What do you mean when you say ‘I love you’?
Those three magical words, I love you, they mean so much to so many and different things to so many, in our culture where these words carry such tremendous weight and emotion for us all, what do they actually mean?
Such ambiguity, the word love can mean anything from how a mother feels towards her child to how much we might love an object, as well as romantic love.
“Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love; ancient Persian has eighty, Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have thirty words for snow, because it is a life-and death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of thirty words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart. An Eskimo probably would die of clumsiness if he had only one word for snow; we are close to dying of loneliness because we have only one word for love. Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it come to feeling.” – Robert Johnson, Fisher King.
Within romantic love there are also many different kinds of love, many ways to have a relationship and many variations of what is meant when someone says I love you, it is no surprise that there is so much confusion amongst us all as to what we are being told when sometimes tells us they love us, or what we are expressing when we tell someone ourselves. How can we possibly all mean the same thing? When there are many versions of love, perhaps we are sometimes confusing each other by not saying more than just I love you, perhaps we need to explain exactly what we mean by that.
Psychologist Robert Sternbergs’ triangular theory of love, is based on the idea that love between two partners could be defined as having three parts, intimacy, commitment and passion. All three of these are not always a part of every relationship. A relationship without intimacy or commitment would be just passion, just sex or infatuation, one with only intimacy would be more a friendship and one with just commitment would be an empty, lonely love, held together by a deep sense of responsibility. But within all of these we might say that we love the other person.
I have had relationships where the words I love you, were used, or not used, very differently. It made me wonder what effect hearing them was having on me, what did I feel these words meant and was my definition unlike that of the man saying them.
In one relationship, my partner never said I love you. We talked about the fact that he didn’t say it and he would tell me he felt it, that he was trying to show me in other ways, but just couldn’t say it. I never really understood why, but he did make me feel loved, there was intimacy, commitment and a passion in the relationship. When the relationship ended I wondered if maybe I’d been kidding myself because he never said those words, perhaps he actually hadn’t felt that for me. For me I had always felt an emptiness in not saying it to him, because for me the words meant something wonderful, vibrant and alive. He had been hurt by the words in the past and felt them useless, obsolete in his life, pointless perhaps because they are just words, they mean nothing. I agreed that it is better to show someone your feelings through your actions.
Perhaps in our culture we have tainted the words I love you by overusing them, having them mean too many different things and by their unfortunate misuse as a manipulative tool, perhaps we need to make these words sacred once again, only uttered in truly committed, deeply loving unions between partners.
I had another relationship in the past that had great intimacy and wonderful passion but I soon discovered there was no commitment and the words I love you had been used constantly. It went further to even be called true love, which could be a step up perhaps from ordinary love? It was reassuring and exciting to hear these words, but of course I heard them to mean what I wanted them to mean for me and so I found myself sinking deeper into something that was an illusion. Underneath the words and the passionate feeling, it had no substance and was only real in that moment, this left me with an uncomfortable, slightly used feeling.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book ‘How to Love’ he says:
‘Love is a beautiful word, and we have to restore its meaning. When we say ‘I love hamburgers’ we spoil the word. We have to make the effort to heal words by using them properly and carefully. True love includes a sense of responsibility and accepting the other person as she is, with all her strengths and weaknesses. If you only like the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding and energy to help her transform. This kind of love brings protection and safety.’
I love you, a one stop summing up of everything you wish and hope for in a lover?
‘I am here for you’, ‘I think you’re beautiful and amazing’, ‘I feel blessed to be with you here and I want it to stay this way’, ‘I won’t hurt you, you’re wellbeing is at the centre of my heart and my intentions’, ‘I am committed to you, you are my only lover’, ‘I accept you as you are’, and on the list goes. For someone else it could mean many other possible variations. ‘I need you so don’t leave me’, ‘I want to make love to you but that is all’, ‘I love you as a friend’, ‘I only love you if you stay perfect and don’t ever show me the real, flawed side to yourself’, ‘I want you to tell me you love me, so I will say it first and you can say it back’. It is unfortunate that I love you can be used as to manipulate and control, to get what we want from someone in the short term. Do we need to talk more within our relationships about what we are trying to say?
Its not very romantic to stop your lover in a moment of passion and ask them what they meant by ‘I love you’, but perhaps at another moment an intimate talk could help clarify and avoid future problems. Culturally, we don’t find it easy to talk about our true feelings and perhaps this is why we make it dysfunctionally simple, with three words at our disposal, to describe such intense, diverse and confusing feelings. I wonder if a lot of heartache and suffering could be avoided if we just talked more openly about what we mean, if we were brave enough to ask our lover what he/she means, we could perhaps be clearer about their intentions.
I also find it interesting to look at the meaning of the other words that make up the idea of what love is:
Commitment: a willingness to give your time and energy to something that you believe in, or a promise or firm decision to do something.
Intimacy: things that are said or done only by people who have a close relationship with each other
Passion: a very powerful feeling, for example of sexual attraction, love, hate, anger, or other emotion.
So if we are lucky enough to find all three of these with another person we must cherish it. If we can share what we mean by the three magical words ‘I love you’ and agree that they sum up the three components that make up ‘love’ we can perhaps begin to unravel some of the confusion and misconceptions that our difficult, rather backward, unfeeling language gives us.