March 28, 2011

What it Means to Say, "I Love You"

After an hour of arguing, accusations, and passive aggressive attacks, the last thing one expects to hear are the words, "I love you." But this very thing happened to a friend of mine, Joanna when talking to her cousin-in-law. Their family's relationship had been strained for months, due to financial and personal issues, and after one particularly stressful call, where Joanna was feeling angry and hurt, out of the blue, like a parting shot as she was about to hang up the phone, he said, "I love you." This was the first time she'd heard him say these words, or anything remotely close to them, since they were just cousins, and cousins-in-law at that. And that was the last she heard from him for several years afterward, because he had decided to cut her family out of his life. It left her unsettled. But she wasn't sure why.

Joanna's example is just one of the ways 'I love you' can be used to manipulate or to try to fix major relationship issues without actually being vulnerable or connecting. It happens everyday, in ongoing relationships between friends, and family, where 'I love you's are being said that don't mean love at all.

"I love you" is not "I'm sorry."
"I love you" is not "Forgive me."
"I love you" is not "Let me abuse you."
"I love you" is not "Please love me back."
"I love you" is not "I can treat you however I want to."
"I love you" is not "Now say you love me, too."
"I love you" is not "I love you now, but I can withdraw that love any time."
"I love you" is not "We are enmeshed, I own/control/think for you."
"I love you" is not "I depend on you emotionally to feel like a whole person."
"I love you" is not "I'm scared you don't love me, so I hope this keeps you around."
"I love you" is not "Let me in past your emotional boundaries."
"I love you" is not "I don't know how to really love you, so I'll use words instead of real love."
"I love you" is not "I am clearly dominant over you, and it makes me feel good."
"I love you" is not "See, I'm a better person than you."

I love you does not mean any of these things. When they are used to say these things, they hurt, they do not bring connection. They confuse, and create guilt, obligation, and even fear.

There is no blame or finger pointing here, but instead, knowing that just because someone says, "I love you," doesn't mean we are contracted to do something, implied or otherwise. It's OK to ask, "Why did you say that?" or "What do you mean by that?" It's OK not to say, "I love you," back. It's OK not to get entangled in guilt or obligation to do something different just because they said they love us.

It's easy to let, "I love you," infiltrate our emotional boundaries. But we don't have to. We can't stop the errant 'I love you's but we do have control of how easily the words jump over our fence.

I believe, that when we do really feel love, and we say "I love you," it feels good to say, no matter how they respond to us. And, more importantly, it feels good even if we do not say it. Sometimes, all we need to do to show how we feel is share a smile and treat people with respect. That can say, "I love you," more than words.

Let us be mindful of our right speech, that when we say, 'I love you," to someone, it's because it's better than not saying it.


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