A great many other wiser people have written and talked about what we mean by ‘I love you’. A wise friend of mine pointed out that, as a phrase, it holds the same problems as my partner and I uncovered with ‘I’m sorry’ – it works as a placeholder for a multitude of other emotions and intentions and messages, which may or may not be shared by everyone else in the conversation.
Aside from the basics – I care about you and about your life and happiness, I hope we have a continued presence in each other’s lives – it seems to me that ‘I love you’ means something different each time. Well, not each time, but between each new set of lovers the phrase ‘I love you’ and the word ‘love’ is given fresh meaning. Every relationship develops its own language, its own history, its own conventions, and ‘love’ is part of that – what I mean by ‘I love you’, ‘I miss you’, even ‘hi’, can be subtly different depending on context, and a huge part of that context is the relationship and history between the speaker and the hearer. Any other idea you try and pin onto the concept of love (I hope you love me too, I look forward to our future together, I find you desirable, I want to work towards your happiness) it’s not that hard to imagine counterexamples, situations where it’s definitely love but doesn’t encompass that idea. Love is a complicated beast, and not even always positive.
I know absolutely nothing about linguistic theory etc, but I’m confident that this is hardly a new or original idea – that the context between speaker and listener partly determines meaning. After all, you mean something very different (…I hope) when you tell your mum you love her and when you tell your girlfriend you love her. And my shout of ‘have a good day, I love you’ as my partner leaves for work in the morning carries a different emotional weight than our first starry-eyed intense admission of love, all those years ago, or than the ‘I love you’ after a disagreement or misunderstanding.
Falling in love is a different experience every time – though it shares some commonality, which is why often when older people talk about falling in love they say they felt ‘like a teenager again’. For most people, that’s their first experience of the giddy ridiculousness of falling in love, so understandably (especially if someone’s been in a monogamous marriage for decades) it’s the first comparison they reach for. And loving someone – actively and consciously loving them, caring for them, nurturing the bond and the relationship in the best and most useful way – is of course a different experience every time, because people are different and have different needs. To feel happy and loved and fulfilled and free takes something different for me than it does for you.
This maybe helps explain why it is that my love for my boyfriend doesn’t and couldn’t take away from my love for my partner – it’s not that they’re both drawing from the same exhaustible well of love. They are two different and complex emotions – both share many similarities, but are not the same thing. I am surprised by the capacity for love I have discovered in myself, and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to explore and exercise it – and also, I am amazed and grateful to be able to witness the love between The Rake and his Lyra, or Fafhrd and others; seeing their ability to love and care for other people only makes me love them more. I remember once reading someone compare it to discovering a new room in your house that you never realised was there – a whole new stock of love for a new person and a new relationship, that only adds to rather than subtracting from what’s already there.
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers – ALBJ, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, One Sub’s Mission, Post Modern Sleaze, and Rarely Wears Lipstick – will write about their views on one of them.