I love you. I love my girlfriend. I love my mom. I love my teammates. I love my dog. I love apple pie.
All of these statements are true, but romantic love is different than the “love” we throw around in casual conversation. I want to play fetch with my dog, but I have no desire to take him out to a fancy restaurant, spend a lot of money on a nice steak, and give him a kiss goodnight. I’m sure all of you are smart, attractive people who have wonderful taste in newspaper columns, but I don’t know you that well. I wouldn’t want to rush into anything.
Clearly, the word love can mean a wide variety of things; It makes sense that saying “I love you” can create awkwardness and confusion. This inexactitude mixed with a dash of commitment-phobia means that, while some couples go years without saying a simple three-word phrase, others use it as a goodbye on the first date. I say “love” a lot, both to my girlfriend and to others. In case some of you think I am overeager, let me explain my reasoning: When I say “I love you,” I mean it in two distinct ways. The first is the common one, synonymous with saying “I really, really, really like you.” This is well and good.
The definition I like best comes from Merriam-Webster: “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.” If I tell my girlfriend that I love her, I am confirming my decision to work toward her happiness. This is distinct from saying “I like you” and is focused on the positive emotions and affection that my girlfriend elicits from me. It is an affirmation of her good qualities because those are what draw me to her. I say “I love you” instead of “I like you” because I desperately want her to be happy, even if it requires sacrifice on my part. I can be bad at this; I can a selfish jerk, but the point is that I am trying.
When I tell my girlfriend that I love her, I am reminded of two things. I recall her cool attributes and wonderful personality and my decision to bring about her good as much as I can.
How can I possibly think all of that in the 0.67 seconds it takes to say “I love you?” I can’t, but I do think about these things often. I can say “I love you” with the same confidence that I say it takes a ball 0.45 seconds to fall one meter on Earth. I’m not doing all the calculations in my head again, but I know the answer. (I’m a physics major, and I apologize if I gave anyone flashbacks.)
“I love you” is a scary thing for a lot of people to say because it implies a level of commitment that might not yet be present in the relationship. Some of my friends have waited months before saying it because they wanted to be sure it was true. I would not wait that long to say anything, but that is a matter of preference. Sometimes breaking out the four-letter “L word” will put undue seriousness and strain on you and your partner. You probably shouldn’t break out the love sonnets if the commitment hasn’t reached that level — just wait until the time is right. Wait until you feel and think that you love someone. Then start memorizing some Shakespeare.
I’m just kidding about the Bard. Don’t do that. Unless your significant other is an English major.
Joseph S is a Behind Closed Doors columnist and deeply regrets rushing into things and confessing his love for you so hastily.