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Responding To The Words “I Love You!”

What is imbedded in our actions that make large, sometimes very large statements about us that we don’t even consider. For example, what are the implications of saying “I love you?” More so, what are the implications of responding with “I love you” immediately after someone says it to you? Okay, this is probably too direct a question to hit you with without giving you some background first, right? Okay, here is the background…

So, I was involved with a woman once that I was totally enthralled with. The way she walked, talked, laughed, frowned, ate, drank, etc. None of it was boring to me. It was all like the NBC slogan “must see TV.” I didn’t want to miss a single episode of her. Well, one day, after we had been dating for quite a while (approximately eight weeks, an eternity when you are young) she looked at me longingly and said those words people die to hear “I love you?” Wow! I couldn’t believe it. I had heard them before, had said them before. So, what made hearing them from her so special. Well, I guess I didn’t think my game was tight enough (at that time) to inspire someone like her to say those words to someone like me. I mean, I was cool (whatever that means in our own mind’s eye), fairly attractive, definitely intelligent, and very modest (can’t you tell). Anyway, as excited as I was to hear those words, I rocked her world when my response was simply “Wow, I never thought I would hear you say that to me. I am overwhelmed and need to process the magnitude of what you just told me!” Now, those of you that are in disbelief in my lack of the endearing response that you may assume she wanted to hear from me can take solace in the fact that she did hear it in return, but it took a while.

Well, what do you think? Should I have immediately said it back to her because she said it to me? It is somewhat of a customary occurrence in those situations to immediately extend that same salutation back to the person who says it to you, if you are anywhere close to feeling that way about them, right? What would you do? What have you done? What should we be doing with our assertions of love?

Listen, in my defense at that time I was just starting to ask myself some of life’s so-called big questions like “Who am I (something I still do today)? I was starting to take myself to task for why I just automatically did certain things or didn’t automatically do other things. For example, somehow I had gotten into a pattern of acknowledging Black people that I didn’t know as I passed them by on the street with a hello or smile. However, White people didn’t get the same acknowledgement from me. Somehow this cultural norm had been taught to me in the most subtle of ways and I had adopted it but never questioned it. I was actually at the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament in Palm Springs one day, walking through the huge crowd with my boss who happened to be White (and also happened to be one of my best friends). We were rapping about life, tennis, relationships; you name it, until he noticed that every time we passed a Black person there was an exchange between me and that person. Suddenly after witnessing it a half dozen times or so, he said to me “Hey, you don’t know them, what the hell is going on?” I told him that I was simply succumbing to one aspect of my socialization of being Black in American society. He said “What?” I told him it probably went deeper than that, but that I didn’t want to have that conversation today, I wanted to watch Serena, Venus, Jennifer, Andre, Pete, and Malivai. We nevertheless did have that conversation. It is a conversation I will have with you on another occasion, but in the context of returning an acknowledgement of love, it is just an example of how we don’t take the time to unpack what we say.

So back to my questions, is it okay to have something that is packaged so seriously, framed so intimately, tossed about so cavalierly? Is the act of verbally expressing love lessened or cheapened when immediately repeated back to someone? Is there an expectation that men should say it first, since traditionally, in heterosexual relationships, we initiate the first date, lean in on the first kiss, make the proposal and buy the ring. Are we responsible for saying “I love you” first? Is it our duty to say it back if the woman has taken the initiative? If so, how does this play out in lesbian, gay relationships? Are there socio-economic class implications attached somehow to expressions of affection? What is someone really saying to you when they say I love you? What is being said when the immediate response is "I love you too." Of course for some it is a strategic move that is not heartfelt, but an attempt to position oneself for certain benefits and privileges, let’s not be naïve here. But this “I love you” and “I love you too” thing is quite serious, don’t you think? Somebody help me on this one? Can I get some “love?”


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Within a romantic/intimate context I will attempt to answer some of your questions:

Firstly, I don’t think love has a universal meaning. With the phrase “I love you” comes an expectation, a commitment- a verbal contract if you will. And to respond back with “I love you” specifically after it is said the first time is a very heavily weighted response.
NO, you shouldn’t have responded back if it wasn’t something you were feeling at the time or had to reflect on. YES, women (and probably men as well) will in that moment perhaps take it as a slap in the face.

However, back in my more youthful years (because I’m 20 and so wise-ha!) if I said I love you, I was sure you were the one I was going to spend the rest of my life with, you were the one who was going to be there through all the hard times, you were the one. And then, surprise, those relationships failed for a variety of reasons and what I had thought was love turned out was lust or an intense like or something-but not love. As I have grown and experienced more mature relationships (mind you I have had my share of relationship experience and life experience) I’ve learned a two-part invaluable lesson about love. First, loving myself and accepting all my baggage is a crucial part to being able to even engage in a conversation about love. Secondly, telling someone you love them doesn’t mean you have an expectation of the outcome of the conversation. “I love you” is not something you say to a person if you are waiting to here it back. It’s nice to hear it back. It’s nice to validate those feelings. But, you don’t love someone because they love you (that may be a part of it) and you don’t stop loving someone because they don’t love you. Of course it helps if the feelings are reciprocated, but they don’t have to be. In my past relationships with men I have always said I love you first with the expectation of hearing it back. With the expectation that they were going to love me and it was going to be some kind of romantic fairytale. Now, I am currently in a relationship where I am absolutely sure I love her and not because she says it back and not because I know it’s reciprocated, but because I know there is no one else in this world who I share this connection with. I say I love you because I mean it, because I feel it and because it’s real for me.

I’m not sure what the motivations are for saying “I love you.” I don’t know where that point is for people. And I don’t know how to explain how it is suddenly different for me-it just is. But it’s also the little things and not the “I love you” that matters. Does that mean it can be “tossed about so cavalierly?” No. Because that’s how people get hurt, or how people end up in relationships that they aren’t happy in or how people get trapped. And it’s not fair to any individual whether it be a heterosexual relationship or a homosexual relationship. The expectation after you tell someone you love them has managed to get the real meaning of love lost. For me, it’s not a matter or socioeconomic class, or sexual orientation, or who said it first, or who should traditionally initiate what. That’s what’s wrong now is that love is expected to be so damn trite. That’s boring and predictable. And I don’t want my love to be something that can be easily replaced by the next person who can say “I love you too.”

*** CT, quite the eloquent expose on love! I would only challenge one thing you said, which doesn't mean I'm right and you are wrong, but just something to consider. When we love someone at 18, and then look back on it at 20, could it be a defense mechanism of ours to reframe that love at 18 as a lesser love or no love at all? I think it is. No one wants to own not knowing what love is, because it is so packaged, how could we not be familiar with it. So, we somehow convince ourselves that an all consuming feeling we had for someone in our youth was not in retrospect what it was at that time. It may have been one dimensional, short lived, or one sided, but I argue that it was still love. Undoubtedly, our definition and expectations of love become more sophisticated as we love and are loved, but it is the love we had and lost in our youth that is the foundation for the other loves we encounter. *** -- J.W.

*what are the implications of saying “I love you?”*

Get to the heart of the matter why don't you?!

I recall a passage from the book Philosophy of Erotic Love, "I love you. No sentence from a judge could be more threatening. It means that I am making it very easy, if not inevitable, that you will hurt me."

Love, that silly, magical, absurd, over-used little word. That word that can make a day the greatest it's ever been or make it the darkest day of the year.

Love is a fantastical idea, that we have *all* become victims of. You know how you become ingrained to recognize black people as you walked past them? Well, I think, the entire society, hell, the entire world, has become socialized to believe that this thing we call love is real. And maybe all of us believing in it, makes it real. But by God, if love isn't a social construct, I'm not positive what is.

When somebody says, "I love you" the social construct, the normalized response is, "I love you too" Why? Because love, even if its a creation, is something that makes somebody vulnerable.

There is no denying that the person who first says, "I love you" is going out on a limb, to the edge, so to speak. They want to be re-assured, that there will be a hand to catch them, they want to know that you too, are vulnerable, that you too, are in the throes of this passionate, all consuming love.

Love is a dangerous, risky game. A game we were learning before we even learned language. A game we will play until we die. Hopefully we win, have a few kids, and keep the genetic line going.

*** BW, must winning in love be conjoined with having children and the perpetuation of the species? I know you aren't suggesting that lesbians, gay men, and infertile couples can't win at love unless they adopt children? *** -- J.W.

I would consider the exchanging of "I love yous", especially for the first time, and assuming feelings are mutual, as one of the most endearing moments a couple can share. I think by not returning the sentiment when the feeling is undoubtledly there, undermines the natural evolution of a trusting relationship.

A loving, trusting, relationship includes friendship and open, honest, communication. Withholding or denying a loved one an expression of "I love you" just because to do so seems customary is an unfortunate case of reverse-socialization. Officially, I am not sure if this term even exists, but, is it possible that we may become so certain that society has conditioned us in the ways in which we think and act that, ironically, we frequently question our actions and respond by leaning toward the opposite of what we believe society has conditioned us toward, in an attempt to maintain control? If that is the case, then society still controls us.

In my opinion it is not love that is the social construct. Love is an inate, biological function, a recognized brain state, fueled by the release of brain chemicals and hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine. It is our outwardly responses to love and our loved ones that fall victim to socialization. Has society taught us to play games with each other as a response to our feelings of love?

So, getting back to your question, "Should you have said it to her because she said it to you?" NO. You should have expressed whatever it was that you were feeling at the time, openly and honestly. Granted you were young, but "Wow, I didn't expect to hear this from you," doesn't equate to the "enthralled,""Must See TV" feeling you described. Were you in disbelief that this woman truly loved you based on your opinion of yourself, and if so, was this the cause of your unwillingness to reciprocate your true feelings to her?

Okay, so I'll stop picking on the younger version of J.W., for now-

I fervently agree with the present day J.W. in that the sentiment "I love you" is overused in a casual sense, unaccompanied by the actions that support and foster true and lasting relationships. "I love you" loses its gleam when one consistently omits the elaborations from the sentiment. Thoughtful gestures, kind words, quality time spent together, and especially honesty, are all enhancements to "I love you" and in my opinion, when these are combined, the "game" becomes real.

*** EDR,

You must know I am "loving" your contribution (did I just say that?). Your assertion "I think by not returning the sentiment when the feeling is undoubtledly there, undermines the natural evolution of a trusting relationship," is one that is hard to argue, but that doesn't mean that there is no value in not immediately reciprocating "I love you!" You make very valid points about people's need to be cautious about overcompensating against our socialization, but who is the one who determines what is overcompensation? Oh, and non-conformist acts like mechanically responding to assertions of love because we may love the person or kind of like them are okay? Isn't there something seriously dysfunctional in trying to protect someone's feelings by overstating the case? I agree that it is problematic to a major extreme for people who have an investment in truly communicating their feelings to avoid being wrapped up in their socialization to the point that they are succumbing to reverse socialization. However, reverse socializaton as you call it could also be refered to as: daring to unpack societal baggage. So, which comes first, the chicken or the egg--do I say I love you back because I've been socialized to say it, even if I'm not certain, or do I not say it because I am not certain though I run the risk of overcompensating against my socialization in the process. For me, that isn't a tough one at all. Saying it without measured certainty is what most people do! Saying it after its been contemplated is not what most people do, because most people don't think, they take short cuts.

EDR, you don't think love is a social construct. While I acknowledge the validity of the biological reactions that reflect the emotional happening we call love, when people state "I love you" as a tool of manipulation as you and I both know occurs, all those chemical reactions you described aren't occurring, manipulation, or dare I say, "pimping" is occurring, nothing more, nothing less. This is why marketing firms make big bucks imbedding deep within a consumer culture like America how important it is to love, be loved, and be less than if you aren't loved/loving.

Keep it real for a moment, while you acknowledge the realness of love, you speak of it in only an ideal state. However, the point under discussion in this blog is exactly how real are the words that are being spoken. I imagine you know someone that was told they were loved by someone (and we are speaking of romantic love), whom wasn't in love at all, or as deeply in love with the person who initiated the first "I love you." You seem to be implying that it is okay and not counterproductive to a relationship for someone who may love another at a 90 percent level to say it to the object of their affection, and receive the same sentiment back from that person who in actuality only loves that person with 30 percent of their heart (perhaps not construed as love at all). I'm sorry, but I would rather have someone struggle with their certainty about loving me, than simply saying it back to me because they think I need to hear them say something they may be uncertain about. Maybe that's just me, but for me it is the certainty of love that makes the game real! *** -- J.W.

I don't believe there is such a thing as overusing the term love. Yes, there are people who likely overuse it and don't truly mean it by their definition of the term, or the socially conditioned definition, but I in no way think it can be overused.
I think there is room for endless, boundless love in each and every one of our lifes and while I think you should mean it when you say it, I don't think saying it to 5,000 or 3 people makes the words any more or less significant in each situation.
Love isn't really better or worse with each person you tell you love, it is merely different. I know I have room in my life to love many people and be loved by many people. I should quickly point out that that doesn't mean I share romantic love currently with countless numbers of people, but I can say I love you to so many people, and I think that is beautiful.
Loving someone is merely acknowledging something beautiful and special in a variety of individuals. Recognizing their gifts, their beauty, the way they make you feel when you are in their presence or missing them. There are many reasons you can love an individual, but for some quick examples, I will say I love my mother for her guidance, my father for his friendship, my brother J.W. for his mentoring and companionship, my daughter Darby for her compassion, my son Samuel for his strength, my brother for keeping it real, and the list goes on and on and on and on and on. I tell all these people I love them, and I mean it with every one of them, possibly differently, but maybe not more or less.
Yes, chemical reactions are involved, yes, there is not really any way to fully escape the social construct of love that has been created, but my reality is I mean it when I say I love you, will only say it when I do and think for me at least the more love in life the better. There might be points I made that can be argued, there may be agreeance or the opposite, but all that matters to me is that it is my reality that I have manifested and therefore it is real for me.

Cupid’s Broken Arrow,

First, let me say that I am feeling the “love” on this blog. And don’t worry…you don’t have to say it back; for I understand that you’re probably unpacking your societal baggage or you’re just not feeling me on that level. Personally, I have mixed views on love. I’m still waiting for Cupid to shoot me in my left cheek. I guess that’s my first mistake. I’ve externalized the phenomenon of love, waiting for somebody to shoot me with a bow and arrow, lightning, holy water or anything. But, I’ve lost hope in Cupid like I lost hope in Santa. I’ve realized that love entails not only a physical and metaphysical chemistry between two (maybe more) people but an individual and collective commitment to the pleasing, comforting, mentoring and admiring of individuals in a relationship. Love is not only a state of being, but also an act.

Unfortunately, Part of our cultures has, to a certain extent, “overused” the term “love.” From “I love my car” to “I love my wife,” why have so many of us contributed to making the term so diffuse? Is there an existential reason why we use the term “love” to describe our emotions towards any material object that pleases us? This is definitely a cultural phenomenon. For example, people in Japan don’t use the term love for things. It is specifically reserved for people. But maybe we are so consumed by this capitalistic and excessively materialistic society that we have fallen in love with…oh my god, THINGS. And the worst part is not that the power of love dissipates when referring to objects, but that the love is not reciprocated. I would have no problem loving and admiring my car if my car loved me back. Sorry, but I’m just keeping it real.

Maybe this shines some light on the topic of saying “I love you” back to someone seconds after they’ve revealed their emotions for the first time. Some of us are so focused on how people feel towards us, approving or neglecting our existence, that when someone shares an intimate emotion with us, our automatic response is to reciprocate. Why? This might be the case because we understand the feeling of not being reacted to and the existential loneliness one feels when unapproved or uncertain of someone’s love for you. Nevertheless, I think people should say it whenever they “feel” like it’s the right time to say it. Though not 5,000 times, please. I want to hear that I’m loved not because I love you but because you really love me. Another take is that we might have been socialized to see love as the great equalizer. Look at Cinderella; she came up with Prince Charming. But is it really possible that love might mean possibly equality? That by me saying “I love you” I say I am equal to you or I want you to be equal to me. Honestly, I don’t know where I’m going with this. I just think that it might be possible that the “equalizing” force of love is so ingrained in us that when someone says it to us, we say it back immediately to be equal on the romantic scale. Maybe Cupid’s arrow broke in mid air before it got to my left cheek, or maybe I need to say “I love you too” more. Whatever the case, I am sure that I’m in love with you bloggers.

This particular blog entry really created some fervent thoughts in this reader’s head. Immediately when it was clear that love was the topic, my personal male privilege simultaneously was reevaluated. There are countless times in which the privilege of my gender is impossible to ignore. However, I would actually consider those three important words one example of where my gender takes a backseat to the female persuasion. Now, as a disclaimer, I should certainly disclose that I am a heterosexual male. Therefore, my viewpoint will be from the same perspective because it would be unfair to make any assertions about a homosexual relationship that I would be unfamiliar with or uneducated about.

Back to the rare occasion of not possessing the gender privilege. Throughout the course of a relationship, the male has a distinctive privilege in many regards. Men are expected to be the support, the strength, and the stability of a relationship. Going even further down the line, society still expects men to be making more money and coming home to eat the woman’s prepared meal. This is not to say that this is how many relationships are, but rather that this is still the ideal that society has presented to us. Along with the rest of the privileged territory for the male, comes being the aggressor. The man is expected to make decisions and be more aggressive. When it comes to expressing love, this puts the male at a disadvantage. It creates a new sense of vulnerability and defenselessness. What I’m attempting to explain is that it is the man who is expected to say these words and consequently, is susceptible to heartbreak. Again, it is certainly not always the case for the man to say the words first (Mr. Wiley clearly disproved that theory with his personal account), but I do insist that it is socially expected of the man to shoulder the burden of emotional vulnerability. What makes it even worse, is society’s expectation for the man to not show these emotions. This seems highly contradictory, but isn’t that the way of society today?

Therefore, the woman gains privilege by being the recipient of an expression of love rather than the distributor. I also do not intend to discount the pressure of responding to this assertion (as Mr. Wiley also expressed as an important part of this love exchange), however, I merely hoped to point out what I consider even more difficult, the person saying those words. While Mr. Wiley may have found it difficult to respond to those words, I want to remind those who have been in my shoes before, that saying those words are excruciatingly difficult. Actually, scratch that. The anticipation and nervousness that exists prior to the words and the awkward vulnerability immediately following those words are what’s difficult. I can personally say that I have felt immediate regret subsequent to my emotional plunge simply based on the facial reactions to my words. However, hearing those words returned to you, is a feeling that no words could ever do any justice. Maybe I’m wrong though. Perhaps it is simply me who feels this lack of privilege when it comes to baring the pressure to say these words. Perhaps others thrive in the anxiety and some may even find it nonexistent when with the right person. Perhaps that is the problem; maybe I’ve never found the right person to say these words to and my apprehension is simply my body attempting to show this to me. From a personal experience of saying these words at this point in my life however, I still contend that as the male, I feel as though I am underprivileged with the pressure to be the first to assert my love and be forced to subject myself to the jubilation or despair of the response. When you tell someone that you love them, you allow for your emotions to be dictated by the beneficiary of your proclamation which is easily more difficult than the response in my young (and perhaps naïve) opinion.

I also wanted to say that by reading the past few comments, I’m not sure if love itself is a social construct, but rather it is the “rules and regulations” of love. I would like to think that society has little impact on who I love. Society cannot tell me which woman will keep me talking (and more importantly listening) to her for hours at a time. Society will not supply an outline of all of the meticulous traits that one woman will possess and I will find perfect and inescapable. Nevertheless, I think that society will influence how I will react to the discovery of this woman and it has, to some extent, given me an outline of how to express this love to her. Aside from flowers and paying for movies, there are a myriad of ways that the media has “taught” me how to express my love.

One important benchmark in a loving relationship is saying “I love you.” As I already explained, this is a very difficult situation no matter how much love is felt towards the partner. Regardless of all of the comfort, honesty, friendship, and trust, these words can never first be uttered without at least some apprehension and maybe even fear. Rejection is always possible and could ruin a friendship. At the same time, by making the leap, the reward could be a wonderful thing and this usually overshadows the disadvantages. Still, is it the countless movies and songs that I’ve been exposed to that make it seem necessary for me to say these words in order for it to be a true romantic relationship? I suppose that I’m not sure, but I am fairly positive that how I conduct a romantic relationship has been at least somewhat “tainted” by popular culture.

I wanted to quickly conclude that I have always been the first to say those problematic words. Therefore, perhaps it is not fair of me to respond to this wandering without the experience of both ends of the spectrum. Still, I feel as though the other side needed more representation and I believe that it pertained to Mr. Wiley’s question about love. And well, I hope that you feel the love from me.

J.W. - I think part of the problem lies in the way the word "love" has become a substitute for liking something a great deal. For example, we "love" our favorite sport, a particular restaurant, a certain piece of jewelry, etc. We use the word with such frequency to refer to anything BUT the intensity of feeling that we can have for another human being that the word has practically lost its meaning. Perhaps we need a new word to express the most beautiful connection we can feel with another soul?

There is also an expectation in a relationship that if one drops the "I love you" bomb, that expression will be reciprocated. There is nothing as uncomfortable in a romantic relationship as feeling an imbalance of commitment and emotional involvement. Unfortunately, that pressure of expectation has turned "I love you... I love you, too" into an exchange with little more meaning than "Thank you... your welcome."

I have been pressured in relationships (more than once!) to respond in the affirmative when told that someone loves me. The decision of how to respond, especially when unsure about my own feelings, is extremely awkward. Do I lie about my feelings in consideration of theirs? Or am I honest, which may possibly cause them injury? If the situation were reversed, would I rather hear the lie than the truth?

Thank you for bringing up this sensitive subject. I believe it is one the requires more reflection and debate than we usually give it.

Love has no clear definition, that’s why there is no clear response to the words “I Love You” when you first hear them from someone. Responding with the words “I Love You Too” almost seems robotic. “Love is affection, involves prolonged acts of concern, it tends to endure.” (Sex, Love, Marriage.) If your love is true it should not matter what you say, how you say it, or what your response is. I used to think that the man should say it first, but that’s sexist. “There is no condom for the heart.”( In Defense of Casual Sex) It doesn’t matter who says it first, man or woman, the fact of the matter is someone said it. If both people do not feel the same, someone will get hurt. If both people are mutually in love, words shouldn’t matter. How you say I love you is not nearly as important as how you share that love.

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