Have you ever struggled with being able to say "I love you," especially in the context of a romantic relationship? I must confess that this was a big problem for me for many years in a number of relationships. As much as possible, I try to be honest and, somehow, uttering those three little words would fill me with pangs of guilt that I was being dishonest.
At that time in my life, "I love you" was loaded with additional connotations such as: "I will love you forever" and "I have no doubts or ambivalence about my feelings toward you," "I'm gong to want us to get married," and other such freight. Of course, if you are anything of a Freudian, you know that all relationships are tinged with ambivalence. I'm not sure I was a Freudian but I did sense my own underlying ambivalence and, therefore, felt impure and dishonest in relation to such a declaration.
Typically, this tongue-tied impasse would arise when the girlfriend of the moment would say to me, "I love you." Uh oh! I think I'm supposed to say it back to her. But can I honestly utter those three heavy words with all their multiple levels of meaning?
A brief but very meaningful romantic relationship marked a turning point for me in this regard. We had just made passionate love and she looked me in the eyes and said, "I love you." She immediately picked up on the fact that I was choked up with conflict, fear, and guilt in response to her simple assertion. She quickly went on to reassure me saying something along the lines of, "Look, when I say 'I love you,' it means that I have strong loving feelings toward you in this moment and I just want to be free to express them... I'm not saying anything about the future... and I'm not needing you to say anything back to me."
That simple re-framing really freed me up considerably, both for that relationship and for others to come. It has served me well over the subsequent years.
That critical turning point in my life was brought back to mind this past week when I attended the 2nd World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association in Philadelphia. Among the many wonderful presentations was one on love by noted positive psychology researcher, Barbara Frederickson, Ph.D.
I was particularly struck by her assertion of what love is NOT. According to Frederickson, Love is NOT:
- Sexual Desire
- A Special Bond
Whew! I was impressed by how well this fit with the message I'd been given by a young woman so many years before. It does raise the question, however, as to what love IS.
Frederickson put up a slide with the following definition:
"Love is experienced in the context of safe interpersonal connections or close relationships. E.g., In the early stages of a relationship, tied up with initial attraction, people are deeply interested in anything and everything this new person says and does. They share amusements and laugh together, often as a result of the awkwardness of coming together for the first time. As a relationship builds and perhaps surpasses expectations, it brings great joy. People begin to share their hopes and dreams for the future together. As the relationship becomes more solid, they sink back into the cozy serenity that comes with the security of mutual love. At this stage, people in loving relationships often are grateful for the joys their beloved brings into their life, as proud of their achievements as they are of their own, inspired by their qualities, and perhaps in awe of the forces of the universe that brought and keep them together."
Frederickson went on to expand on the topic emphasizing research on the importance of safety, bio/behavioral synchrony, connection via eye-contact, smiling, mutual responsivity, the vagus system and oxytocin, neural synchrony, and what she described as "positivity resonance." It turns out that there is a lot going on around that whole "I love you" thing!
I've offered my story here because I suspect I'm not alone in my past struggles with that simple, or perhaps not so simple, phrase.