Updated: Aug 23
I have a language problem. No, it’s not cursing (living with a 14 year old made me clean that up). It has to do with the language we use for love. I am finding that the older I get, the more my thoughts about love evolve, the more difficulties I have putting words to it that resonate with other people.
I have been a student of language and words for most of my life. Language is critical in representing ideas, signaling what options are available for people, and their implications go well beyond their literal meaning. I have long participated in debates about insider/outsider language and the discussions about reclaiming negative terms. As an academic and policy writer, finding just the right words to convey an idea so that it would connect with its audience has always been a critical part of my writing.
How we describe something tells us how it is to be perceived and understood. Look at the evolution of the word “gay.” For many years, gay was a derogatory term for a homosexual man. For a while, people in the LGBTQ movement used the term “homosexual” instead of gay in order to distance themselves from the derogatory concepts of “gay.” Then, people in the LGBTQ movement found “homosexual” to be too clinical. The word literally feels like a diagnosis and not an identity and orientation. So, LGBTQ folks started using the word “gay” to describe all versions of same-sex attraction. Then women started speaking up about being gay. Some women identify as gay, others felt that the term was thought of as exclusively male, so they identifies as lesbians. Then younger LGBTQ folks came along and felt that gay was too “old” and started to reclaim the word “queer” to indicate a more radical identity. Today, we now have the acronym LBGTQQAAI just to make sure we get most of the people with non-heterosexual identities.
The expansion of the term led to critical discussions. The role of insider/outsider language arose. Each term in the acronym carries a specific connotation and links to an entire culture. I personally identify as bisexual, primarily because that was the term available to me when I came out in the 1980s. Dating was not going to be regulated by something as petty as gender for me. Today, I fit the definition of pansexual more accurately. I have dated people from multiple genders (male, female, trans) and my dating life is not binary as “bisexual” would indicate. However, I have not adopted the “pan” identity primarily because outside a very small subgroup of people, if I tell them I am pansexual, they have no clue what that means.
The Language of Love
The language we use for love needs to evolve as well. Like calling every non-heterosexual person “gay” the language we use to describe deep, meaningful, romantic love is too limited and does not capture want most people feel. I have reached a point where it is actually difficult for me to regularly use the phrase “I love you” with a partner. Its too nebulous. It comes with too much baggage. It fails to convey what I mean.
Love, at least deep, meaningful romantic love, comes with a set of phrases we all know. “I love you” has become attached to “You mean the world to me,” “I would do anything for you,” “Your needs come before mine,” “I would travel a million miles just to be with you,” “I want you and no one else,” “You are the pinnacle of every relationship I have ever had.” It is attached to images of people meeting atop the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day to meet their “true love.” It is attached to the idea that someone should be pursued at all costs. It is tied to the idea that this relationship will inevitably lead to a walk down an aisle in a big white dress.
At 40, divorced, and deeply in love again, I have battled with finding the right language to tell my partner “I love you.” He is in his 40s, twice divorced, and has too many tales of insane women for me to be comfortable regularly saying “I love you.” For both of us, this phrase comes with a lot of baggage, a lot of implications, and a lot of opportunity for messed up communication.
I do love this man very deeply. He is incredibly important to me. When we do certain things together I can feel the serotonin and oxytocin pumps turn on in my brain and flood me with happy, loving, bonding feelings. His ability to pursue who he wants to be and reach for his dreams is a primary goal for me. I thrive on being around him and having him in my life. So yes, I love him. But I still struggle with the language.
Doin’ It American Style
Let’s look at the American language of love.
“I would do anything for you.” “I would travel the highest mountains and deepest oceans only to be with you.” “You mean the world to me.” If I was from another planet that didn’t have love and I was here teaching a class on relationships and a student turned in a paper with those phrases in it, I would grade it poorly. The phrasing is to overblown. It is too grandiose. Its fulsome. It fails to convey the reality of the experience.
“I would do anything for you.” Really? You are so self-sacrificing that you would not take anything into account to do something for someone else? Part of my dislike for this phrase comes from being in the kink community. Everybody has limits. If they don’t they are not being very thoughtful or safe about their play. You may not have thought about it, but would you let your partner tie you up and let spiders crawl on you? Are you really okay being branded? Do you really think merging bank accounts is a great idea?
Healthy relationships have limits. Yes, I will do more for the person I love than just about anybody else in my world. I will do specific things with this person and this person only. But I will not do “anything” for this person. I have learned that making a relationship work requires that I know my personal limits. I am not okay merging all finances. I want my own retirement accounts. I want my own bank account. I do not want to have to account for every penny I spend with another person. Sure, some expenses are joint expenses. Some parts of a household need to be managed as a couple. But, no, I am not merging all my finances with anyone ever again.
We rarely talk about boundaries and limits with people who have not been married. We do not prepare most people for the boundary setting that needs to take place to have a successful relationship. We do not require people to know themselves and their limits as part of being “healthy.” We need to change this. It must be okay for everyone to say, “Ya know, doing XXXX is not okay with me.” Whatever that is, we need to empower people to set their limits.
“I would travel the highests mountains and deepest oceans only to be with you.” Um, unless I have a crapload of frequent flyer miles that are going to expire and can make some cool vacation stops, I am not doing this. This idea plays on two things that are supposed to mark “true love.” The idea that we will do anything for our true love (see discussion above) and the idea that we will conquer any obstacle just to be with the person.
Yes, all relationships have obstacles of sorts. There are always things that have to be challenged and overcome to make a relationship work. Working through certain things is important for growing a relationship. Addressing baggage, trust, issues of intimacy are all important and difficult challenges. Some challenges are too much for a relationship.
To be successful in a challenge, both people need to be available and ready to face it. Everyone has their own journey and own challenges. Hopefully the person you love deeply is ready to face their challenges and yours as they arise. Successful couples can grow together. Sometimes couples meet, fall in love, and face a set of challenges together. Over time, they grow in different directions at different speeds. Eventually they are in such different places in their journeys that they can no longer make a relationship work. We have to allow that to be okay. We have to admit that not every couple that falls in love will be together until one of them dies.
Additionally, some challenges a partner faces may make the other party unsafe. If you happen to be in a relationship with a partner who has to unlearn abusive behavior or someone with inappropriate attractions to children, then it is time to bail. You need to keep yourself safe. Its part of having limits and self respect. Some challenges a person is really better facing outside of an intimate relationship.
“You mean the world to me.” “You complete me.” “I am nothing without you.” Ick!!!! Yes, the person you deeply love is incredibly important in your world. Honestly, if my guy has a show or needs me at home one night and I have other options for going out, 93 percent of the time I will prioritize him. However, if his show competes with my book signing, I will wish him luck, will make him dinner, but I will go and do my thing. Its my priority and my career and is important to me. Yes, he is amazingly important, but so is my family, my career, my social life, and my alone time. So no, he is not my world. I was a whole human being before I met him and that did not go away when I fell in love with him.
If you need your partner to be complete or feel you are nothing without them, what are they getting from you? Don’t you have to be a full, complete human being to bring something to a relationship? You have to be able to stand on your own, sans partner, if you are going to be a full partner in a relationship. If you are looking for a relationship to give you meaning or purpose or make you a whole human being, you are not ready for a deep and intimate love relationship.
Why I Have Difficulties With “I Love You”
So this is why I have an issue with saying “I love you.” Its not that I don’t love him. I do. Its not that I don’t want him to know or hear that I love him. Its that using that phrase carries with it too many things I don’t mean. He has heard it too many times from people who were incomplete, who had no boundaries, who didn’t respect him and prioritize him and understand that did not mean crazy behavior, hearing it conjures all that.
I joked with people that when I published Love Letters to a Unicorn, it took me 40,583 words to say what most people do with three. I regularly overwrite. My publications have always well exceeded average lengths. I do think the 3:40,583 ratio is my worst.
I have adopted a practice to bridge between “I love you” and whatever will replace it. I tell him, “You make me incredibly happy,” “You inspire me,” “You are incredibly important to me,” “I really want to fuck your brains out tonight.” I try to be specific in the moment as to what I am feeling. I want something that is broader than the specifics above, something that encompasses all that and the fact that he is my priority, that he is incredibly special and that I love him. I just haven’t found it yet. My guess is it will take a linguist beyond my capacity to find the bon mot, the I am stealing it!!