How and Why to Lead With “I Love You”

I Love You


“I love you.”

That’s what she told me as we hugged in front of her parent’s house.

We had just finished an amazing conversation and it was time for me to head home.

I was in high school and only seventeen.

Yes… I was in love with a girl.

“I love you too,” I said with a huge smile and another hug that backed up my words.

Was I professing love for the first time to my childhood sweetheart?


The girl was my best friend (and still is). And I have never been romantically in love with her.

Her name is Erika.

She gave me one of the greatest gifts I’ll ever receive: the knowledge and confidence that telling someone you love that – you know, you actually love them – is beautiful.

For the giver and receiver.

Regardless of relationship, romantic feelings, gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, or anything else.

Erika’s three little words on that muggy summer day were transformative and I want to show you their impact. It’s my challenge and pleasure to help you overcome any difficulties in telling the people you love, “I love you.”

Because little else has as much positive power with such simplicity.

But first, a story about the empowerment from “leading with I love you.”

Pillow Talk

I talk about strange things in bed.

No… not that kind of pillow talk.

Just ask my wife Melinda: I get super-philosophical in bed before we turn off the light.

It’s like all the things that baffle, amaze, frustrate, and animate me need to be spoken before they fade from my terrible memory.

Recently, Melinda and I were about to get our snooze on. But before we could say our typical last words of the day to each other – “I love you” – my reflective side leapt into action like an acrobat pounding energy drinks.

I said to Melinda, “If telling someone ‘I love you’ is so powerful and so important, why do we wait until the end of our interaction to say it? Why is ‘I love you’ reserved for when people say good-bye or good night?

And why don’t we tell the people we love that we actually – honest-to-goodness – love them?

What’s the most important thing that I can tell someone that I love?

‘I love you.’


I wasn’t done, so I continued with, “If I have massive news, like I’m getting married, having a kid, just got into my top college, had a death in the family… I’m leading with that news when talking to friends and family.

If we benefit from, and other people appreciate us leading with our most important words, why don’t we lead with ‘I love you?’

Who decided that ‘good-bye’ and ‘I love you’ were synonymous and should only be said in relation to each other?

Why can’t I make ‘hi’ and ‘I love you’ synonymous and just freakin’ lead with ‘I love you’ when I start talking to someone I love?”

Melinda gave me the standard, “I’m sleepy… why are you taxing my brain with your crazy thoughts again?” look.

So we smooched, told each other “I love you” (of course), turned off the light, and she drifted to sleep.

I didn’t fall asleep though. I was genuinely disturbed that I had never thought of greeting a friend or family member with “I love you.”

And I was determined to change that for me… and every other willing person I interact with.

Thus began my personal “Lead With I Love You” challenge.

I’d be honored if today is the start of your personal “Lead With I Love You” challenge too. There’s plenty in it for you.

Why Saying “I Love You” Is So Important

Big Smiles

I don’t agree with Stephen King when he said, “The most important things are the hardest to say, because words diminish them.”

Words make thoughts real (and pictures work too). They solidify.

So I much prefer Robert Brault’s perspective when he said:

A good speech has a beginning, a middle and an end, the best example being, ‘I love you.’

If you need some good reasons (among many) why saying “I love you” is so important, chew on these:

  • It builds self-confidence: Letting someone else experience the inner sanctum of our heart is thrilling and builds confidence. If I can tell you that I love you, I can tell you a lot of other things that might need to be said.
  • A –> B –> C –> D: We often feel grateful when someone says “I love you.” Knowing you’re loved leads to smiles, positive feelings, a decrease in stress, and lots of other groovy stuff (science and research will back me up). All of these things lead to better health for your heart, body, mind, and soul. And you’re generally happiest when you’re healthiest. Viola! A magic elixir for great health and longevity!
  • I love you = dopamine: Shawn Achor’s research in his TEDTalk states that dopamine – which floods into your system when you’re positive – has two functions. Not only does it make you happier, it turns on all of the learning centers in your brain allowing you to adapt to the world in a different way. My reaction is this: you can train your brain to become more positive by simply uttering “I love you.”

And if you like simple perspectives, Oscar Wilde has something to say:

Who, being loved, is poor?

A Small Change in Big Clothing

Now that you’re feeling the power of “I love you” – assuming you weren’t already before reading this – here’s the big trick.

Telling someone “I love you” instead of (or before) you say “hi,” “hello,” or “how are ya?” is a surprisingly small change. But you can freak the daylights out of someone if they’re not prepared for it.

If a starfish has the moxie to lead with “I love you,” you can too.

You may have other methods, but I’ve found these steps are a great way to build up to leading with “I love you” to someone important:

  1. You’ve already said “I love you:” Leading with “I love you” will be especially awkward if you’ve never previously said those words to someone. If that’s the case, first tell this awesome person “I love you” at the end of your next conversation and explain why. What has this person’s relationship meant to you? What have they provided you that nobody else can or ever will? Remember: reciprocity of “I love you” is not the goal. Expressing how you feel and telling them how important they are is.
  2. Comment about how nobody “leads with I love you:” This is where you plant the seed. In your next conversation with this lovely person, talk about how vexing it is that nobody seems to lead with “I love you.” Use an analogy they’ll understand about waiting until the end to say “I love you” (like I did when I wrote about not leading with your most important news). Here’s a script if you’re coming up empty on something original: “It’s OK to tell the people you love about your biggest fears, struggles, joys, and triumphs… but it’s not socially acceptable to tell these same people that you love them – regardless of relationship, romantic feelings (or not), gender, age, religion, or anything else? How does that make sense? Why can’t I just tell the people I love that I love them or, heck, open a conversation with “I love you?”
  3. Lead with “I love you:” In your next conversation, just hit ’em with it. Lead with “I love you” and be ready for any reaction. They could be stunned, visibly confused, flash their biggest smile, or give you a bear hug. Be prepared to remind them about your previous conversation and why leading with “I love you” is one of the best gifts you can give each other.

This is simple in theory, but can be hard in practice. Don’t rush it. Don’t force it.

Just embrace the challenge to tell the people you love how you feel right away.

Because releasing your love immediately is liberating. There’s no better way to instantly create a feeling of gratitude, trust, respect, and generosity than leading with “I love you.”

And please. Keep saying “I love you” when you part ways, hang up the phone, or fall asleep with your partner. Just don’t limit when – and how often – you tell the people you love:

“I. Love. You.”

Liberate yourself and everyone else from this social norm and watch your best relationships become even more wonderful.

This is too important not to do.


For the comments: who’s the first person you’ll honor by leading with “I love you” and when will you do it? Will you follow my steps, or will you find your own path to “Leading With I Love You?”


19 Responses to How and Why to Lead With “I Love You”

  1. Erin says:

    Interesting approach. Very “Joel” :)

    Personally, I’m with Stephen King. Sometimes the big things don’t fit into the confines of the words available — at least, in English!

    There are two reasons I won’t be participating in your challenge. The first is that I think saying things like “I love you” — the stuff that’s supposed to be really powerful — all the time diminishes its power. It becomes a habit to pronounce the sounds instead of a meaningful phrase. The hearer expects to hear the sounds and worries when s/he doesn’t. (I can imagine this isn’t the case for you, but I think it is for many people.) And second, I really do believe that actions speak louder than words. I don’t always manage to live up to that belief, but I’m working on it. There are a ton of ways to show love non-verbally, and that’s the route I’d prefer to take.

    So, yes to the sentiment for me, but my own expression of it will be different.

    • Interesting comment. Very “Erin” :)

      I totally get where you’re coming from and I know my thinking aligns with the vast minority of people (per usual). But here’s a question I genuinely can’t wrap my brain around that maybe you or someone else can. When you do something that makes a person smile, helps them in some way, or otherwise just generates a positive environment, how do they know the reason why you did it? In other words, how do I differentiate between the nice things you do because you’re a nice person, are hoping to see some reciprocity, are showing some love, or for some other reason?

      It could just be dense ol’ me, but I like people to explain the intention behind their actions (perhaps because I suck at figuring them out myself).

      • David Delp says:

        I’ve been such a Sucker-at-Figuring-out-Intentions and a Wanter-to-Know-and-Tell forever. Most people are not. It was part of my mid-life existential crisis to realize that.

        So you know, I’m writing this because I love you and I love me, too.

      • Erin says:

        Excellent question. I guess for me it doesn’t matter whether people know. I think most people who know me realize I’m not much of a something-for-something person — the nice things I do I do because I care about the person/people I’m doing them for. They know I’m doing it out of love. If a mostly stranger misinterprets a gesture or action, they probably aren’t someone I’d ever say “I love you” to anyway. And should they ever grow into such a person, I think they’d figure out the way I show love and gratitude and such along the way. So I guess it’s not a problem I’ve ever really had to deal with.

  2. cj says:

    A fascinating take on the 3 little words, Joel! I have to admit that EK makes a fine argument the other way, but I like your expanding and questioning abilities!!! BTW: I am subscribed, but not receiving email notices of new posts. Any thoughts?

    • Hey CJ,

      Erin always make fine points… and she does it in about 1/10th of the words I do it in. It’s impressive stuff.

      And about your subscription question. People who are subscribed to the Value of Simple Newsletter don’t automatically get new blog posts sent to them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (some of my favorite bloggers do it this way), but I don’t want to assume that people who want my newsletter also want my blog posts in their email box. If you want to subscribe to new posts on VoS via email, use this link to do it with Feedburner.

  3. David Delp says:

    I love you.

    Really, I do. I think of love as the energy we give to help someone else, and I give you that energy. I want the best for you, Joel. I hope my actions show it.

    Like Steven King and Erin I think “I love you” gets worn out and would be wary to lead with it much. Sorry, Bub.

    And how about the three-time rule? The third time you say something it carries a different meaning. For example, I read these lines in a play.

    “I love you.”

    “I love you, too.”

    “Really, I love you.”

    “Thanks honey.”


    “I love you.”

    “You’re having sex with her, aren’t you!”


    Love, David

    • I knew most people wouldn’t agree with the premise or practice of this article. So your points about overusing “I love you” and your perspective on it is appreciated. I guess I’d just rather have people tell me to stop telling them “I love you” so much instead of not enough. With most things, I err on the side of minimalism. With love, I err on the side of maximalism.

  4. Shanna Mann says:

    I have to agree with Erin, making ‘I love you’ synonymous with ‘Hi’ would greatly diminish its power.

    But I do love how you challenge these long-standing social conventions. It’s good to think about why you do the things you do.

  5. Hey Joel, my kids are five and two years old now, and they both surprise the heck out of me all the time by dropping in “I love you” at times I least expect it. One of the few bits of sign-language that we ever use is to say “I love you” — in fact my daughter just learned how to make her little fingers make the sign.

    As much as I understand where people are coming from on the over-usage of the words, the statement stops me dead in my tracks all of the time. Not every time, but it surprises and delights me a lot.

    Granted, adults saying it is a lot different than kids, but I think there is a lot of room to delight and surprise.

    • Grant’s two-and-a-half and only brings himself to say “I love you” when we really prompt him. I’m looking forward to the spontaneous “I love you”s from the kid (and kid #2 when he comes and grows old enough to understand the beauty of the statement). It’s awesome that you get the random messages of love and have the appreciation for the gift.

      You bring up a good point about the difference in getting an “I love you” (lead with or not) from a young kid vs. an adult. Kids normally say it because they mean it, even if they don’t fully understand the concept of love. The intention behind the words are there, but I find they don’t resonate with me as much as when an adult tells me the same thing. Adults are mature enough to completely know the power of certain words – or the lack of them – and communicate the context behind them. They’re also mature enough to use words improperly, robotically, and manipulatively. That’s why a genuine “I love you” means so much to me coming from a friend or family member. But hey, I’ll take ’em where I can get ’em.

  6. Ethan says:

    I think it’s a strange way to start a conversation, but I don’t think anything bad will happen. From your research here, only good will happen! I’m going to try it.

    • It’s definitely a strange way to start a conversation. But it’s so worth it with the right people. Way to be a gamer and give it a try, Ethan! Let us know if your experience is like the SpongeBob SquarePants video I embedded in this article or more like the ones I’ve had.

  7. Denise says:

    I greet my son in the morning with I love you and then good morning after and that doesn’t feel strange at all. I wouldn’t greet everyone like that and on other occasions, I would still say hi first, and then I love you. But, it’s still in line with your thoughts. It’s still leading with I love you.

    Even if people don’t agree with your post in a literal sense, you can still take that point out of it – to make those words a priority. Because I don’t think saying them diminishes the meaning necessarily.

    Stephen King is a fiction writer, lets not forget. Maybe he wrote that because it made sense for the book it was in. I don’t see how a writer would actually believe that words diminish meaning. It’s the contrary.

    And if you look at the context, a couple sentences after that quote, King says “That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a tellar but for want of an understanding ear.” So, he’s also implying that it sucks to keep words inside. I’d rather get something out of me that might not be understood then keep it in and keep it from those who would have appreciated it.

    I grew up in a family that didn’t say I love you and weren’t affectionate and sometimes I feel resentful because of that. So, I’m the exact opposite with my kids. People like to make excuses for not saying 3 simple words that would make all the difference in the world. Words do solidify what is just assumed in thought.

    • What a welcome perspective you bring, Denise. And not just because you agree with me.

      I’m impressed that you did research about the Stephen King quote and gave it a new context than what I had in my article. Words with meaning and intention almost always clarify. So even if the clarity we gain isn’t the insight we want, every little bit helps us understand ourselves, other people, and how the world works a little bit better. I know I certainty have a little more clarity thanks to you.

  8. LD says:

    My philosophy is more Lead With Love than saying the specific words. What we really want to do is open our hearts & connect with people by coming from an authentic place. Basically constantly living from our heart & sending love energy. If everyone did this, we’d be living amazing lives & cultivating deeper, meaningful relationships.

    The meaning of the words can never be diminished if one feels it when they say it. With my partner, I often will say “I Love You” at various times other than at the end of our conversation. I choose to act on what I’m feeling quite often. I’ll sometimes call him just to say that or something else along those lines. I like being open & revealing with him & it’s something that should be done often with people who are special to us.

    Though sending love energy to people all the time in general, whether we’re close with them or not, is only a good thing. We’d resolve so many of the world issues if most people did this.

    • I like your philosophy, LD. Lead With Love – even in the absence of verbalizing it – is an incredibly powerful thing (as you already know). What does that look like to you in daily life, except for the wonderful story you shared about randomly leading with love with your partner? I’m always excited to hear about how other people send good vibes rippling through the world. Especially a vibe as amazing as love.

  9. LD says:

    Hi Joel. I do a lot of spiritual practices like meditation & prayer & that’s often when I’ll do this. Also, being in that space when I’m around others. Instead of judging, comparing, competing with others or worrying about them doing this with you, you learn to focus more on the good, as well as sending positive vibes. If you do it often enough, it becomes easier to incorporate into your life. When something unfortunate happens, there’s so much focus on the negative when that never resolves anything. Negative creates more negative. If instead we spent that time being positive sending love & good thoughts, finding ways to either help the situation or help other people in general, that’s how we’re effective.

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