“I love you” – the 3 little words you’re supposed to long to hear, or wait to say… words that can change lives forever… words imbued with such importance and meaning that poets, musicians, academics, philosophers have been exploring and debating their meaning for centuries… so what would I know?
I asked my friends, what does it actually MEAN when you say, or hear, the words “I love you”?
Many said that context mattered – that when they express love to their kids or parents or wider family, or perhaps to their close friends, or maybe their god/s, or their feeling love for things/objects/places/hobbies, this was very different from expressing it to someone romantically. We polyamorists almost inevitably end up thinking about this a fair bit, and a friend shared this useful link which explores how the love typography of the Greeks might be interpreted today – google and you’ll find plenty more.
Across the different types of love there was some common ground about meaning – a shared understanding that saying ‘I love you’ was an expression of a deep feeling of acceptance, affection and care for the beloved.
In the context of romantic love, though, there was a greater range of ideas about what it means to say, or hear, those words.
A friend who’s in long term relationship told me that the phrase had a variety of meanings: “Often, when I say it, I mean “It’s okay, it doesn’t matter, I love you anyway.” Or sometimes “Please connect with me.” Or “Thank you for feeling like home.” When I hear it, I sometimes hear “It’s going to be ok” and sometimes “I feel loved.”
I got into a discussion with another person about whether it was OK or not to say “I love you” whilst in the throes of passion with a new lover. What would it mean to them? To their lover? What would it imply? Would it ‘scare them off’ or ‘raise their expectations’? Would it just seem creepy, given their connection was new and, so far, rather casual? They decided that it was best not to say it until they were ‘sure’.
One friend explained to me that as a gay man from a conservative background, now in his 40s, he’d never heard those words. I don’t doubt that he has experienced a great deal of love in his wonderful life, but somehow no-one has ever looked him in the eye and said “I love you”. I wondered at how important gender, sexuality, age and cultural background were in all this – and how much we all play to the prevailing cultural standard that says that men aren’t supposed to express their emotions, and that women are driven by theirs.
I got a long story from one person… a beautiful, romantic tale, with a touch of tragedy. They had said those words to someone across the world, across the internet – someone who wasn’t their long term, monogamous life partner. And once those words were spoken, a relationship had to end so another could begin, the fall out still ongoing, perhaps rippling on for years more… they had changed several people’s lives in an instant. They had no regrets, but they felt that those 3 little words were the most important words they’d ever said.
I sat down with some mates and we chatted about it over a glass of wine.
We all agreed that love is freely given and we felt it should be freely expressed. We told each other that we loved each other, as friends do. I asked them if it was just as easy to say it in a romantic context and the answer was a resounding ‘no’.
Why not? Because romantic love presented an extra kind of jeopardy… What if they don’t love me back?
The scripts we’ve learned tell us that unrequited love is painful… that love must be reciprocated to have meaning… that if we fall in love with someone who doesn’t feel the same then the relationship must end because it would be too hard… we want different things, we’re not on the same page…
Are we really only prepared to let ourselves feel, admit to and express our love if we’re certain love will be returned? That doesn’t sound like ‘true love’ to me. Surely if you really love someone, that love is given freely, and without expectation. Loving someone gives you no entitlement – you have no right to expect or demand that they will love you too, nor anything else.
And you certainly have no right to expect that loving someone, or being loved by them, means that you must be in a relationship with each other, or that you both want to have sex, or buy a house together. You might not want ANY of the same things, but does that mean you don’t/can’t/won’t love them?
If your love comes with strings attached – if you will only love me if I love you too… if our shared love means I’m obliged to share my time with you, or expected to give up some of my agency or autonomy to you – then I don’t want it. Love me freely, or don’t love me at all. Love is not ownership, nor demands.
There’s that quote, often attributed to Richard Bach (though it’s origins are debated) “If you love something set it free. If it comes back it is yours. If it doesn’t it was never yours to begin with.” It’s a good principle, but it doesn’t go far enough. If you truly love something you won’t need to ‘set it free’ – it is free and always will be. It is never yours. It cannot be owned.
Continuing a relationship remains an ongoing matter of choice – of consent.
Commitment to a loving relationship can be a long term choice, of course. You can make promises – and have them bound in law and/or before witnesses or even your god/s – that you will commit to another person for life. “I love you” might imply that that kind of long term commitment is on offer, or accepted – but there’s a whole lot of other things that matter, that need to be communicated, explored, negotiated and agreed if that’s what you’re looking for. If it’s lifelong commitment you seek, then love isn’t all you need.
Love is amazing. It is beautiful. It is surprising. It is, arguably, the most important and powerful feeling we experience in our lives. But it isn’t scarce. There’s lots to go around, if you just allow yourself to feel it and express it.
One of my partners told me that they say “I love you” whenever they feel it.
This can be a radical act. To say it and to hear it, without expectations or constraints or implications or strings attached. It’s radical because it challenges the core scripts we have about ‘true love’ (my previous blogs explore why those core scripts might be worth challenging).
It’s not as easy as you might first think. I said it to a lover recently, and it was awkward – they thought that it meant I had expectations, that I am waiting for them to say “I love you too”. I’m not. I just felt the feeling and I expressed it – that deep feeling of acceptance and affection and care. I felt it, regardless of whether they love me – I offered them that, openly and without fear or challenge. We’re still talking, still exploring what our connection is and where it might take us, still communicating.
Unrequited love is OK, but abuse is not. A relationship is not sustained by love alone, but also through communication and understanding, working to address your wants and needs, and those of your partner/s. No matter how much you love someone, or how much you believe they love you, no relationship is more important than the people in it. Your relationship with your self is important. Find and nurture the love you feel for yourself – invest in your self-acceptance, self-affection and self-care.
Sometimes I feel love with passion. Sometimes I feel it in my heart and soul in a way that seems overwhelming. Sometimes along with love I also feel like this is a person I want to be close to, physically, emotionally, intellectually. Sometimes I feel like as well as love between us there’s trust, commitment, communication, shared values, common goals, mutual needs. And sometimes when I say “I love you” I mean ALL OF THAT. But it’s not implied every time I say it, or hear it. And it doesn’t make it any less relevant to say it, or to hear it.
I invite you to go on and try it – express your love, with freedom, without expectation, whenever you feel it. If you don’t expect anything in return, then you have nothing to fear. Celebrate love in all it’s forms – fleeting or lifelong, passionate or calm, in all it’s ebbs and flows. Let it resonate from you into the world and back. That feeling of love – acceptance, affection and care – the world needs lots more of that.
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