“I love you.”
When we use these three little words what do we mean, what are we actually saying?
There have been occasions when working with distressed couples in my practice, when it looks as though all is lost and the relationship may be over.
It is not uncommon at this point for one of the partners, in desperation and confusion, to look at the other and say, “But I love you.”
The response from their partner is often: sounds something like this; “I know you say you love me, but you don’t act like you do.”
Something doesn’t quite fit for this partner. There is a discrepancy somewhere between what the words “I love you” are supposed to mean and the actions that are associated with those words.
In making sense of this confusion what I have come to understand is that, when I say “I love you,” it can mean one of two very different things.
Over on one side of the spectrum it can mean, “I love the feelings I have when I am around you,” or similarly, “I love how you make me feel.”
These type of statements reflect how I feel by virtue of things, such as how you look, or what you are doing, which I experience as pleasurable. I feel good when you treat me well, I have positive experiences when you smile at me, and so forth.
I see this as a quite common meaning of the phrase “I love you”.
On the other hand the expression “I love you”, can refer to a very specific type of action in which I act towards you, and for you, in specific ways and with a very clear intention; to encourage and support you, to be of assistance in your emotional and psychological well-being.
This relational value is less common.
These are two radically different meanings of what it means to love another.
Let’s examine this through a simple analogy.
I can look at an amazing garden and experience such beauty and wonder that I say “I love this place!” This expression is a reflection of how I feel about the garden.
One might expect with this type of experience that the person would look forward to return visits, perhaps bring his or her friends to so see it, spend time walking around it, maybe even write about it.
But I could stand there a long time feeling many wonderful things and still never realize that the flowers and plants need watering.
At some point, in order for me to continue to have this garden, a transition in my thinking and behaviour would have to occur.
I would have to understand that if I actually want to be able to look at this garden, I am going to have to offer consistent care and attention for it to flourish. I will have to expend energy, make numerous choices, allocate resources and so on.
In other words, the object of my attention and the aim of my actions would have to transition from “in here” and how I feel, to “over there”, to the needs of something beyond myself.
Even so, it would still not be not enough to simply provide water, exposure to sunlight, good soil and clean air to this garden. I would need to go beyond that. Different plants have different requirements, some actions that might nurture one can harm another.
If I wanted this garden to not just survive but thrive, I would have to take the time and devote the energy to understanding and learning about the specific needs of each flower and plant.
So what about loving “you” in terms of your have your wishes, needs, desires, and preferences? Proper nurturing and caring for another demands actions in which the other is actively recognized on their own terms, actions appropriate for who they are and what they need, rather than how I feel about them.
So when I say “I love you,” am I primarily expressing how I feel about you, or am I also acting in such a way as to actually demonstrate that?
The issue as I am considering it here, requires more than just feeling love for another. It is more complex than simply acting in kind and caring ways.
It is this theme I will look explore in the series of articles entitled “Love as an Act of Will“.