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.