My mom told us she loved us a hundred times a day. Well, maybe not if we were being brats. But I don’t think a day went by she didn’t say more than once. “I love you” punctuated the end of every phone call and, often, any random conversation. In contrast, my father never warmed up to those words. He never told me he loved me until after mom died; I was in my mid-30s.
Dad was always a bit strange about hearing it, too. Even as a kid, while I was demonstrative in my love for him (I was always hugging him and following him around) I knew instinctively not to tell him I loved him the way I did with mom. Even now, he has a low tolerance for that particular phrase. I think I said it twice in the course of two weeks once, and he admonished me with, “You don’t have to tell me every five minutes, you know.” (When he’s not making me crazy, he’s an adorable old grump.)
In any case, because I inherited my mother’s affectionate behaviour and absorbed my father’s criticism of same, I often wonder if I say “I love you” too often. Lately, I’ve caught myself telling my husband a dozen times a day (which is impressive, as we’re apart 12 to 14 hours at a time).
At first, I wondered if I was saying it reflexively. It was an awful idea, reducing what should be a significant expression to little more than a cough. But it wasn’t true in my case; when I said it, I felt it, without exception. Then I thought perhaps I was saying it out of insecurity–like I had to make sure he knew I loved him so he’d love me back. (Fear wears some remarkable disguises.) But that was silly, too. I don’t tell (my best friend) Rachel I love her all day long, but she knows I do and I know she loves me back.
As I flicked through the possible reasons in my head, I lit upon something that felt surprising: maybe I was saying it because I needed to hear it.
In any given day I can list a hundred things I hate, things that irritate me, things I wish I could get away from. (My own ceaseless, self-critical internal workings are quite close to the top.) I tried to imagine what my life would be like if I hated all those things and I never wanted to say “I love you.”
A few years ago, I had to break up with a boyfriend. I’d loved him so much for so long but, after things had gone pear-shaped, I could barely remember what brought us together in the first place. As we sat in our living room and I explained I wanted to end the relationship, I watched him cry. That afternoon, the thing that made me feel awful–like a lousy, useless person–was that I didn’t want to cry at all.
Being loved is a wonderful thing, but loving–whether it’s another person or an animal or place, or work–it gives us purpose. Every time I say “I love you” I’m reminding myself why I should make an effort. It reinforces my feelings. Being human is overstimulating–sound, light, heat, cold, hunger, fatigue, and emotion gather on the border of any given moment. Keeping our priorities straight is a challenge, especially on bad days. Maybe “I love you” helps keep that shit in line.
In retrospect, it’s a fairly obvious revelation. Even so. I’m pleased with it.