate, however, that just saying the words does no good if they're not backed up by true sincerity. "Long before 'I love you' stops, many, many other things began to fall away," says Lily Rosenblatt, licensed marriage and family therapist. "The key in any relationship is to stay mindful and attuned to the present moment so that, when the challenges present themselves, they are noticed and dealt with in real time, not ignored, avoided, or pushed off for later."
How often should you be saying those three oh-so-important words? There really is no standard—and there shouldn't be, according to experts. "The unique complexity of every couples' differences in what feels right, what meets their needs and what mutually works, determines how often they should be saying 'I love you,'" says Rosenblatt. "The focus is not on a word scoreboard, but on a mindful connection to them." That being said, she recommends that couples make sure they mean it fully when they say those three words, and not trivializing them. "There are infinite 'I love yous' in each of us and there's no need to hoard them for a rainy day," she adds.