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.
“I once heard someone say that making art should feel as urgent as having to pee. […] I think this can also apply to love.”
that’s a wild way to go about making art too, to be honest. doesn’t seem like it’d be very good for long-term projects especially.
Out of curiosity, do you find any similar factors at work in whether / how often you say “I love you” in the context of things like family (if that’s a potential dilemma that applies to your family relationships at all)? I’ve noticed that while I liberally use the word “love” in things set, rote phrases (like closing off phone calls with a “love you, bye!” or signing “love, sennkestra” on a greeting card, I tend to be very reserved about using the word “love” in relation to my own family relationships, even those are deeply affectionate relationships for me. But the sort of magical quality that is popularly attributed to “love” I think makes me wary of using it for anything at all, for fear that what I feel doesn’t measure up to the popular ideal.
What I’m not sure is where so much of that comes from for me – some of that may be an aro/ace thing, some of that may be that I’m somewhat emotionally reserved with regards to expressing affection/intimacy in general, some of it may just come from the fact that I’m the kind of person who never chooses 1 or 10 on scales of 10 because I can always imagine a slightly more extreme hypothetical (though I suppose the idea that love is to be reserved for 10s on a scale is an example of exactly what you are talking about above).
In some sense, I assume that what I express as feeling “affection” overlaps with what many people would call “love”, but it just feels so much less…socially charged with implications that I guess feel much more comfortable using is widely, whether for family or friends or (hypothetically) for a significant other.
My approach to “love” with family members is similar, in that I don’t think about it too much, and don’t really remember when I say it if at all. I’m sure I say it on occasion to my parents.
In German, the distinction between different meanings of “I love you” is easier than in English since we use “Ich liebe dich” when we want to say “I love you” as a commitment and in the passionate way and “Ich mag dich” or “Ich hab dich lieb” which rather means “I like you” but is often translated into “I love you” as well.
You mention that it is said that love shows through our actions. This is what I believe as well but in my past relationships I often had the impression that since I didn´t show my affection sexually and by desiring my partners, all the other ways of showing my affection didn´t really “count” as signs of love. With my asexual partners, this was different.
TBH having multiple words would aggravate my issues. With one word, the meaning is a mystery, with multiple words I have to make distinctions between feelings that all feel nearly like nothing.
It is said that love shows through our actions, that our actions are important because they show our love. But what I proposed is the opposite: actions are of primary importance, whether or not they are an expression of love. This is my way of making sense of my relationships, which involve caring actions but certainly don’t involve intense feelings.
Some other people may have intense feelings, but wish to omit certain kinds of actions (like sex). If that’s your experience, I suppose you might have a different way of making sense of it.
TW: mentions of emotional abuse, family
I find my history with abuse makes it hard for me to say “I love you”. My parents were manipulative and emotional abusive. I don’t doubt that they loved me and I wouldn’t be surprised to find they genuinely think some of their abusive behavior was loving. If love can’t stop someone from being abusive, then clearly it doesn’t count for much. The last time I saw my mother her parting words were “But I love you so much.” This upset me to the point that I asked my boyfriend not to tell me he loved me for a year afterwards. I let him say it now, but I find those words just don’t hold the meaning he’s trying to convey and I just don’t care whether he says it or not. I’m sure my he would like to hear me declare my love for him more often, but I find saying it feel pointless.
I’m really glad you mentioned this because it’s an interesting perspective for me to consider the lack of “I love you”s in my own loving family relationships with my dad and brother. (We also aren’t a hugging family and stuff so idk.) We show love in other ways, the other love languages if you will, while avoiding stating it and maybe my mom’s tendency to say it a lot but perform abuse affected us and caused this for us 3 who have all been her victims. My abusive mom would say “I love you” to me and even now still does on voicemails even though I nerve return them and have been No Contact for over a decade. It’s pretty much the only thing said in all her recently voicemails. That she loves me. I wrote a post about my abusive mom and love years ago… https://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/gaslighting-love/
I’ve also been thinking along those lines because I recently read an excellent (and disturbing book) “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know about Domestic Violence Can Kill Us” (note: this book needs every content warning one would expect for a book about domestic violence). Many of the abusers interviewed in the book claimed that they loved their victims, yet there were signs that they loved what they thought their victims should be like, not who their victims actually were (for example, abusers tend to refer to their victims by words such as ‘wife’, ‘woman’, ‘bitch’ etc. and not by their name). I think the material in the book could either be interpreted as ‘abusers sometimes really do love the victims’ or ‘abusers don’t really love the victims’ – to a large extent it depends on how the reader defines ‘love’.
I attended a feminist book club discussion of the book where some of the participants were survivors of domestic themselves. The survivors who spoke about their experiences used a ‘they abused me because they did not love me, they were just a predator treating me as prey’ framework’ which might be an accurate assessment of their former situations, and it seems to help them process their experiences. At the same time, I can’t help but think that there is an unspoken taboo around considering that love and abuse may go hand in hand – that love might even promote abuses in some situations – because that would challenge the high regard we are supposed to have for ‘love’ in our culture.
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