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On Saying “I Love You”

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He had an excuse for his pause. Looking at me through the video chat with a gleam in his eye, he struggled to get the words out, and I waited in anticipation. When he finally opened his mouth, it was unusual, but decipherable: “Ay wav yu.” He stood back and smiled with pride. I giggled.

My nephew is just over two years old. We’re pretty sure he has a slight speech impediment that’ll eventually correct itself since his father (my brother), had the same challenge as a child. Although my brother is now a fully-grown adult, my ears still perk up when he says strawberry, listening to hear if the Rs were pronounced with Ls. He also used to say papalation, instead of population and glances at me with annoyance when I bring it up decades later. I giggle.

This incident prompted me to ponder: how does saying I Love You affect its’ messaging?

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My parents are not the type to say I love you. Their love language is action-based, not verbal. My dad has said it a handful of times–more often now that we’re adults– likely because he’s starting to feel his mortality, but my mother– in my four decades of living–nope. The unspoken words are suspended in the air as she prepares tupperwares of food for me, or buys me eye drops in bulk from Costco, placing them on my kitchen counter while stating I need to take care of my eyes in a brusque, spartan tone.

I suppose it bothered me when I was growing up, but like some things in life, you don’t miss what you never had. Now I just pay closer attention to what my parents do for me instead of what they say, having accepted the unspoken contract on communicating affection.

I was watching a TV show once, and the actor on-screen told another she loved him. It came out mechanical, automatic, which made me realize that it’s difficult to say, even for talented performers who do a lot of introspective work to portray a character. We can argue that the most authentic forms of expressing love should be reserved for those we feel real love towards, but putting it out in our art– like acting–allows access for those of us who haven’t experienced what it’s like in our own lives. Art is a form of emotional education when your familiarity isn’t right.

In my romantic relationships, on many occasions, I found those who said it flawlessly, with the creamy finesse that evoked confidence, were probably the most practised at saying it–even to those they didn’t love. So it was up to me to listen to my intuition, and ask myself whether they truly meant it.

The ones that stumbled, who said it with a disjointed pattern, whose voices shook in a low baritone of which I could barely hear even in a silent car at night after a date with the engine shut off–the words “I love you”– was rationed, emerging with the fear that it might not boomerang. They took a risk to hear “I love you too” back, which would make one’s heart not only blossom into unimaginable joy but breathe a huge emotional sigh of relief. Sometimes it doesn’t ricochet, and the powerful, vulnerable torpedo they released is felt as a devastating loss accompanied by heavy dust of anxiety to follow. 

I hear those that say “love ‘ya”, lacing it with a blanket of casualty, fearing that a flicker of seriousness would expose an imploring signal of the desire to establish a deeper connection. I myself, am selectively vulnerable (due to my anxious-avoidant attachment style). I add the cliched ‘darlin’ after I say it to friends and family. I prayed they wouldn’t notice how inauthentic I sounded, but knew I’d been failing when someone casually commented that it was easy to see through my mask, and it was ok. Maybe I’m more like my mother than I thought.

Photo by Nothing Ahead from Pexels

Perhaps one of the bravest “I love you”s was one I heard from an old boyfriend in my teens decades ago. Seeing through my inability to meet his intensity, he grabbed my upper arms with his hands, looked me in the eyes with unwavering courage and said it. He was willing to carry both our vulnerabilities, allowing the air to hold the three words. I shook, my heart stopped, and as he leaned in to kiss me, I started to see vulnerability as a strength. Those words–said with no hint of dishonesty–were powerful beyond the alphabetical letters I saw in my mind as he said them.

My niece–who is five– says it in a playful way to adult ears, but she means it in the only way her young soul knows. Her understanding of love is as deep as her age allows: simple, pure and devoid of conditions. I make it a point to say it back because, at that age, our caregivers cement how we navigate our relationships as adults. As a casualty of childhood emotional neglect, I do not wish upon her an unresponsive, inconsistent message about worthiness; I resolve to never miss the opportunity to tell her I love her back.

I still listen to the intonations of how people say I love you; a woman talking to her husband on the phone on the streetcar, a drunk man at 2 am on King Street West, or when my emotionally available partner says it to me – with that sweet spot of him being comfortable with vulnerability, yet understanding my discomfort at hearing it: “I love you” he says with a tentative, shy smile. He signals that it’s ok to show him how I feel too, aware they’re three tough words for me to string together. And the message here–that it doesn’t need to come out like a perfectly rehearsed song– is how I was able to slowly open my heart again. My heart, which had been in solitary hibernation for a long time; certainly a big leap in my healing.

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