The first time I said it to Tarzan for me was a hoopla. We were on the phone and we'd talked for hours and hours and I was in that place between fully amp'd and exhausted, but I didn't want to hang up the phone for anything. He convinced me though, saying goodbye to which I replied, "Good night. I love you."
Nothing happened. Not that I remember. He didn't say it back though. Didn't say it until a few weeks later I think, but I was oddly cool about it, which went against my character. Normally, I'd have been turning it over and over in my mind, kicking myself for saying it first, for meaning it first. I'd have been worried that him not saying it back meant he didn't feel the same way, or that I was moving too fast.
However, he's different. More importantly I was different when I said it, far from that girl saying "I love you" and really meaning "Please, please love me back." When I said it, I said it because it felt right. It felt real, and true and that it was what I'd been aching to say and just held in waiting for the "right time," realizing in the moment that that was the right time. I said it for me, because I meant it, and I said it for him, so he could know it, and that was that.
I didn't use it as a bargaining chip or something to hold over his head, but I told him, almost every day (albeit in different ways) how I felt about him. And then one day he said it back. It was like he'd been saying it back the whole time on his end, but to me? Oh, I flipped out. I cat-daddied. I hit a clean dougie. I jigged. And then I went on with my night. And ever since, sometimes I say it more, sometimes he says it more. Sometimes he says it without saying it. But now? The saying of it isn't as big a deal as the showing of it.
And that's the main thing you guys. Meaning it, feeling and showing it every way you can matters more than who says it first, or when or why. Know who your partner is: if they're not the gregarious, PDA-overload type of person, do you really expect them to say it right back, right then? Conversely, if you aren't that person, and they say it to you first, you're not obligated to say it back, until or unless you feel it.
That's why I didn't worry. I felt it, I expressed it and I was cool with it being out there in the open. Meanwhile on his end, he had to tumble through whatever thoughts and barriers he had in his way before he could admit to himself first, and then to me, that he felt it too. I said it not because I was looking for him to say it back, but because I couldn't hold it in anymore.
So, to recap
1) Tell someone you love them not because you want to hear it back, or you're being pressured to. Say it when you mean it; it'll mean more to the both of you that way.
2) Don't be upset if the person you say it to doesn't respond in kind right away. 9 months down the line and they haven't said it back? Worry. Other than that? Let nature take it's course. As long as they haven't run or fallen off the face of the Earth immediately after, they're still in it with you.
3) Don't just say it, show it! Do it! Whatever! Just saying it, though nice and beautiful, isn't enough. Show them with gifts (if that's your steez), show them with time and affection. Show them by being there. Saying it isn't the end all be all; if you mean it, saying it is only the first step.
Now go out there, and love each other.
-And mean it :)