This is What I Mean When I Say I Love You

Black and white photograph of a black cat in a window for This is What I Mean When I Say I Love You by Malin James

Photograph by Bernadette E. Kazmarski

When I was a girl, I said I love you without caution or concern. That changed as I grew up. It’s not that I loved any less. It’s that I loved so hard it hurt.

The reasons for the shift were pretty typical. In high school, I fancied myself in love but, to quote Dorothy Parker, “he didn’t love back”. Telling him that I loved him was a big mistake, but there were valuable lessons to be learned. Unfortunately, my only take away at the time was that saying I love you is fucking dangerous.

After that, I began to hold back. I didn’t totally avoid saying I love you, but I never said it impulsively or without consideration. There were too many things wrapped up in it, including two of my biggest bugaboos—trust and vulnerability. As a result, the deeper the love, the more vulnerable I felt, and the harder it was for me to voice.

That changed when my daughter was born. She cracked me open and everything poured out, soft and slow, like syrup. I found myself loving her in a way that only poetry could frame, and that strangely poetic, pure, clean love seeped right out of me without worry or concern. The experience of loving her so freely made me realize how much I kept hidden from everyone else and, more to the point, why.

When I say I love you, I’m really saying two things. The first is pretty obvious—that I love you. But the second meaning is fluid. It changes from person to person, and even moment to moment. I love you is the container for every feeling in the relationship so, while the fact of my love stays constant, it’s additional meanings flex and adjust depending on our context. For example, I love my best friend with a consistant, ridiculous, Muppet-like exuberance, but that love is shaped by gratitude, protectiveness, affinity or anything else that I happen to be feeling for her. It’s always love + more.

So, what exactly what do I mean when I say I love you?

It means I miss you; I want you; you make my heart happy; you feel like home; please be careful; I worry about you; I trust you; I relax when I’m with you; I feel like you understand me; I want to protect you; I will always be here; you can trust me; I’ll keep your feelings safe; I love your beauties and your flaws; thank you; I’m sorry….

That I’m sorry is complicated though. The other emotions I listed are, for the most part, positive. That I’m sorry isn’t – not in the way I mean it. It’s not the I’m sorry you say when you’ve kicked someone’s dog. It’s the I’m sorry that comes with sadness and guilt, and it says as much about me as it does about the relationship. In fact, that I’m sorry qualifies as a third, subversive meaning, because it’s so often present when I say I love you, regardless of who I say it to.

For the record, this next part was uncomfortable to write.

So, what am I so sorry for that it’s so woven into how I express love? As with love itself, it’s entirely dependent on the person I’m saying I love you to and our relationship at the time.

I love you can also mean that I’m sorry I’m not the person you deserve; I’m sorry I’m not the woman I want to be; I’m sorry things are hard; I’m sorry the price is high; I’m sorry I’m not easy or simple; I’m sorry I need your patience; I’m sorry I always have; I’m sorry I wear my complications like a shell; I’m sorry my love is flawed; I’m sorry I’m a person in progress; I’m sorry I’m a cat and not a dog; I’m sorry I’m not a clean, undamaged slate; I’m sorry I’m not the mother I want to be; I’m sorry I need more from you than I have a right to ask; I’m sorry I’m guarded; I’m sorry I’m not there; I’m sorry I want so many things that I can’t have; I’m sorry I’m not good for you; I’m sorry I’m hard to reach; I’m sorry that my paint is cracked; I’m sorry that loving me hurts….

Some of those feelings are accurate, but most of them are poisoned thoughts, and it’s up to me to untangle the mess and sort out the poison from the truth. Like so much of everything, love isn’t, and has never been, simple for me. It all goes back to my deep, deep need to be good for people, and my deep, deep fear that I’m not. That’s why, even now, I’m careful about saying I love you. It’s why you know, when I say it, that I mean it every time. Because my love, when I give it, is constant, and that’s a good but frightening thing. It makes saying I love you a promise.

It’s a promise that I’ll love you when I am old and gray; I’ll love you even after one of us is gone.

NB: Someone was kind enough to send me a link to a comic that recontextualizes the poison thoughts I mentioned in this post. It’s worth clicking through if any of my I’m sorry‘s resonated or felt familiar to you.


  1. I’m sorry that you have been through more than you deserve; I’m sorry that you don’t see the amazing and accomplished woman that I see; I’m sorry things are hard; I’m sorry the price is high; I’m sorry that life isn’t easy or simple; I’m sorry you feel it is patience when being there in any way for you is an absolute pleasure; I’m sorry that you have had to wear your complications like a shell but I am damn glad you have as it has kept you safe; I’m sorry my love is flawed; I’m sorry I’m a person in progress but I am glad that we can share this as we grow and I am so in awe of your strength as you do; I’m sorry that you don’t see yourself as the mother you want to be but you sure are the mother that your little one needs; I’m glad that you let yourself need; I’m glad that you are guarded enough to protect yourself but not so guarded that you don’t let people in; I’m sorry that I’m not there; I’m sorry that you want so many things that you can’t have; I’m sorry that you think that you’re not good for me; I’m sorry you feel that you are hard to reach; I’m sorry you feel your paint is cracked but remember that the cracks are where we meet without our outer veneers; Thank you for letting my life be filled with the richness of loving you!

  2. Your thoughts about love are well written, insightful and amazing.

    I could comment on every paragraph. This was the most important part that taught me about love and it’s deeper meaning…… “the deeper the love, the more vulnerable I felt, and the harder it was for me to voice”. Right or wrong I take trust for granted in my love relationships because for me I trust first and one can only lose it if something happens along the way to make me question it. The idea of loving so deeply that expressing it gives you pause is very personal and I appreciate you sharing it.

    As you say, becoming a parent opens a whole new chapter in the meaning of love. I would be interested in your thoughts about “unconditional love”. I think we learn to love unconditionally through parenting.

    “I am sorry” is a paragraph that speaks to vulnerability I think. Anyone who loves you unconditionally will know (or want to know) the cracks in your paint or more importantly make the effort to understand what each crack or flaw means.

    LOVE this and will refer to it often. Thank you…………………..

    1. Thank you so much, Glen. As you can probably imagine, what you wrote means a great deal, especially for this post. I think that being able to start with trust is in a love relationship is a much happier place to begin. How wonderful to be able to take trust for granted – I’ve often thought of how amazing that must feel. As for “unconditional love”, I started responding to your comment here, but I found myself going on and on, which means that I should probably write a post about it! Thank you for putting that idea in my head – I definitely have some thoughts on it! That said, the short answer is that I absolutely do think that unconditional love is possible, it can just be as painful as it is joyful…but then, I think that can be said of many kinds of love. Thank you so much again 🙂

  3. You wrote with such honesty and strength in this post. Love is a complicated thing, and love is different for different people: family, friends, lovers. Even within family, love is different. And with love’s complication, I think it deserves well-thought writing like yours. It goes far beyond, deeper, than the simple message on a greeting card. Describing it can be challenging, but you’ve risen to the challenge. Especially so when describing the *I’m sorry* paragraph. It made me think of the courage to utter the words “I love you.” Because when you say that, you open yourself up, make yourself vulnerable. It’s a leap of faith in some ways. What you’ve done is write about that leap poetically. You said it was uncomfortable to write, and I hope you feel better for having written it. Because us readers can admire it and learn from it in ways to gain insight about ourselves.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, August. You can probably imagine that, with a post like this one, that especially means a lot. You’re absolutely right in that saying “I love you” is a leap of faith. It’s one I would never tell someone *not* to take – whether your love is requited or not, it’s a valuable experience. It’s just important enough that, at this point in my life, I’m both grateful to have people to say it to and respectful of the fact that, for me, it means more than it might seem to.

  4. I wrote something so similar right after my husband left me, what my sorry means (it does come from a place of love).
    I loved this post, such a deep and painful echo within myself. You always amaze me in your eloquence.

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