Looking back over last year, there were three posts I didn’t write because I thought they might upset people. I don’t mean make them angry – I just do that – I mean actually distress them for various reasons.
On consideration, at least this one is going to see the light of day. Please just bear in mind that there might be fraughtness. This stuff is personal. But when it comes to our unexamined assumptions about relationships, it’s also political.
So, after partially destroying our sense that the word “sex” has any meaning, there was really only one place to go: do the same thing for “love”. What, actually, does the word “love” mean, and how do we know, when we use it, that we all mean the same thing?
The word “love” does ridiculous duty in English, covering a range of feelings so vast it seems impractical they bear the same label. I love my partner, and my friends, and my daughter, and my cat, and strawberries and, according to the last time I used it, David Mitchell. I mean very different things in all those cases, but the word I have to use is “love”.
Some months ago, I was having a conversation with my partner about my exes. I was trying to work out how many of them I’d been in love with. Now, of people I had actual relationships with, there are ten. Unless I’ve forgotten someone. Every single one of them, I thought I was in love with at the time. I told them I loved them. Looking back, I was prepared to confess to having been in love four times, and two of those were really hard to admit even to myself. One because he treated me very badly, and the other because he’s not actually one of those ten, but a friend I never had a sexual or romantic relationship with. (Not, however, “unrequited love”. It’s complicated.)
What I realised in the course of this conversation was that I was commodifying love the same way some other people do sex. I was making up reasons why things didn’t count. Love was special and rare, and so I had to protect the use of the word. I had to wonder, if I felt I loved them all at the time, where did I get off denying it now? In what way was what I felt not love at the time, even if it didn’t endure?
Thing is, “love” is not a thing that happens. What happens is that, at some point, you make a conscious decision to describe the mixture of feelings you have as love. You choose to use the word, if only to yourself. It’s probably not the same mixture of feelings you had the last time you said “I love”.
So when you say to a partner “I love you,” and they say it back, how do you know you’re feeling things even vaguely similar? What’s happened is that you’ve both decided to use the “love” word. One of you possibly because the other one did.
We put so much weight on this word culturally. Saying “I love you” seems more significant than being loving. When people have strong feelings for each other, it seems awfully important to work out whether the word “love” can or should be applied. Or, you know, we could just FEEL.
We do have one linguistic demarcation with love, and it’s the difference between “I love him” and “I’m IN love with him”. I love my friend Megan hugely. I’m not in love with her. (It is, as an aside but an important one, vastly more acceptable to say I love one of my female friends than that I love one of my male friends. I love all my close friends, but I’m much less likely to publicly say that I love the male ones, because people are so much more likely to read that as indicating sexual or romantic love. What with everyone being straight.) I can be very sure that, while I love someone, I’m not in love with them. What’s slightly disturbing is that, on examination, I appear to consider “in love” to be a narrower and less generous idea than simply loving.
This, perhaps, relates to our cultural ideas of Romantic (sexual) Love as unique. You can love many children or friends or cats, but only one lover. That person is your True Love. We can only have one of those loves at a time. If you fall in love with a second person, you must be taking that love away from the first, because Romantic Love is a finite resource. Even serially, if you find a subsequent True Love, then the previous one must not really have been proper love. And perhaps that’s why we’re supposed to be so careful with “I love you.” Thing is, for me at least, that simply isn’t true. I can be in love with more than one person at once. I know because I’ve done it.
So. You know the drill. Sit at the table, equip yourself for drinking and/or smoking as necessary, and let’s talk it out. Do you withdraw love in retrospect? Give it looking back when you didn’t realise it at the time? Do you use the word love easily, or try to maintain its value by holding it back? Do you love easily or with great pain? Have you been sure of the emotion and withheld the word? How do you feel about people who love easily, or use the word love easily? Just how important is it to know when to say “I love you”?