In regard to a man she’d been seeing intimately for months, a friend recently asked, “When is it OK to say I love you?”
Say I love you, I suggested, when that is what you are feeling, and you feel like saying it. Love is a gift and sharing it with someone is beautiful. Be generous.
But what if he doesn’t say it back?
Gifts come without strings. Do not give a gift with an expectation that you’ll get one back. If what the other person is feeling, too, in that moment, happens to be, “I love you,” and they want to say it to you, too, in that moment, wonderful! But, if not, that should be OK, too. They may not share the exact feeling, they may have a different interpretation of what love means, they may even feel it, but be afraid to say it. Endless possibilities.
Nothing has changed. You can still bask in the feeling of love and of gifting love. There are many things we may have in short supply — like time or money or N95 masks — but love is not one of them. We can share as much love as we like and never run out.
When “I love you” plays on the tip of your tongue, if you feel it in your body, if you want to say it but hesitate and swallow it back down, what’s the catch?
Your feeling of love is no less real if it is not reflected back to you in that moment.
We swallow love out of fear. But fear of what?
Is it the fear that we’ll be destroyed if the person doesn’t say it back? That we’ll be diminished in some way? Or maybe we’re afraid that we’ll scare them off with our love?
How did love become so scary?
We burden love and the expression of love with too much baggage. We need to unshackle it from fear.
In her uplifting and thought-provoking book on the science and biology of love, Love 2.0, positivity researcher and psychology professor, Barbara Frederickson writes:
“… love is an emotion, a momentary state that arises to infuse your mind and body alike. Love, like all emotions, surfaces like a distinct and fast-moving weather pattern, a subtle and ever-shifting force. … the inner feeling love brings you is inherently and exquisitely pleasant… Yet far beyond feeling good, a micro-moment of love, like other positive emotions, literally changes your mind. It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self. The boundaries between you and not-you — what lies beyond your skin — relax and become more permeable. While infused with love you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others — really see them, wholeheartedly — springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.”
Why not welcome this immune system boosting emotion wherever we find it; to share it and cherish it when it comes our way? If we remember that love is a feeling, with physiological roots and branches, that can flow in and out of our every day, that’s wrapped up in hormones and neurotransmitters and evolution and experience, then maybe we can hold it more lightly, and cherish it more freely.
We love our pets without a qualm and our friends. Why make it so complicated with our lovers or partners?
We are prone to letting love carry the burden of other complicated messages, but “I love you” does not mean “You owe me something”. It does not mean, “You are now responsible for how I feel.” It does not mean “I need you to complete me and I cannot live without you.” It does not mean, “You have to have sex with me if you want me to continue loving you.” It does not mean, “I think you should move in; we’ll have six children and you will be mine forever.” It does not mean, “Because I love you anything I do or you do is acceptable.” Such unarticulated baggage could be in someone’s head, it’s true, but those are different sentences, different concepts, different conversations, and not to be conflated with “I love you.”
If ever in doubt about what someone means when they say, “I love you”, think of it is an invitation into an open-hearted conversation about the meaning of love. A conversation, to be honest, that more lovers should have with one another: What does love mean to you? What do you mean when you say, “I love you”? How do love and romance and sex interlace in your worldview?
There are no right answers, just questions, and different perspectives.
This conversation, with almost anyone we care about — friends, parents, children, lovers, siblings, even strangers — is revelatory. Asking these questions doesn’t just tell us something about the other, but often reveals us to ourselves. There are so many assumptions we carry with us, so many givens about love and relationships, that exploring them aloud with another is invariably enlightening and may produce an epiphany or two.
Go ahead, give it a go.