I love you
I've had it said by a few people (I mean men of course; saying it to female friends has never been an issue) throughout my life. Some of them I didn't believe but they were also people I had known for mere weeks and their need to say it was stronger than my interest to hear it at that point. I don't think I was ever the one who said it first, and that's no surprise, considering how few people I let get close enough to me where I felt pressed to say it at all. Each time, I waited for them to say it, and if they didn't it was no big deal.
My ex dealt with it in gradations. He first asked me my definition of falling in love with someone verses being in love. Once I told him, he breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Ok, now I think I can say, 'Laura, I am falling in love with you'." It all snowballed from there. But from there, I was saying it first and he would respond. I don't want to fall into that trap again.
Aside from my feigned indifference to hearing it said, I know I secretly crave to have it said to me more often than I'd like to admit. But I am learning also that I want to say it too quickly, I think I am ready too soon, and so I often ruin it by saying it too fast. The hardest thing is to have said it to someone then out of fear, ask that it not be said anymore for a while. That is my case now, and it's hard to accept that. But in a way, it feels more healthy, if not more than merely confusing. To know you love someone and having already said out loud to that person and then not being able to resume comfortably, having to now wait on the other person's comfort level to retain the level it needs to be brave again.
I'm trying to not second guess everything now, to believe him and take him at his word, take him literally and not try to read between the lines. My best coping mechanism is now to keep things to myself. Not necessarily hiding my thoughts, but thinking them through for a while until I speak them this time. Ruminate. Chew the cud. Watch and learn.
I am not so far gone that I cannot believe that the words mean something profound or that they only mean heavy, intense things. I have to learn what they mean to me so that when they're said to me the next time, what is communicated will be understood and agreed upon, not fleeting, without regrets and anxiety. That it would a natural thing to say.
This is what "I love you" means to me when a guy who is romantically involved with me says it:
You are beautiful, inside and out. You are a beautiful person.
I want you in my life. I like having you around.
I want no one else but you. You are all I need as a companion, as a mate.
You mean a lot to me, more than I could often comprehend to you or even to myself.
I accept you for who you are, even though you and I will likely change as we go along.
I am letting you in. I am making myself vulnerable to you in hopes that you will be kind and loving to me in return.
You inspire and energize me even though you also irritate and frustrate me.
I could see you and I spending our future together.
Even if we don't, I don't want to ever lose you. You mean too much.
Note: Saying any of the above is also nice and appreciated, but it's not the same thing. You don't get off the hook that easily :P