Everyone says “I love you”

Everyone says “I love you.” Parents say it to their children. Children say it to their parents. Lovers say it (or swear it, sob it, giggle it) to each other. Siblings say it. Progressive thinking metrosexual men now say it to each other—“I love you, man” (or they write movies or TV shows about it that celebrate their bromances.) People say it about their pets.

But what does any of it mean?

What does it mean to actually (meaning really, truly) love (Love) another?

If I say “I love you” to my girlfriend (or my significant other, spouse, partner, ultimate life partner) I have a fairly good idea of what I mean by it. I have formed this understanding I have of what I mean when I say “I love you” through many years of thinking, reading, writing, study, reflection, contemplation, self-awareness, introspection, and so on. But does my partner understand it the same way I mean it?

And what about people for whom love is largely a feeling? What do they mean when they say “I love you”?

Or what about my girlfriend (or life partner, etc)—what does she mean by it when she tells me “I love you”? Is there something there that I can count on or put stock in? Or what about when she tells her children that she loves them—what does that mean?

What I’m asking is whether there’s anything of substance behind these words and declarations when we say them. How fleshed out or thought out are those words by the person uttering them or swearing them? How well are we able to back these words up (“I love you”) and act in ways that are consistent with actually (really, truly) loving another human being.

If a woman I’m dating or in a relationship with tells me she loves me, then I expect that mean certain things. I expect her to act and behave towards me in ways that connote love or that come across to me as being “loving.” That means that I expect her to at least take a bit more than a passing interest in learning my “love languages” (Dr. Gary Chapman, “The Five Love Languages”) and then to not only sporadically demonstrate or practice them on me. Rather, I expect her to hold herself to a certain standard of behavior and level of consistency with her behavior and demeanor/attitude towards me (assuming of course that I am also acting in a loving way towards her).

But of course, all of this—all of these expectations—will largely be a reflection of my own understanding of love that I have been working out for years and years (I’m now on the verge of turning 43).

So ought this not be a point of open and honest discussion between new lovers—what does each person mean when he or she says “I love you”? And what can one person expect from the other person in terms of attitude and behavior and a general level of affection and warmth and care and concern when they other person tells him or her “I love you”? Does it mean anything of substance or merit? Is it just a linguistic convenience and contrivance—a way of filling dead air, or a way of being polite and not killing the mood and the momentum of the moment (darn it feels nice/exhilarating/sexy/erotic/fantastic to say I love you while we’re in the throes of passion; dang it sure amplifies the mood! I’ve been waiting and wandering for so long looking for someone to love me, care about me, relish me, be into me, want me, desire me, and good gravy this just feels fantastic—and to have this other person confirm it by saying it to me—“I love you”—is just sending me over the top!)

Everyone says “I love you.” But what does any of it really mean?


About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
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