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Sex & Love On the fear of saying “I love you”

Apr. 22, 2022
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We didn’t tell each other “I love you” growing up. It was an unspoken rule of our household that vocalizing our love for one another would wear out the truth of it. Our parents would tell us that love is proven and cultivated, not simply stated. It was in the bowl of chopped fruit left on the top stair, which doubled as an apology. It was in our parents’ refusal to let us out past curfew, and it was in the moments when our siblings took our clothes without asking. When we asked why the kids in the movies were tucked in every night with those three words, we were told that we did not need these small, meaningless assurances. Love was folded into the everyday of our lives, and we didn’t need it to keep ringing in our ears like a broken record.

It may be true that to embody love and care for one another—to show up when it is hard, to hold each other in our rawness–is difficult in an entirely different flavor than the hardship of saying “I love you.” As bell hooks wrote, "Love is an act of will, both an intention and an action. Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action.”

It’s true that intentions are little without action. In the heat of an argument, we’ll emphasize that we didn’t mean to say what we did, that it wasn’t meant to come across that way. These assurances don’t change the feelings that were hurt or the pride that was wounded. Our intentions aren’t always linearly connected to their impact, our therapists tell us. I know this is true.

But as someone who sometimes needs reminders of love, I also know the opposite to be true. While intentions may not be the priority, intentions that do mirror actions deserve to be said out loud, to take up space. I want to hear that you bought me a coffee because you wanted to carry some of my weight this morning. I want to hear that you thought of me when you passed the gift shop on the corner. I want to explain how I was feeling when I was several hours away, in another town, texting you. These actions don’t lose their purity when you vocalize the “I love you” behind them. If anything, they excavate their true meaning.

Until quite recently, I believed that for each relationship in my life, there was a finite number of “I love you’s” I could say before it would start sounding tin and hollow. But maybe this is more true of silences. Maybe failing to say some things out loud—choosing silence again and again—starts to make the lack of something true. Maybe not telling each other we love each other, for fear that true love goes unsaid, has a risk of being mistaken for no love at all.

I wonder if part of our hesitation to say we love each other comes from our tendency to reduce our feelings, these unchartable mysteries, into calculated parts. This many months of being together, plus this perfectly contrived location, plus Person A saying “I love you,” equals Person B saying it back. When I first started seeing my partner, I texted my friends long paragraphs, worrying about when I should tell him I loved him. I felt it, but what if I said it and he didn’t say it back? What if I would be laid bare, feeling more than he did? 

When the time came and he told me he loved me, it hung in the air softly. He looked at me like he didn’t expect a response. He’d arrived at this on his own, not encouraged by my likelihood to say it back.

When I answered, I said “I love you”—I didn’t say “I love you too.” My words stood on their own. Next to his, but on their own. They were not a response, not a tit-for-tat, but a singular fact, no prerequisites required. I felt how I felt, and he felt how he felt, and here we were, in this feeling together, exchanging these big truths.

Our fear of saying we love each other may also signal deeper fears. I am in the middle of what I know will be a long journey to re-parent my inner child. Little Ramna is afraid of people she loves leaving because she said or did the wrong thing. Granting voice to my larger feelings, like the overwhelming care I have for my people, leaves me vulnerable and opens me to shame. I understand not wanting to say words that seem to hand others power over us. 

But as Brene Brown says in defining trust: when I say “I love you,” I am choosing to make something that is important to me vulnerable to the actions of someone else. When I say “I love you” or “I thought of you” or “I did this for you,” I am saying I trust you to hold this and keep it safe. I am vulnerable in this but here I am anyway, showing up.

My fear is not in saying “I love you.” My fear is that somewhere along the way, our silences about the reality of our love for one another begin to taste like taking each other for granted. Maybe our silences have a danger of becoming real and permanent the more we refuse to say certain things out loud. No one ever remembered someone they lost and thought, they told me they loved me too often. It seems we only regret the things we did not say and lament the moments we choose not to. Showing love is not the same thing as saying it, but don’t the two cooperate to make a fuller, total expression?

I place great pressure on myself to love my people correctly. I worry that I won’t achieve the ideal balance of both vocalizing and actualizing my love. They deserve nothing less. But I know myself to be good at one thing: loving fully, if not correctly. There is no formula. There is no transaction. There is only how I feel, the things I can do, and the words I am able to say. If I can maximize each of these, why wouldn’t I?

When I feel that I love him, I say so. When I say so, I imagine the two of us in a balloon, and that balloon becomes larger every time. I don’t worry that I say it too often or it will become worn. I say it as often as it occurs to me, as if to say, this thing I feel for you, it asks that we bear witness. It asks to be said out loud. It was here.