Saying “I Love You”

My husband and I both come from “I love you” families. You know, the kind that just say “I love you” a lot. When we’re ending a call, when we’re dropping people off or getting dropped off at the airport, when we’re saying goodnight, when we’re jumping in the shower. It was one thing about his family that made me comfortable right away — all those “I love you”s tossed about affectionately but casually, too, the way you’d shake some Milk Duds into someone’s hand at a movie.

Saying “I love you” a lot makes it easier to say “I love you” a lot. Whether it diminishes the seriousness with which you mean it is predicated on whether one judges the seriousness with which one means something by how infrequently one says it and how jealously one guards the saying of it.

The moment when a couple first exchanges the words holds a central place in our culture — When is the “right” time? Who should say it first? Will they say it back? What if they don’t? And, yes, it’s a serious thing, love, and demands serious consideration, especially when romance is involved, but also, like, why do we feel like we have to be so stingy with it all the time?

I’m not saying you have to love the stranger on the subway, or your mechanic (though I do love mine) or even your neighbor as yourself. This argument is nothing so philosophical or altruistic as that. And I’m not arguing you have to walk around with love in your heart constantly. Personally, I’m more often than not walking around filled with a heady mix of self-loathing, fear of mortality, and righteous indignation at people who save seats at a crowded coffee shop before they’ve purchased their items. I’m just talking about lowering our threshold for what we allow ourselves to call love and when — both internally and externally — with the people with whom we engage emotionally on a regular basis.

Feel a wave of deep appreciation for a small act of kindness a friend has done — call it love, out loud. Feel overwhelmed by the humor or talent or intelligence of your partner or your child? Tell them you love them, right then and there. Tell the people you love that you love them with the same ease with which you’re willing to say you love a painting, a puppy, a burger. It might seem strange to some people at first, especially those who come from backgrounds where verbal expressions of affection are uncommon, but I promise that if you already have a genuinely loving relationship they’ll get used to it and even start to enjoy hearing it, and maybe even find it easier for them to say it themselves, though getting someone to say “I love you” back should never be the point.

Being “in” love? Sure, reserve that for the kind of intensity of feeling the poets write about, your standard aching and needing and “feeling lost without you”ing. But often, we build too impenetrable a wall around our love for other people for fear that any breach will bring disaster too near the center of our hearts. And that’s a fair fear — we are so fragile and so easily hurt and the hurt, even when it is small and even when we know it will pass, is something we often fear as though every time it happens it might kill us. But the power we give that fear of hurt is not commensurate with its actual strength. The hurt, though real, is almost always so much smaller than we expect it to be, like the shots from our childhood that we worked ourselves into such a terrorized frenzy over that when the time came, we hardly felt the needle prick our skin over the pain we had created in our minds.

It’s been a gut-wrenching two weeks since the election, a two weeks during which mustering up the will to feel good about something or someone seems both nearly impossible and practically self-indulgent. But acknowledging that there is love in our lives fortifies us and reminding the people we love that we love them strengthens them, too. It’s not enough; it’s not the solution to the very real political and social dangers that stand before us, but if we imagine each pronouncement of love as a thread cast toward another in the darkness, we can start to see a silken net appear beneath the chasm, and knowing that net is there will give us courage for the climb.