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About Love #1: What does “I love you” mean?

As a psychotherapist — and, for that matter, as a person who values relationships — I have a problem with the word ‘love’. Or, more accurately, I believe that many of us have a problem with it.

It would be an enormous understatement to say that the definitions and meanings we assign to the word “love” are inexact. Yet many people would argue that “love” is one of the most important words in the English language. Certainly much Western literature and poetry have revolved around “love”. So we have an extremely important word with an extremely fuzzy definition.

The ancient Greek language was able to be considerably more exact than English in communicating about love: where we have one word, they had several. Wikipedia says there were four, psychotherapist Philippa Perry says there were six. In any event, love was more explicitly diverse.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson offers an attempt to create some clarity about love in her book Love 2.0. (There is a fine excerpt from the book in this article in Psychotherapy Networker magazine.) Dr. Fredrickson defines love, or actually what she terms positivity resonance, as being an emotion — but not in the way it is widely seen. I strongly recommend the article.

Not everyone will agree with Dr. Fredrickson’s choice about how to define love, but examining her ideas helps identify some problems with the way we use the word “love”. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s look at the phrase, “I love you.” Specifically, let’s look at the phrase as it is commonly used between people who are in an exclusive committed relationship or are moving in that direction.

Some of the things that people may mean when they say, “I love you”:

  1. My strong feelings of affection towards you and/or joy at perceiving that you feel the same toward me are creating a euphoric experience in me.
  2. I feel validated by my perception that you are sharing my feelings about what we are doing together.
  3. I feel connected to you in a way that seems incredibly special to me.
  4. No one is as important to me as you are.
  5. I believe that I will always see you in the positive way that I do at this moment.
  6. I am committed to spending the rest of my life with you.
  7. I am intensely sexually attracted to you.
  8. I believe that a reciprocal state of ownership exists between us.

I could go on and on, and you could probably add other meanings to the list. Notice that “I love you” could mean many of these things at the same time.

I think you can place the many intended or implied meanings of “I love you” into a few general categories:

  1. A description of the experience you are having in regard to the other person at this moment
  2. The meaning you are giving to the experience you are having at this moment
  3. An expectation or promise about your onging feelings or commitment to the relationship

These are three very different expressions, and there is a universe of possible misunderstandings that can arise when people say and hear different meanings of “I love you”. Consider the gaping expanse between “This is really fun; I’m feeling so much affection and appreciation for you,” and “I am sexually attracted to you, so I must want a long-term relationship with you or else I’m a slut or a player,” or “I’ve never felt this close to anyone. There is no way this could ever end.”

The cultural baggage associated with love is so massive that it can seem impossible to ask questions that would allow for clarity about “I love you”. When was the last time you saw a movie where James says, “I love you,” to Jane, and Jane responds, “Can you be more specific?” We’ve been well trained about how a romantic moment is supposed to go, and that definitely isn’t it.

The romantic fantasy is that in that moment both people are feeling same thing at the same time, and of course they each know that they both mean the same thing when they say, “I love you.” That might be a reasonable expectation if you have been with your partner for many years and have spent a lot of time vulnerably sharing even your most challenging feelings about yourself and each other. Unfortunately, that describes relatively few couples. More often, people either assume that they mean the same thing without really knowing it is true, or one or both of them proceed to wonder what the other really means. “Does s/he love me as much as I love him/her?”

A good starting place for unraveling all this confusion is getting clear about your own thoughts and feelings, what you think they mean, and what expectations you have as a result. I am not a linguist, and I don’t have a definitive answer about whether the word “love” is best used to describe an in-the-moment feeling or whether “love” is best used to identify a commitment to a certain kind of relationship with someone into the future, regardless of in-the-moment feelings. I do know that assuming that those things automatically go together is a good way to confuse yourself and others.

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