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'I Love You': To Say or Not To Say

What does it mean when you tell your partner, 'I love you,' and should you do it this Valentine's Day?

For new lovers, in particular, saying “I love you” can be a tortuous gulf to cross. There's a sense that once said, the phrase can't be unsaid, that you've made some vague, even terrifying commitment. For others, saying “I love you” is an impulse, spoken in a moment of passion, without forethought. But which is the true meaning?

An incredible range of love-like sentiments have to be squeezed into those four letters. So why don't we have more than one word for love? As it turns out, English may be the least romantically blessed tongue.

The Greeks, for example, have at least three words for love, including erota, which is sensual love. The Turks also have various words for it, including Aşık, which means infatuation. Spanish has querer, encantar and amar. In China, ai denotes a serious, committed love. And so on.

Having just one word for love makes already amorphous affections even harder to draw chalk around—but that's just part of the problem.

The meaning of “I love you”—as other phrases—is also determined by when you say it, according to William A. Ladusaw, professor of linguistics and interim dean of humanities at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“Consider two people, Pat and Chris, who are getting to know each other on a first date," Ladusaw writes on the Lingustic Society of America webpage.

"If Chris says to Pat at the end of the evening, 'I like you a lot,' Pat will likely feel good about the situation. But imagine that Pat and Chris have been dating for some weeks, and Pat asks, 'Do you love me?' Now if Chris says, 'I like you a lot,' the reaction will likely be quite different, as Chris' statement is taken as a negative answer!” 

In other words, if you drop the “love” bomb for the first time in your three-year relationship whilst tossing the Frisbee around the parking lot, you may not get the reaction you'd expected.

Another fuzzy aspect of proclaiming your affections lies in deciding whether to say “I love you,” or, “I'm in love with you”—a distinction which can make or break an aorta.

“It's a deeper, more emotionally felt kind of experience when you say you're 'in love' with somebody,” says Raymond Gibbs, a UCSC psychology professor who has taught a course on feelings and emotions for the past few decades.

“The 'in' makes it seem like you're in the love container; you've fallen into this pit where your emotions are out of control," he says. "You're obsessed with people you're 'in love' with, and wonderful things happen in those circumstances. But after a while, people go back to being themselves, and that's part of the problem with initial relationships.” 

So while being “in love” may sound more serious, it could mean that you're just in a blustery pre-stage of love—a stage which is unlikely to last. Although that may be for the best.

“It's normal that it ends,” says Gibbs. “We can't always go around being crazy, madly in love, because if we do, we can't live the rest of our lives properly.”

Kinds of Love

A big part of the confusion about what “I love you” means and whether to say it may come from the fact that there are so many kinds of love—at least six, according to psychologist Robert Sternberg, originator of the “Triangular Theory of Love.”

Rather than advocating ménage à trois, Sternberg's three-sided theory asserts that successful relationships involve people with similar levels of desire for three essential love elements: intimacy, passion and commitment.

As he defines it, intimacy consists of feelings of closeness and connectedness; passion refers to drives that lead to physical attraction and romance (not just sex); and commitment entails feelings of stability and the wish to remain with someone for the long term.

Ultra-successful, enduring relationships tend to involve people who are looking for similar levels of passion, intimacy and commitment—and tend to bring all three into play regularly, says Sternberg. He calls such golden linkages “consummate” love.

In “infatuation” love, the object of your obsession may not even know you exist (or that you live in the bushes outside their house). Infatuation is often based largely on sex, yet partners lack either intimate knowledge of each other or the urge for lasting bonds.

Then there's “fatuous” love.

“'Fatuous' love is where, for example, you meet somebody on a vacation in Hawaii, and 24 hours later, you decide to get married, and you think you're in love but you really don't know the person," says Gibbs. "It's kind of foolish love, but you make a commitment.”

In “companionate” love—often the kind shared by long-married couples—partners are friends and have an intimate connection, but don't get down (or make each other physically exuberant in other ways, e.g. skydiving together). Less desirable is “empty” love, a commitment with neither passion nor intimacy.

The love best known to young people is “romantic love.” Romantic love has both intimacy and passion, but little commitment.

In all these various relationships, people are using the same three words, “I love you,” to describe their emotions.

“There's even a debate about whether love is a universal emotion at all,” says Gibbs. “Fear and anger are thought to be universal, but it's not clear if love is, because it differs so dramatically across cultures, person to person, couple to couple.”

Past Confusion

Considering the vast array of romantic bonds described by a single word, how do we clarify our relationships to one another? The secret, according to Gibbs, is simply to communicate openly with your partner.

“You have to define what it is you're hoping to get from somebody and be as open as you can,” he says. “Talk about what your particular needs are and what you expect from the other person and what you hope to get from the other person, and then you work on it to where you can coexist and get what you want.”

Such communication can help reveal which of the six kinds of relationship you find yourself in, and which direction that relationship is in.

Besides open communication, how can you tell whether your love is enduring or fleeting, consummate or fatuous? As Gibbs sees it, there's no ironclad test, but there are some helpful rules of thumb.

“If [over time] you really think you can't live without that one person being a significant part of your life, you should do what you can to make sure that the relationship really maintains itself in someway," Gibbs says. "If you find yourself thinking about the other person and really truly feeling bad about the person not being with you or part of your life, then that's a serious kind of relationship you should nurture or maintain.”

Whether or not you say “I love you” this Valentine's Day is up to you. Just keep in mind that the phrase is likely to be determined less by the word itself than by the context in which you say it (on your knees or in the sack), and on how you explain yourself afterward. If you think about it, maybe it's a relief that love is such a vague word.

“I like the fact that the word love contains so much mystery,” Micah Perks, co-director of the creative writing program at UCSC, writes in an e-mail. “It's impossible to define all the emotions around romantic love, so best to let the word 'love' swim about, always slipping out of our grip, rather than try to hook it, reel it in and cook if for dinner.”

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