There is a danger in using the term "Love" when directed towards a person who is not your relative (and sometimes even then). When done properly and the feeling is reciprocated, it ends up as a Relationship Upgrade, but if handled badly or too soon, it can kill the relationship. Because of this, even couples already in an official relationship will sometimes be afraid of using any terms besides "like" or "care for".
In some instances, reaching the "I Love You" place is seen as point of no return, or at least an indication of a long term relationship. Ironically, sometimes declaring your love for someone ends up as a Moment Killer, not necessarily because the feelings aren't reciprocated but because the other person isn't ready for that commitment.
In contrast, The Casanova (and perhaps the Casanova Wannabe) tends to use this term so often that it completely loses meaning with them; should they become a Ladykiller in Love, they may not know how to articulate this brand new, profound feeling.
Note this is essentially an English-speaking world thing. In some languages a perfectly fine translation of "I love you" can be a much weaker sentence with much less powerful implications, as even in English the term can be used casually and in a wide variety of ways. A Woolseyism may be needed in translation to get the proper tone. note And even within the English-speaking world, dating works differently in different cultures.
Compare the Love Confession, Love You and Everybody, Commitment Issues, Cannot Spit It Out, and The Four Loves. The recipient (or the one who'd said it, but wishes to cover up) might use I "Uh" You, Too in response.
Contrast Platonic Declaration of Love, in which "love" is meant in an entirely platonic manner with no hint of romance attached.
- Archie Comics: In one story, Betty and Veronica put a lot of pressure on Archie to say "I love you" more. Jughead rightfully deduces that they're trying to get him to admit which one he prefers, and offers a solution. The next, Archie tells Veronica he loves her. And Betty, too. And Jughead, and Reggie, and Riverdale High, and standing around talking with all of his wonderful friends, and Pop Tate, and the ice cream he serves, and the football coach... Betty and Veronica storm off in a rage, saying Archie "makes love about as special as the common cold". Archie and Jughead yuk it up from around the corner, Jughead warning "the next time you tell them 'I love you', they're gonna deck you!"
- Justice: A brief inner monologue reveals that Green Arrow never says "I love you, too" to Black Canary, which annoys her. Oliver considers the phrase to be so important that he refuses to let it slip into a habit or reflexive response.
- The above example is from Scott Pilgrim. Scott has been going out with Knives (she 17 and him 23) The stigma comes from the fact that Scott is still recovering from the brutal breakup with Natalie V. "Envy" Adams a year prior and one of the reasons he entered a relationship with Knives is out of desire for something simple. While the relationship ultimately fails because of Scott going with Ramona, the implications remain that even if Ramona didn't enter the picture, Knives' Love Confession would've caused major problems for the relationship.
- Advice and Trust: When Shinji and Asuka argue with Misato about their relationship, both of them point out neither of them is the kind of people would say "I love you" to anyone easily.
"So yes, we're not going to stop being Pilots. Not when we finally know where our mothers are. But... don't try to separate us. We've earned this. You know what I was like. You think I'd say 'I love you' to anyone easily?"
- A Crown of Stars: Although they became a couple after Shinji's Love Confession, Asuka did not tell Shinji she loved him because she was unsure of her feelings and she was afraid of loving and getting attached to someone after years of emotional and even sexual abuse. She usually said she liked him, wanted him or even needed him, but she could not bring herself to admit outloud she loved him. Finally, in chapter 73 (two months and nearly fifty chapters after their Relationship Upgrade) she confessed -under extreme circumstances- she loved him.
- Evangelion 303:
- Asuka was afraid of saying "I love you" to Shinji for a long while. She did not dare to spit it out until they were engaged, even though they had been lovers for months (and the relationship was actually her idea). Until then she had kept it secret (her "biggest secret", she called it).
- Shinji is not better. He told outloud he loved her for first time when he was popping the question. Asuka was shocked and surprised when she heard it because she did not expect it at all.
- Princess Zelda in the Zelda/Impa fic In Sotto Voce has this issue. She has trouble admitting her feelings for Impa and goes through mental gymnastics in order to make the false idea of Impa using magic on her plausible. Zelda suffering from this is due to her mother's death as a child. Her mother was Driven to Suicide, and Zelda was the first to find her. Zelda grew up believing her love and her father's love wasn't good enough for her mother, though she understands her mother had a mental illness as well. As a result, Zelda has a hard time expressing her love for others.
- Once More with Feeling: When Asuka asked him bluntly what she was to him, Shinji avoided to tell he loved her because he was afraid of scaring her away. So he settled for telling she meant a lot to him.
- The One I Love Is: Even though she was competing with Rei to win Shinji over, Asuka was unable to tell him "I love you" for a long time. In the first chapters she was barely capable to admit and tell openly she liked him.
- In To Romance A Magician, Twilight (after coming down with a serious case of the love bug) seeks out Trixie in Manehattan. After first nervously skirting around the subject until Trixie gets uncomfortable and tries to pardon herself, Twilight blurts out a loud "I love you!" In the middle of a crowded restaurant, too. Trixie's goes through a quick show of surprise, denial, anger and embarrassment, before literally fleeing the scene and leaving Twilight heartbroken. Twilight's friends point out that she just came on too strong.
- In Spectacular Seven, both Sunset Shimmer and Twilight Sparkle deal with this in different ways after they become an item. Sunset, because she's from another world, can't apply to colleges with the rest of her friends, and so can't go with Twilight when she graduates high school. As such, Sunset eventually confesses to herself that she's in love with Twilight, but keeps it to herself to avoid breaking Twilight's heart. On the other hand, Twilight wonders if the things she feels for Sunset are genuine romantic love or teenage hormones, and is almost apoplectic at her inability to scientifically quantify how she feels. Cadance eventually has to tell Twilight that some things can't be explained with science or hard facts, and that Twilight will know for sure if it's love or passion soon enough.
- In American Pie, Kevin Myers is as hesitant to say "I Love You" to his girlfriend as she is to have sex with him, and for pretty much the same reasons.
- In Carousel, the romance between Julie and Billy has them singing a song about what it would be like if they loved each other, and would drive the other away by never admitting it. In real life, even after they get married, Julie only says it after Billy's dead.
Julie: There's something, I...I never told you. Scared you'd laugh at me. I'll tell you now. I love you. I love you. I love you.
- Despite romancing many women in the movie series, James Bond usually never utters the phrase (though the women utter it regularly). The only exception to date: he says "I love you" when he proposes marriage to Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It does not end well.
- In The Belgariad, Adara is only able to confess her love for Prince Hettar after she's been shot in the back, confident that she has nothing to lose since she's dying. She's mortified to then find out that she's not dying at all and will be fine with some rest, and Hettar is very interested in discussing this interesting topic, and has no intention of letting her get away.
- Brought up in The Giver, where the society they live in is an obsessive Utopia that regulates everything from family units to emotions to painful memories, and everything must be kept to a strictly even-keeled norm. While they allow a degree of personal freedom and enjoyment, any emotion above caring for a friend is forbidden. Jonas asks his parents if they love him, and they respond with the standard "Love is an inappropriate term..."
- Austin from Hollow Places refrains from using the word 'love', thinking himself too broken to ever truly feel an emotion worthy of being referred to as such.
- Better Off Ted: Ted blurts out "I love you" to a woman he's just started dating. He tries to cover by claiming he actually said "I love Utah", which builds into an elaborate lie that he's of Native American descent and grew up on a reservation.
- The Big Bang Theory:
- Leonard and Penny had a nice little moment in bed where Penny quoted The Empire Strikes Back and knew the reference, which prompted Leonard to say he loved her. Penny's response was a near catatonic blank stare before saying "Thank You?" The next several days was awkward, marked by increased fighting until Penny decided to end the relationship because she didn't want Leonard longing for her reciprocation when she didn't know when/if that would happen. She mentioned having said the words too early herself in a previous relationship and regretting it, though she didn't elaborate on the details.
- Almost three seasons later (after a "beta test" reunion), Leonard was acting jealous because Penny was spending time with an attractive classmate. After giving him a hard time about being a Crazy Jealous Guy she says "You're the one I'm with. You know I love you, so can you please relax because you're driving me crazy!" They both froze as they realized that was the first time she verbalized "I love you" to him, they agreed to not make too big a deal of the moment because they were getting emotional and about to cry.
- This is the focus of the Boy Meets World episode "What I Meant to Say". Cory tells Topanga he loves her despite the fact that they had only (officially) been going out for a few weeks and Topanga reacts with shocks and leaves immediately. She later breaks up with him and starts avoiding him. Cory confronts her about the issue and she explains that she was scared of those words and what they meant. Cory explains what exactly he means by "I love you", and she replies that she loves him, too.
- After Spike first confesses his love to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the group refuse to associate with him, and Buffy goes as far as revoking his invitation to enter her house. It's not like they don't have good reasons, though.
- After her disastrous affair with Angel (which involved him turning evil after Their First Time) Buffy never again tells a boyfriend that she loves him until the final episode of the series, and even then the recipient doesn't believe her.
- A variant: It's not that Phoebe is embarrassed about telling Jason "I love you"; it's that, as a result of her empath powers, she says "I love you too" before he's actually says "I love you".
- Back in season one, a platonic version happens with Prue. The sisters realize they've never heard her say it to anyone, including them, and continually try prompting her to say it. When Phoebe confronts her, it turns out that "I love you" was the last thing she said to their mother before her death, making her afraid of saying it to anyone else. She gets over it by the end of the episode.
- Doctor Who:
- The Doctor famously never says this (with serious intent; see below) to any of his companions, not even the one he married (River Song) or those he has unambiguously fallen in love with (such as Rose Tyler). In the case of Rose, he attempts to avoid saying it (instead waffling with "Does it need saying?") and is ultimately cut off before he can utter it.
- It works the other way, too: Clara, Rose and River (and the TARDIS it's a long story) happen to be the only companions to directly say "I love you" to the Doctor. A side effect of this is that within Doctor Who fandom there is division between those who embrace the aspect of the Doctor having romantic feelings for his companions and those who say no such feelings exist and that the Doctor is simply expressing friendship, despite Word of God and even on-screen actions such as marriage and punching a diamond wall for 4.5 billion years suggesting otherwise.
- The closest thing to an exception occurs in "A Good Man Goes to War" when the Doctor rages at a military commander, telling him how bad an idea it is to try to "get to me through the people I love." Notably, this is not an expression of romantic love, and refers to both Amy and Rory.
- One notable exception occurs in "Closing Time" when the Eleventh Doctor says "I love you" to his temporary companion Craig Owens; however, this is played for laughs and is established as being a distraction rather than the Doctor expressing genuine feelings.
- Clara Oswald self-imposes this stigma upon herself in "Death in Heaven" when she makes a promise to the soon-to-be-Killed Off for Real Danny Pink to never say those words to anyone else. In Series 9 she sticks to this promise even in circumstances where it would have been appropriate (such as just before her death). Zigzagged on two occasions, however: in "Before the Flood", Clara says to the Doctor who is resigned to the probability of dying "If you love me in any way, you'll come back", and in "Hell Bent" there is a moment where Clara and the Doctor engage in a deep conversation that is kept secret from everyone including the audience with the context of the scene implying the potential for Clara to say something of this nature. (Ultimately, though, this remains a mystery.)
- Drake & Josh had Josh having a nice moment with his girlfriend Mindy, and at a goodnight kiss at the door Mindy told him "I love you." Josh was flummoxed and awkwardly hurried her away, and after an episode of misunderstandings and mind games they had a more honest conversation about the ordeal. Josh said he wasn't sure what loving someone actually meant and Mindy admitted to feeling weird after saying it. They agreed to be Just Friends for a time so they can better understand their feelings, and they get back together in the Grand Finale.
- On Frasier, Martin breaks up with Sherri out of the blue. While the boys are initially delighted, they're surprised to learn that he'd told her he loved her for the first time only a few days earlier. When Frasier digs a little deeper, it turns out that Martin did actually feel that way, but he felt deeply guilty about saying it to another woman for the first time since the death of his wife. After working through that, they get back together.
- In Fresh Off the Boat, whenever anyone in the family says "Love you", they assume something's wrong, and it usually ends up being the case.
- When Ross dates Mona, they have the talk about moving forward in their relationship. They evaluate symbolical value of (not) sending holiday cards together, giving a key to their apartment and getting locks changed. Mixed signals much? Finally, Ross tells Mona he loves her (though he doesn't feel it) and Mona tells him she loves spending time with him too (which was deemed to be a slap in the face by Monica and Phoebe).
- Chandler says it to Monica twice. The first time he blurts it out and then takes it back in panic because he's not ready. The second time he yells it out in front of all their friends and refuses to revoke it. This time, she happily says it back. Before they got together, they were so close that they mentioned they loved each other on several occasions. However, the relationship - and declaration - was platonic. It's only after they started having sex that Chandler began panicking about their emotional bond; something Monica had anticipated as she was very well-versed in his Commitment Issues.
- Gilmore Girls: Dean says it to Rory. She freezes and doesn't say it back. He doesn't take it well.
- In one episode of The Golden Girls, Sophia tells a man she loves him after rushing into bed with him. When he doesn't return it, she is outraged at him (and Blanche, who pushed her into sleeping with him). At the end it turns out he does love her, but just hasn't told anyone he loved them since his wife passed away.
- On Happy Endings, Brad wants his dad to say he loves him, so he tells him "I love you" when he's at the hospital for his physical. Dad thinks he said it because the doctors found something wrong and freaks out. After his near-death experience, he starts saying "I love..." to everything... except to Brad.
- How I Met Your Mother:
- Ted says "I'm in love with you" to Robin on their first date in the pilot episode.
- Ted's quick love confession gets called back to in the next episode:
Barney: (to Ted) I was trying to think, 'What's the quickest way to get rid of a girl you just met?'
(a few seconds earlier)
Barney: I think I'm in love with you.
Works-with-Carlos girl: WHAT?
Barney: (back to Ted): Thanks, bro.
- "First Time in New York" revolves around this stigma for Robin, as apparently she's never actually said it to anyone before.
- Invoked in the season four finale. After a year of pining for Robin, Barney's about to confess his feelings when she beats him to the punch. She deliberately does it to turn him off, and Marshall even deems the move "Mosbying".
- In season seven Ted reaffirms his feelings for Robin and she finds herself unable to respond in kind. Future!Ted reveals that moment was the last time he told a girl he loved her before he said it to the Mother.
- Last Man Standing: Eve is caught off-guard when her boyfriend Rob tells her he loves her while they're hanging out. Mandy and Kristin tell her that if she's not sure how she feels, she has to dump him. When Eve tries to do so, Rob reveals the only reason he said it was because his older brother told him girls like it when guys do that. They agree to just pretend it never happened and ignore any advice their siblings give them in the future.
- My Boys downplays the trope by using it as another stage of a relationship instead some big, dramatic event. P.J. and Bobby decide to buy a condo and move in together because they were distracted by having a nice day in the middle of winter. P.J. started to second-guess herself by realizing they hadn't even reached the "I love you" part of their relationship yet. She confessed her feelings to Bobby and they back out of moving in together, but reach the "I love you" part.
- Noah's Arc: Ricky hesitates to tell Junito he loves him over fear of him saying it changing things for the worse (as well as some deep-seated difficulties with commitment).
- On The O.C., when Marissa first tells Ryan she loves him, he replies with a very un-smooth "Thank you."
- Parks and Recreation
- In "Harvest Festival", April tells Andy she loves him and gets angry at him when his response is "That's awesome sauce!" Subverted in that he actually did love her too, but he just didn't realize this was THE Love Confession because he's an idiot. When Ron tells him explicitly why April is mad at him, he tells her he loves her too, and clarifies his original remark: "That's what makes the sauce so awesome!"
- A lighter example in the episode "Women in Garbage": Ron lets slip that he loves his new girlfriend Diane, causing Ann, Jerry and Diane's young daughters into fits of laughter due to the usually stoic Rated M for Manly Ron expressing emotions of this kind (with Ann herself finding it the cutest thing ever).
- An early episode has Turk generally grumpy, especially towards Carla, and there isn't any real excuse for it. Carla, expecting him to break up with her, eventually just demands he say what he wants to say and get it over with. Turk marches up to her, tells her how annoying he finds her then says "I love you, I want to spend every annoying minute with you." This is a great surprise to Carla, who responds in kind. The following episode was actually about a degree of fall-out with them expressing their love for each other, as Carla started panicking about where this relationship is going. They eventually get married.
- Dr. Cox started seeing his ex-wife Jordan on a regular basis in a Friends with Benefits sort of way, eventually having a family together despite not being married. They acted on the idea they were embracing a long-term non-committal relationship, but by the end Dr. Cox flat out stated that they did love each other and was tired of pretending they didn't.
- George's subplot in the Seinfeld episode "The Face Painter" is entirely about this trope. After discussing how big a step the "I Love You" declaration is, George goes ahead anyway and says it to his date. The next day, the following conversation takes place:
Jerry: Those damn 'I love you' returns.
George: Well, it's all over. I slipped up.
Jerry: Oh, you don't know.
George: You have any idea how fast these things deteriorate when there's an 'I love you' out of the bag? You can't have a relationship where one person says, "I love you", and the other says, "I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat.".
Jerry: Unless you're married.
George: I mean, now she thinks that I'm one of these guys that love her. Nobody wants to be with somebody that loves them.
Jerry: No, people hate that.
- Mind, that wasn't the first time George had said "I love you." He had also said it once, to a dog. Which licked itself and left the room.
- On That '70s Show, Eric answers Donna's "I love you" with "I love cake". His next attempt is "I love you...man," complete with a shoulder punch.
- In Two and a Half Men, Charlie confesses his love to Chelsea, but she only says "Thank you" in response. Charlie believes this means she now has the upper hand in the relationship, and goes as far as proposing to her solely to force her to say it back. They do stay engaged for a season after this, however.
- Glenn of The Walking Dead struggles with this throughout the second season with Maggie. When she says "I love you" to him, he is unable to say it back because the only women that ever told him that were his mother and sisters. Given that he's only known her for a bit, his reaction is justified. After a horde of walkers overruns Hershel's farm, he's finally admits to Maggie that he loves her and they are established to be in a healthy relationship as of Season 3.
- Wizards of Waverly Place: Alex always hesitates to tell Dean she loves him. Instead, she ends up saying "I love...this card" or "How do you think of me...in flipflops? Thinking about going casual this summer?".
- Throughout You're the Worst, Jimmy and Gretchen adamantly refuse to call what they have an actual boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, even after they agree to become exclusive with each other. In the episode "Try Real Hard", Jimmy admits he's not comfortable saying "I love you" because he associates it with a promise/verbal contract that he's not ready to make (not helped by the painful way his previous girlfriend rejected his marriage proposal). In the end though, he admits he does love Gretchen, and she loves him too.
- In the Brad Paisley song "Come on Over Tonight", the singer mentions all the things he believed would happen before he ever admitted to loving anyone, including flying pigs, money growing on trees, lightning striking the same place twice, etc. The song is about him inviting his girlfriend over that evening, presumably to tell her he loves her...but the actual words "I love you" are never mentioned in the song.
Come on over tonight, we'll sit on the swingWatchin' the pigs fly by, flappin' their brand-new wings.Just sit back and relax and watch me eat my hat.See the premiere performance of "Demons on Ice"As I say the words I swore I'd never say in my whole life...Say, come on over tonight.
- Gabrielle Aplin's "Please Don't Say You Love Me" is basically the rationale for this trope in song form.
Heavy words are hard to take, under pressure precious things can breakAnd how we feel is hard to fake, so let's not give the game awayJust please don't say you love me, 'cause I might not say it backDoesn't mean my heart stops skipping when you look at me like thatThere's no need to worry when you see just where we're atJust please don't say you love me, 'cause I might not say it back...
- "Something Stupid", most famously covered by Frank Sinatra is about how the singer ruined a nice evening by saying "I love you" too soon to his date.
Afterwards we drop into a quiet little place and have a drink or two.And then I go and spoil it all, by saying something stupid like: "I love you."I can see it in your eyes, that you despise the same old lies you heard the night before.And though it's just a line to you, for me it's true, it never seemed so right before.
- In Bell, Book and Candle, Gillian gets evasive when Shep asks her if she's in love with him: "I like you more than I can say" and "I'm more in love with you than I've ever been with anyone" are her answers to that question. The crucial point is that witches lose their powers if they fall in love.
- In the last scene of The Moon Is Blue, Don starts telling Patty about what life will be like living together. Patty asks if he's proposing to her, and Don says, "What else can I say?" Patty insists on him just saying the three words directly, like when her father proposed to her mother: "He wasn't ashamed to come right out and say 'I love you.'" Don finally takes the hint, and takes her face between his hands, saying: "I love you, Patty—I love you very much—even if you are a screwball and even if you are a little bit nuts."
- Anne of the Thousand Days:
Anne: I could have said, "I love you, I love you, I love you!" I didn't say it. Because I don't. And whether you love me I don't know.
- The Order of the Stick: Haley, believing herself to be dying, nearly tells Elan "I love you". When Durkon heals her, she pulls a Last-Second Word Swap and ends it with "...ukuleles" instead. Elan naturally sees nothing strange about professing your musical preferences like that, although personally he's more of a banjo fan.
- Played with in El Goonish Shive. Sarah saying "I love you" to Elliot is treated as a serious thing, and colors the way he treats their resulting relationship. As a result he never really noticed that he wasn't really attracted to her, and saw her more like a sister.
- In Twig, while Sylvester is able to tell Lillian he loves her, she has difficulty doing the same for him-not because of a lack of affection but because she's genuinely uncertain if she does and needs time to analyze the feeling.
- Hey Arnold! had Arnold trying to attract Lila and get upgraded from an "I like you" to an "I 'like you' like you." Still not quite using the term, but the implications behind it are the same.
- Parodied on Dan Vs., when Dan is pulling an Of Corpse He's Alive with Chris (who's not dead, just extremely close) to make him "agree" to going along with his revenge plot. At one point he fakes Chris saying "I love you," then acts uncomfortable before hastily changing the subject. Note that this part happened when nobody else was even around to trick.
- Porn films and videos are criticized for many reasons, one of which is the fact that - with the exception of actual porn movies with plots and characters, and even then it's not ubiquitous - the phrase "I love you" is rarely uttered.
- A true story printed in Reader's Digest had a man recounting his decision to say "I love you" more. It was funny in a rather sad way - his wife wondered if he was covering up an affair, and his mother reacted as though he was expecting her to drop dead at any moment.