Are We Too Casual With “I Love You”?

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02.24.17
Are We Too Casual With I Love You Meghann Stephenson Man Repeller Feature

Every time I hang up the phone, I’m at risk of “I love you” popping out of my mouth. I have to coach myself at the end of professional calls and credit card-fraud inquiries. If you do me a favor, I tell you I love you. If you say it to me first, chances are I’ll mirror you. If I have been drinking, I’m ready to marry you. My casual use of “I love you” has become a reflexive habit.

I also say “I love you” with full sincerity, of course. I say it to my family, to my friends, to important animals in my life. I say it on purpose and with purpose when I really need someone to know it — like I’ll get all intense and look into the recipient of my emotion’s eyes until I feel confident that they get it.  I will not avert my gaze until they reciprocate. And I mean it. I really, really mean it when I say it. But I’ve started to worry that my excessive, outside-the-inner-circle use of “I love you” is in some way diluting the weight of those words in relationships where I most needed them. A friend, who is kind of a shit, recently countered my affection with, “You say that to everyone.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I posted a Facebook status and polled friends about how casual they were with these words. There wasn’t a consensus, but rather seven different categories that people seemed to fall into:

Hippies

They say I love you to everyone and anyone. Free love whenever the mood strikes, even if it’s accidental (like my friend Rachel, who said it to a pizza-delivery man because she was so hungry and thrilled at his arrival) or because of an unexpected endorphin spike (there were stories of casual I love you’s to bosses after raises and one-night stands after orgasms). They see it as a happy reaction to honest emotions, one that doesn’t need to “mean” anything beyond a feel-good moment.

Mirrors

Mirrors don’t initiate the L-bomb, but they respond to “I love you” with some version of those three words (love you too, love you, me too, same!) as though on autopilot, or to be polite. Some mirrors told me that this was an occupational hazard within their professional industries (“I love you” in response to a favor or to maintain strong networks despite superficial relationships). Other mirrors didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and saw no harm in saying an empty “love you” back.

Thankers

My favorite of the bunch and far from my natural response: hard nuts to crack replied to unrequited “I love you’s” with “thanks.” Or, “thank you so much!”

Friend-Zoners

A huge majority of people who I spoke to said that they say “I love you” to all of their friends, close or not. It seemed as casual — and, paradoxically, as sincere — as a hug.

Nope.

A few people told me that they feel uncomfortable saying “I love you” no matter who they’re saying it to, even if it’s said to them. I have one friend who is such a “Nope.” She told me she loved me once and I have never let her forget it.

Selective Lovers

Less rigid than the Nope group but far more conservative than the Hippies or Friend-Zoners, my friends the Selective Lovers were adamant about the fact that they only say it to VERY specific people: close relatives, childhood bests and long-term, in-it-until-the-bitter-end relationships. More than any other, this group seemed to notice how causally others use “I love you.”

Meanwhile, a majority of people seemed to agree that no matter where they fell, “love you” without the “I” (see: Mirrors) was a more casual, less-intense delivery than the full three words. Though it’s an accepted form of true affection among friends, it’s an infuriating response when meant romantically.

After talking “I love you” with my entire Facebook feed, multiple group chats, guys, girls and anyone who would answer me back, I came to my own conclusion: If I love you so much it hurts, you know it, whether or not I “say it to everyone.” Otherwise, casual or not, there are so many worse things you can do than tell people you love them.

Illustration by Meghann Stephenson, follow her on Instagram @meghannfinley

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  • My favorite is when my straight, male friends say I love you to one another really earnestly and encouragingingly (i.e. not in like a bro-y, chant-y way). Like totally diminishing the bullshit barriers held up rather unconvincingly by fragile masculinity.
    Love is multi-planar, yo. It can be expressed and received and felt and meant in so many different ways. When you feel love in ones of its many forms, mention it! Xo –

    • ♥ ♥ ♥
      (Love: mentioned :-))

  • dietcokehead

    Very selective. One of my best friends is like you, and over the years I’ve often found myself thinking, “Wait, you really do say this to everyone (especially when drinking), huh? Well. Shit.” It is hard to know from these people how serious they are about your friendship level. They can tell you over and over but the skeptic inside you will be like, “Yeah, but you made ‘new friends’ at the bar last night and told five of them ‘Oh my god I love you’ within the first half-hour!” Which is fine! But I will never fully comprehend it.

    • streats

      I feel the same way about friendships too. I am a really loyal person, like, almost to a fault. I would put myself out for the people I care about – like if my friend who lives across the world says “I need you, can you come and be with me” I would literally get on a plane and go be with them… but only in theory, because mostly I fear that they didn’t actually mean it and I’d turn up and they’d be like “lol what r u doin here”.

  • Abby

    I only say “I love you” to my husband, but I say it to him all.the.time and I wonder if he feels like that cheapens it?

    • streats

      I have a tendency to overuse it when I’m in a relationship, when I get sappy and clingy. It’ll be like

      Me: I love youuuu
      Them: I know, babe
      Me: But I dooooo, I love youuuu
      Them: *rolls eyes*

      I know, vom. But I love being in love, and when you’re in it, it feels like the only risk-free time you can say it unabashedly and not have it backfire. It’s safe and it feels great.

      • Abby

        I actually asked my husband about it after reading this post and he said it’s awesome and makes him happy so let’s keep doing our sappy thing!

  • A M

    I say “I love you” to all cats no matter how well I know them.

  • I love you is reserved for people I really do love, my boyfriend, my family, my best friend, and ALL dogs

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • You know that warm, fluttery feeling you get in your chest just below your throat when someone you know does something or says something around you or you think of something they once said or something that made you laugh about them? THAT’s one of the only times I will say “I love you,” even with my family.

    I do say it a lot to my mother, but even when I’m talking to my boyfriend of almost 5 years, he knows that I won’t always respond in kind when he says it. He knows I only say it when I feel it because I don’t want it to lose its value (I plan on spending a long time with this man!). Of course, the flip side means it pops out when we’re sitting on the couch in our second-day jammies, and he hands me the xbox controller to pick the next Youtube video.

    • streats

      I am exactly the same, though I’m single. I often think about the next time I’ll be in the first-time-saying-I-love-you situation in a romantic relationship, and I often think that if they say it first, I wouldn’t reciprocate, but I’d somehow let them know that I’ll say it back when it comes naturally – when can’t stop the words coming out of my mouth – and that moment would probably be when they do something goofy or totally banal like your example 🙂

  • Grace B

    One of my closest/bestest friends uses I love you with me ALL the time I’m still (after a decade) not totally used to it. I reserve it for my family and my husband and it’s just a leeeeetle too close to comfort, though I’ve mostly adapted I think.

  • I’m selective. I’ll say it to close friends. I say it to my boyfriend and dog all the time. My boyfriend says it back a lot too. It still makes me happy even if I’ve already heard it several times in a day.

    • Shevaun

      This is me and my husband. We have been together for 7 years and say it probably over 15 times a day (we are very annoying), and it is still the best thing to hear. It’s great. 🙌🏽

  • Shevaun

    I say it to my mom, my dad, and the ol’ husbu. Oh and grandparents because duh. That’s it. I have said it once or twice to friends in the past, as well as to cousins but I’ve always felt hella squeamish about it. I chock it up to my dad’s weird gruffness, because my mom says it to EVERYONE, but dad only says it to my mom, my brother and me. And if anyone is listening to him, just forget it.

    Oh and I think my brother and I have exchanged a gruff “love you” like, exactly once haha and it was because I moved across the country and we hadn’t talked in a year so it felt overdue.

    • streats

      Geez I didn’t even think about my brother. I don’t think I’ve ever said it to him or my other (half)siblings. Closest we’ve ever come to that is the odd x or xx or xxx in a WhatsApp message or email

      • Shevaun

        it’s highly weird, i don’t recommend.

        same with sibling hugs. so awkward. it’s like “Can’t i just punch you instead?”

  • Jeanie

    I say it to my husband multiple times a day and mean it. It’s very therapeutic for me. It helps me have gratitude for my life, and he loves that I do that. I think it all depends on how your actions back up your words. My family says “I love you” a lot, but it felt always real coming from my grandmother. While coming from my parents it feels a lot more confusing and complicated. I don’t really like saying it back to them and often say it out of a feeling of obligation and guilt.

  • Meg S

    I say I love you in different ways. It’s obvious by my tone and my choice of words to anyone who knows me that I mean it in a very casual way. As in ‘I appreciate you more than saying thank you will cover’. Or in a sarcastic quip. If someone says something nasty to me, I’ll respond with “love you too”. Think Olive and Rhiannon yelling at each other in the hallway when she first comes in dressed up. It’s kind of juvenile. And I need to stop comparing my life with Easy A, but why should I?

    I’m much less flippant about saying the real thing, but if my Mom says it (and she does every time I see her, even in texts) I always tell her back. That’s the kind of thing she needs to hear and I do mean it, but I’ll never say it to my dad and he’ll never say it to me. We’re too much alike, but I’ll find him fun apps to play on his tablet and watch goofy tv shows with him after coming over for dinner every Sunday. That says I love you to him more than any words could.

    Only one friend gets the occasional ‘I love you’ and she’s my best friend, has been for years. No other friends get that, probably never will. It takes a lot to be on my bff’s level. She’s seen me hangry and still sticks around. Now that is love. I’m nasty when I’m hangry.

    As for relationships, you have to invest at least a year before you even get close to an ‘I love you’ from me.

    TLDR: I’m more free with casual and sarcastic ‘I love you’s, but the real thing is only free-flowing for my Mom. Everyone else has to work for it.

    • streats

      I don’t say it often to my parents and I feel guilty for that so I will throw it out there once in a while on the phone. Though they don’t say it that often either and when they do it makes me feel nice. I do those sarcastic “love you!”s with my BFF but more like a “just kidding, love you really!” way after teasing her.

  • Hellbetty666

    I think I’m a hippie lover. I met a girl a couple of weeks ago, and we instantly connected* despite a 20 year age gap. we both said “I actually love you” and I really genuinely felt it**. I know the next time we meet, there will still be a love connection.

    *in a purely platonic, non sexual way
    **there was some MDMA in my system. However, I don’t believe it was fully responsible for all the love on this occasion.

  • Lauren Helen

    Im one of those people that feels really weird when acquaintances or casual friends friends tell me they love me. I avoid saying it back unless I believe it, unless it would make the situation way too awkward. I think I get this from my mom though- the first few times my dad told her he loved her, she wouldn’t say it back and made him cry. They’re still together today though so I’m sure he’s forgiven her stinginess.

  • Allie Fasanella

    i ~love~ this. idk it’s tough. i find myself often saying ‘i adore you’ to ppl that i don’t feel necessarily comfortable saying i love you to. idk? it definitely feels weird, i’ve had people say i love you to me hundreds of times and then they’re just gone in a minute, and you’re like dang, you couldn’t have meant that. or maybe those words just mean something different to everyone?

    • streats

      Someone I was casually dating (as in not officially together, but where feelings were intense) once said to me something like “the first time I fell in love with you was when…” and they also said “love you!” in a text around the same time and I was like wait… do they actually mean that or is it like a figure of speech? And if they did mean it, why was it not a big deal for them to say it? If I say it to them are they not gonna think much of it? So curious.

  • meme

    I am selective but I use I say all the time with my husband. The thing is that as a Spanish native speaker we make a difference between “gustar” (like), “amar” (love) and “querer” (no equivalent to my knowledge). And living in a country where the language doesn’t offer that difference, I feel kind of weird when my friends tell me that they love me. It’s like I really “quiero” them, but I “amo” my husband (and my nieces maybe).

  • In Norwegian we have two distint words for romantic/very close family-love and everything else you like better than just “like”. The I love you (jeg elsker deg) is such a loaded phrase that you wouldn’t throw it around in this way. Or at least it feels very strange.

  • streats

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. There’s a big difference between “I love you” and “Love you!” for example. Or “I love you” and “I’m in love with you”. I haven’t said “I love you” for probably 5 years since my last serious relationship. I say “Love you!” at the end of a call with or visit to my parents, sometimes but not every time. I don’t think I’ve initiated it to friends, ever, but I will reciprocate if they say it to me and it seems appropriate (e.g. my best friend going away for a while). I rarely say it even though I WANT to say it; it’s self-protection. In relationships I’ve only said it first once – my very first relationship – but I don’t know that I really felt it or if I just felt it was appropriate at the time. There is a person in my life right now whom I have very strong feelings for and I feel so often the overwhelming urge to say it, but I’m terrified of what happens next. Funny thing is, they’ve said it in passing to me, in that casual “love you!” way that confused the hell out of me – do they love me love me or do they love me like they love pancakes?

  • Skylar

    I have only said i love you to one single person very few times and i have no memory of ever saying it to anyone else not even my parents as i only will say it to someone who i will give everything i have for