This article was written for the Carnival of Aros, this month themed on “Love”.
There’s a scene in the movie Scott Pilgrim vs the World where Knives says to Scott, “I’m… I’m in… LOVE”. The word “LOVE” gets spelled out in pink clouds coming out of her mouth, and Scott has to brush them away (animated gif below the fold).
The visual metaphor is unique, but perhaps you’ve noticed that lots of movies and fiction treat the word “love” as a complete showstopper. My understanding of the romantic comedy is that it always ends with a woman getting on a plane to leave forever, and a man desperately chasing after it on the runway, until he finally says, “I love you!” Once he utters those words, everyone on the plane realizes this is a Big Deal, and they demand the pilot stop, which he does.
That’s just fiction though, right? As one writer put it, “You might even say that these climactic speeches are the whole point of a romantic comedy.” But if you ever search “when to say I love you”, you will find an endless stream of self-appointed experts advising you on your very own romantic comedy moment. I trudged through these sickening articles so you don’t have to.
One thing that the articles unanimously agree on, is that saying “I love you” for the first time is extremely important. Some articles feature multiple interviews with ordinary people, and most everyone emphasizes its importance, and has specific recollections of when they said it.
Myself, I cannot remember when I first said “I love you” it to my husband, and I cannot remember whether I said it in any of my previous relationships. It’s not that important to me, because whether I’m in love is forever indeterminate. It’s the greyro dilemma: Do I not experience love, or is it just that love feels very nearly like nothing to me? It’s not that I don’t know the answer, it’s that I know both answers are true, they’re two narratives describing the same set of facts.
The articles do permit some diversity in approaches to love. On one end of the spectrum, people wait a long time, until they think it really means something. A man in Cosmopolitan said, “I take it very seriously, and it’s not something I want to just say to anyone. I don’t throw that word around.” On the other end, people say it too quickly, in fits of passion or infatuation. Another man said “I fall in love with like, everyone. There has been more than one occasion where I was drunk and my friends had to take my phone away because I was about to tell a girl I hooked up with like, once that I loved her.”
I observe that what both of these narratives have in common, is that they emphasize the intensity of love. Either it’s intensely passionate and spontaneous, or it’s intensely profound and considered. Neither narrative permits the possibility of lukewarm yet persistent feelings.
For me, the only available narratives are those of failure. Articles discuss how your partner might take longer to feel comfortable saying “I love you” back, and how this shouldn’t stop you from confessing your feelings. But articles warn, “ask yourself how you became so open to someone who didn’t reciprocate, and ask if there were signs along the way that you just kind of ignored.” Success is conditioned on your love eventually being returned with equal intensity: “If your relationship is as serious as you think it is, they’ll join you eventually.”
Multiple people express a desire to not cheapen love. Allow me express an opposite desire: love should be cheap enough that I feel comfortable ever claiming it. Every piece of expert advice, I want to do the opposite, to subvert, to destroy. “Don’t say it post-sex” is common advice. Okay, making a mental note to say it after sex. Articles suggest saying “I love you” when it’s bursting out of you, one writing, “I once heard someone say that making art should feel as urgent as having to pee. […] I think this can also apply to love.” Haha, no, but maybe I’ll stash that love/pee comparison for later use.
After all that talk about words, many articles include a token mention the importance of actions. Psychology Today quoted from Fiddler on the Roof: “For 25 years, I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After 25 years, why talk about love right now?” Women’s Health referred to the five love languages, “words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts (yes, please!), quality time, and physical touch.” The conventional wisdom is that these actions are ways to express our love.
But allow me to propose the opposite: expressing our love is a way of communicating our intended actions. Instead of “I love you, therefore I will affirm you and care for you”, it’s “I will affirm you and care for you, therefore I love you.” This way, my emotions do not need to conform to norms set by lifestyle columnists, I just need to put a description to my behavior.