When Saying “I Love You” Matters Most

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I am a very effusive person. For instance, I love sushi. I love my rare lazy afternoons when I get to read a book on the couch. I love Harry Potter (the books, not the movies). I love our barber in the small Italian town where we live. I love my dogs. I love my friends. I love my parents. And I proudly and unabashedly state how much I love these things and people.

Yet I remember a time, when I had first started dating my husband, that “I love you” was the last thing I wanted to say….

Well, let me restate that. I desperately wanted  to say “I love you.” But I didn’t want to undermine the first time I said it to him by blurting it out just after I waxed prosaic over the dumplings at my favorite Chinese restaurant. I remember catching my tongue–ironically a mere week before we actually told each other “I love you”–when he said something funny while we were out with a group of friends.

At that precise moment, I loved him. I wanted to tell him, but I stopped my natural impulse. I had the usual reasons for holding back:

“I don’t want to scare him away.”

“I don’t want to seem desperate.”

“He should be the one to say it first.”

“I don’t want to say it for the first time in front of other people.”

I’m glad I waited. Because when we did finally say it, it was magical.

Now, more than 11 year later, I tell him “I love you” several times a day. But the new challenge is how to keep the “I love you” as emotionally charged as it was when we first said it. I freely admit, I’ll call him before he comes home from work and say something like, “Don’t forget to pick up milk and dish soap on your way home. Love you, bye!” Definitely not the most romantic.

But when you’re an established couple, it’s not just about saying “I love you.” Its the quality of how you say it.  On one hand, I like that saying “I love you” is so comfortable and natural that it comes out with the grocery list. Phone conversations and quick goodbyes at the front door actually seem hollow when one of us forgets to say it.

The Italian language has two versions of “I love you.” Ti amo is exclusively for your lover, while ti voglio bene is for parents, children, friends, etc. The cynic in me wonders how can they categorize love like that, while the romantic in me thinks it is beautiful that there is a special term of affection for your true love, separate from everything else.

But I’m still hooked on the simple, “I love you.” Because to me, it is anything but simple. That’s why I use it so freely. When I say “I love you” to my son, I most certainly am not implying that we should embark on a modern version of a rather perverted Greek tragedy. When I say “I love you” to a male friend, I am confident enough in the depth of our friendship that my expression will not be interpreted as an invitation to run off together. I know that no matter whom I say it to, “I love you” conveys all the indescribable, unquantifiable feelings I have.

But when we encounter bumps along our road of life, it’s really hard to say “I love you.”

In these next few months, my husband and I face some serious hurdles. We’re moving. And the fact that I don’t even know when we’re moving is just the tip of the stress iceberg heading towards our little apartment on the Mediterranean. We’ve already had many tough conversations, and I know there are even more in our future. In the past weeks I’ve felt like I’ve had to compromise my life–again–even though, in truth, he’s never asked me to do that.

So, I have to figure out how to say “I love you” during those all-too-stressful moments when all I want to say is, “you don’t get how hard this is for me.” And I’m struggling, because 99% of the time, “I love you” comes extremely easily.

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Look, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we stare into each others eyes every night, professing our undying love for each other. Unlike how I acted 11 years ago, now when he says something funny, I let the “I love you” slip out between the giggling fits. Or on the rare occasion when we go out for sushi, I tell him, “I love you more than this spicy tuna roll.” This may seem like a rather odd comparison, but it’s a pretty big profession of love in our present situation! (In the small Italian town that we live in, any non-Italian restaurant is nearly impossible to find. A drive to the “big” city is required, as is the small-business loan to finance the coveted meal.)

My husband is more creative. In addition to telling me that he loves me, he’ll also say, “I’m crazy about you.” To paraphrase his sentiments, he thinks that this term of affection captures not just love, but also that giddy, intense, high-school-crush feeling that has never left our relationship.

Three days ago, during another of our “what would we do if…” talks, I really tried to say “I love you.” Unfortunately, right before I said it, I took a bite from a plum I’d bought from a local fruit seller, only to find myself eye-to-eye with some sort of fruit-loving caterpillar. Instead of breaking the tension of our talk with a much needed “I love you,” I spit out the  plum, screamed, and then gargled the Tuscan wine we were drinking for 30 seconds.

It’s difficult to maintain that sense of giddy passion when I’m spewing masticated plums, or worse, when we’re agonizing over potential moving dates, finding jobs, selling cars, rearranging finances. We’re completely on the same page about this move, but sometimes it’s still overwhelming. There’s absolutely nothing I love about the myriad of minutiae I’m wading through, so why the heck would I say “I love you?”

Because that’s the quality of an “I love you.” Saying it when it matters the most.

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  • My favorite lyrics of all time ( from the song Nature Boy )

    “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”

    I also wish we could have the equivalent of “Ti voglio bene” in english. One word that I sometimes use is “Adore” instead of love. But you’re right about tone and the different levels of meaning behind each time we say ” I Love you” It can go from giddy and light to “i would do anything for you” with that same word, depending on the context of that specific moment.

    I have decided a while back, that some people in my life deserve to hear ” I love you” each time I speak to them. Just like those lyrics, to me, there really isn’t a bigger gift you can give in life than making someone “feel” loved, weather it’s your mom, your sister, your best friend or the one you share your life with.

  • There was a folktale where a father asked his three daughters how much they loved him. The first two made grand professions of love. The third said, “I love you more than salt.”

    He gets insulted, kicks her out of the kingdom. He finds out first two daughters are shallow and greedy. Third daughter sneaks back into the kingdom, works as a kitchen drudge, and finally cooks a huge feast for the father and all the court, but there is no salt. He realizes he was a putz and wishes he had his daughter back. And Ta da! The Aristocats!

    Anyway, that’s what your sushi tidbit brought to mind.

  • Very nice! Though of course I’m curious about why you’re living in Italy, even though it really doesn’t have anything to do with the article. And, if you’re leaving, can I come take your place? 😉

  • I say “I love you” often, but I have to mean it. But to me it’s more like a blanket than a dollar.
    A dollar may decrease in value the more you have, but a blanket doesn’t lose it’s comfort the more often you wrap it around yourself.
    Sure it might get a little worn, but those are the most comfortable ones.
    And I prefer love to be a comfort not an excitement so maybe that’s why I feel the way I do about it.

    On the flip side, I will NOT say it if I don’t feel it. Not in an “I’m angry and am not feelin’ the love right now” kind of way. Just in a sincere way.

  • I met a guy a few weeks ago and I talk to him everyday. If we actually date he will be my first official boyfriend. A few times, especially in the beginning of talking to him, he made me laugh and I thought “I love this guy.” But I never said it outloud and I won’t. Because I know that I don’t LOVE him yet. But maybe a piece of me does love him already. Heh.

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