What Does “I Love You” Mean?

“I love you” has been hijacked by the one-size-fit-all relationship dogma and Hollywood. We have to find a way to express love – other than these three obvious words – to avoid saying what these three words do not mean in the first place: that we want to do the happily ever after, the mortgage and the kids too. 

We are now squeamish to utter the words, because we have been marinated in a visual culture where “I love you” was routinely followed by a sped-up montage of happy coupledom, leading into “Will you marry me?”, and “I do”, and the inevitable playing house, procreation, legal and financial co-dependence, the resulting mutual resentment and divorce.

It is as if “I love you” had two meanings:

  1. What the words actually mean – This meaning goes widely ignored.
  2. Expression of interest and firm verbal offer to do engagement, marriage, kids, mortgage and divorce together (i.e. The implicit meaning) – And society takes this one seriously.

“I love you” has been fetishised by 20th century dating manuals as the coveted confession that we have to extort out of our partners. According to this manual, there is no turning back after an “I love you”, no changing of minds and no way out without serious loss of face.

Because if you change your mind about all these non-love-related things, then your “I love you” must have been a lie. Some serious social baggage on these three words that deserve better.


We have learned this implicit meaning from TV and/or our parents.

  • Sitcom characters freak out every time they say it ‘prematurely’. He or she actually felt love – but didn’t want to commit for her entire, long life – so she shouldn’t have said it.
  • Cliche girlfriends rejoice when one of them gets to the “I love you” milestone.
  • Disney movies never fail to follow it up with a church scene (with squirrels for some reason).

So we ended up not expressing love to anyone, in case they wrongly think we are ready to procreate with them immediately.

They took the word ‘love’ away from us. But it’s an important one.

What do movies mean when they say ‘I love you’?

  • Forever
  • With equal intensity
  • There can be no doubt and there’s nothing you (or I) can do to un-earn it.

If one of the above is not present, that is the story.

Whatever we see in movies as happy ending, we call love.

But TV-people are like washing machines. Once the program has started, they will keep moving on to the next steps irreversibly until they complete the cycle – and suffer if they meet resistance. And frankly, most people behave like washing machines. If it’s time to rinse, they can be halted, but they cannot be stopped. And they will not let you out until they’re through. And why do you resist, anyway? You are already soaked in detergent, you cannot not have a rinse now. There is no turning back. You might as well learn to love your new smell.

What do I mean when I say ‘I love you’?

There is a type of affection that can last forever – but it won’t if we try to force it. Chances are, whatever we are feeling now will not be felt forever. And that’s OK. But it doesn’t make the present less valid.

“I love you” is in the present tense, and for a reason. I do feel it now even if I wouldn’t promise that it would last forever. It is a robust but still delicate feeling, and it will almost definitely go away – or morph into another kind of appreciation. But it is here now and I have the right to say it. And you know what? I even have the right to say it at the big no-no moment, when the dating manuals go wild with disapproval: I have the right to say it after sex.

Moreover, when I say that I love you, I am not entering into a pre-contract verbal agreement to fast-track us into a pre-scripted life that will end up in the suburbs. Just no. We are not in the pre-contraception era when it was a matter of life or death so we might as well be realistic. When I want to play house, I will say that. “I love you” is not the way to say it.

“I love you” does not mean that I want to move in with you, that I want to introduce you to my family, to own you in marriage. Just no. There are other sentences for that. Don’t overload mine.

But of course I know what you saw on TV and I know you would infer all these if I told you how I am feeling in the moment. This is why I don’t say it. And this is sad. Stating a fact would be a lie because of the cultural baggage. We are denied richer friendships and relationships because someone monopolised the three words that would bring them to life. I experience the honest, non-demanding feeling of love, but I have to find some other words to express it, because the dishonest baggage-pushers have hijacked the straightforward sentence that would perfectly do the job.

This is why I wrote this down. So whenever I need to clarify, I can just send this link and I’ll be covered. You should perhaps do the same. Or just send this link well before the misunderstanding begins.

Photo: Pinterest

*I kept wondering what the baggage-pushers would have us to tell people we love but don’t want to jump into legal marriage with. My guess is:

“I have certain feelings for you, but because it is not full commitment (body, heart and wallet for life) I should never see you again. As a good member of society I must surround myself only with people I can either procreate with, or don’t love at all. In-betweens are a temptation and they would risk my willingness to fulfil my function in society. It is thus wrong to have feelings for you. It is wrong to feel love outside of the family. My mistake. Please accept my profound apologies for not terminating this acquaintance even sooner. Now get lost and shame on you!”

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