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How Far Should You Trust "I Love You"?

Will that person really be around three months from now?

“I know men are unreliable, but I can’t believe what just happened with Johnnie. He told me he loved me. I finally slept with him last week, and since then he hasn’t called. What do you think happened?”

All right, I can hear all my readers snickering, (and it is hard to hear someone snickering, even from only a few feet away.)

Yes, it is a commonly held idea that men will say anything to get a woman to sleep with them. Any woman who has been around for a while (about 15 years old and up) will understand that men cannot always be relied on to tell the truth when they speak about love. Neither can women.

Still, lovers — particularly when they are young — are surprised and disappointed sometimes when they take an affirmation of love at face value.

Actually, I do not think men often lie to obtain sexual favors, although it is certainly true that on occasion a man will express a feeling of love and, nevertheless, disappear soon after. Somewhat less typically, it is the woman who vanishes suddenly. The confusion and disappointment that follows grows out of a misunderstanding of what is meant when someone says, “I love you.”

The word “love” is used ambiguously to refer to romantic love, which may last only a matter of months, or less — or mature love, which is associated with long-term relationships. Most adults recognize that romantic love does not always turn into a permanent commitment. Probably more often than not, it ends short of that.

Consequently, they are not surprised — although they may be disappointed — when things do not turn into a lasting relationship.

But “I love you” is used to mean still something else.

Men say “I love you” when they mean, “I think you’re wonderful.” Or, “right this minute I am so happy being next to you and being with you.” It is a statement of a really strong positive feeling. Someone who truly has such a feeling before or in the middle of sex may not feel that way a few hours later.

Sometimes, a man will come into my office shaking his head and telling me he cannot believe he told a particular woman that he loved her—when it is obvious to him now that he does not. It is not so much that men, and women, practice to deceive; it is rather that they deceive themselves.

Feeling a certain way, right this minute, does not mean that such a feeling will last — even if, like every other strong feeling, it seems as if it will.

So, how should someone interpret a remark such as “I love you”? With skepticism. Still, patients spend a lot of time in my office trying to figure out with my help just what a particular person — most commonly a man — meant when he spoke of love.

My advice always is to consider how that person is behaving rather than which words he used to describe his feelings. If he professes love but does not call from one week to the next, he is not likely to mean anything special by the word, “love.” Some people readily say “I love you,” as they might say, “I love apple strudel” with just as much meaning.

Besides, he may not know how he feels. It is pointless spending much time wondering, wishing, and worrying about what someone really means when speaking of love. If you want to know how someone who proclaims love is likely to feel three months from now, you have to wait three months to find out.

You can judge how steadfast someone is, or how reliable their protestations of love really are, only over time. Someone who still claims to be in love after two or three months is more believable than someone who says it for the first time. He or she is more likely to feel the same way in the future than someone who is saying it for the first time. Someone who reliably does or says something—anything—over time can be expected reasonably to continue doing that thing. After a year, you can feel relatively comfortable that the other person means what he/she says — but you cannot be too comfortable. There are always exceptions.

Last week, a man came to see me very distraught about the sudden termination of a relationship of about six months duration. One morning following a romantic and, he thought, successful evening, his girlfriend called to say that she wanted only to be friends. He could not discover why she had suddenly drawn back. He had had hopes of marrying her.

In this situation, it was inevitable for him to spend time obsessively mulling over what may have gone wrong; but he could not figure it out. And I think these broken engagements, which seem to happen unpredictably and not infrequently, cannot really be understood. Sometimes, I am in the position of talking to the person breaking up the relationship, and often even that person does not understand his/her change of heart.

The worst example of this sort of thing happened to a patient of mine a number of years ago. She was a shy, demure young woman who wore pastels as if she wanted to blend into the background. Nevertheless, she met a man who seemed appropriate and seemed to care for her. They became engaged. Their engagement lasted the better part of a year.

One day, not much different than any of the other days that they saw each other, he called and left a message on her answering machine saying that he no longer wanted to be with her. He gave no reason.

This sudden, inexplicable rejection was too much even for my retiring patient to accept passively. When he would not return or respond to any of her messages, she went to his apartment. She knew he was in, but he would not open the door to her. She pounded on the door, but he would still not open it. She left and, as far as I know, never discovered what the man was thinking. He was, as it happened, a psychiatrist.

In general, the longer the relationship goes on, the more reasonable it is to expect that it will continue. But we all know of marriages that have broken up after 30 years. It is not possible to know absolutely that a partner will remain interested.

What I think is less well-recognized is that you can't know with absolute certainty that your partner won't suddenly become disenchanted or, indeed, fall in love with someone else. And not only can we not be sure of our partners, we cannot be sure of ourselves.

(c) Fredric Neuman 2013

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