I was raised telling everyone in my family that I loved them, and I translated that communication habit to my friendships as well. I was very comfortable with telling my friends, male or female, that I loved them, and for the most part, they didn’t mind. Some even returned the sentiment. I didn’t even think twice about sharing this statement with anyone I cared about until I began my first serious relationship.
In my junior year of high school, I began dating a boy, and within two weeks of dating, I told him those three words that, unbeknownst to me, were far too taboo to yet utter:
“I love you”.
He stared at me with a mix of confusion, horror, and disgust, each emotion taking a turn in his eyes. I innocently asked “What?”, thinking my statement was more than justified. He had just made me laugh so hard from a joke that I had choked on my drink, and after a moment of laughter and tears, I had only told him what I was feeling. Where was the sin in that?
A year later, I sat in my new boyfriend’s lap, cradled in his arms. I had just opened up to him about a past personal tragedy. Through my tears and sniveling and with my face buried in his neck, I whispered quietly, but sincerely,
“I love you”.
He shushed me gently and rocked me to sleep that night but did not return the statement. I let it go. Months later he mentioned to me that my declaration had put him off and felt too serious for our relationship at the time.
Two weeks ago, I laid in bed with my ‘new new boyfriend (though I prefer to use the term partner now). We held each other in his bed while watching my favorite movie, and I felt the overwhelming desire to tell him,
“I love you”.
He looked into my eyes, and without breaking contact, with all the earnestness and feeling I had in my voice, he replied in kind,
“I love you too”.
This was the longest I had ever waited to tell a partner that I loved them. I had learned from prior experience that using the ‘ L word’ with my partners too soon resulted in them feeling uncomfortable and pressured to return the statement. Being raised in an environment in which it was both common and expected to use this phrase, I found myself putting the blame on my partners for their discomfort. I thought they were being immature, and were out of touch with their emotions. “After all”, I thought, “What’s wrong with telling someone that I love them? It just means that I care about them, or that I appreciate them being in my life.”
After years of fighting with myself over whether to remove this phrase from my vocabulary, or ration it, I realized that my intentions while communicating with my partner were not well executed. If my partner made me laugh, I wanted to tell them I loved them. The same went for if they thoughtfully brought me lunch on a busy day or recalled a small statement I had made in passing, not realizing that they were actively listening to me. I was responding to my partners’ actions with ‘I love you’, and while I did feel love for them, it was not what I truly wanted to verbalize. I started to substitute that phrase with others, like:
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness”
“I like how you can always make me laugh”
“I feel cared for, and it makes me feel safe”
Once I changed my style of communication, I found that I appreciated the phrase “I love you” differently. I still felt the same way towards my partner, but saving the phrase for special, meaningful moments better aligned with his style of communication. I don’t mind making this change, because I find that through using specificity in my communication, I can say everything I want to say, while also keeping my partner comfortable, and maintaining a certain romantic connotation of the phrase.