Saying ‘I Love You’ Doesn’t Always Mean What You Think It Does

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Anyone who has ever said, “I love you,” to another human without knowing how they would respond can tell you that telling someone you love them is one of the most thrilling, vulnerable, terrible, excellent things that they’ve experienced in a relationship. We’ve packed so much meaning into that phrase that throwing it out seems to stand in for everything you want to say and everything you can’t put into words. You say it, and you’re free! Everything is out there! But the same piling-on of meaning that makes the phrase so powerful also robs it of clarity. Words in general depend on people agreeing on what they mean — in the context of romantic relationships, this has become less and less true.

Does “love” mean “an intense feeling of deep affection,” as in the dictionary? Probably, but is that all you mean? What about “I want a monogamous relationship,” or “I see myself married to you someday?” Or is it just “This relationship is really great for me, let’s keep going just as we are,” or “The sex we’re having right this second is great,” or even “I’m just telling you how I feel, but it’s something I’m doing for me, and I have no demands or expectations on what you do with this information at all?”

The 45 seconds you didn’t spend saying the rest of what you meant, along with the days (months? years?) of potential anxiety and consternation as you and your partner (regardless of their response) slowly unpack what Love means to you

To me, these are all legitimate uses of the phrase, and I’m not even taking into account the people who just throw this out as if it’s not important at all, who are as quick to apply “love” to a person as they are to a particularly choice onion bagel (yes, they walk among us). For a phrase that holds so much meaning, a phrase that we will do conversational acrobatics to avoid (“I love spending time with you,” anyone?), we are really playing fast and loose with meaning here. And when you make yourself that vulnerable, anything less than “I love you too” from the recipient feels awful. No one wants to hear “What do you mean by that?” We’ve managed to condense all the conversation that needs to take place steadily throughout a relationship into one do-or-die moment, all while making sure that that moment is as unclear and confusing as possible.

Now that I’ve essentially killed love, let’s talk about solutions. When you feel compelled to tell someone you love them, that’s great! You should definitely tell them, as soon as possible! But before that, take a second and think about what exactly you’re feeling. Once you have that in your head, ask yourself whether you could just say all that stuff instead of, or maybe even in addition to, “I love you.” There’s no chance that what you say is going to be misinterpreted to mean more (or less) than it does. You just said exactly how you feel — what could be more clear than that? Anything less is asking your partner to give an answer before they know the question. There’s no point in trying to sum up all your feelings into one magical phrase. What is gained by doing that? The 45 seconds you didn’t spend saying the rest of what you meant, along with the days (months? years?) of potential anxiety and consternation as you and your partner (regardless of their response) slowly unpack what “love” means to you.

I can’t guarantee that this approach will get you the answer you want, but I can guarantee that (barring liars, cagey people, or contrived rom-com mistaken identity) it will get you the right answer, the answer that will inform both you and your partner on where to go from here.

Boiling your whole heart down into one phrase is exhilarating. Somehow, a point by point breakdown doesn’t seem quite as romantic as that phrase that’s on all the Valentine’s candy. I’m not trying to get you to stop saying “I love you”– I encourage it, as long as there’s some detail involved. How could a feeling so large be summed up in three words? After all, the best declaration of love involve a little more than that anyway.

Aaron and Josh are two guy friends who have a podcast in which they try to answer questions about dating, romance, relationships, sex, and the vagueries of human interaction. (“If you’re not a straight cismale, then we (may) have the answers you’re searching for.”) They’ll be writing a weekly post on The Date Report expanding on some of the topics covered in their weekly podcast.