Every time someone that I deeply care for says, "I love you," I get frightened.
It makes little sense to get shook up regarding this most basic of human needs and the thing that we all want the most. And yet, when it is stated, it becomes a thing of suspicion. My personal experience of this most elusive of human emotions is that it is not to be trusted. The thing that I have spent a lifetime seeking out causes me the most anxiety.
The reason behind this most troubling of contradictions is that I now understand the true meaning of love.
I know what is costs and what is required when someone says that they love you. As a teenager and then young adult, my concept of love and what it could do was completely screwed up. In my limited view, I thought love was the great equalizer, the thing that would save me.
Ironically, all of the folks who said they loved me were as confused about it (love and its application) as I was. This constant and welcome confusion occurred because so few of us understand the stark differences between love and care. Someone can care for you in a very deep sense and may even pledge and live up to a lifetime of partnership with you but never love you. I like to take my definition of love and what it is and what it is not from bell hooks (the thinking person's warrior):
Genuine love is rarely an emotional space where needs are instantly gratified. To know love we have to invest time and commitment..."dreaming that love will save us, solve all our problems or provide a steady state of bliss or security only keeps us stuck in wishful fantasy, undermining the real power of the love - which is to transform us." Many people want love to function like a drug, giving them an immediate and sustained high. They want to do nothing, just passively receive the good feeling.
This is and continues to be the absolute core issue in all of my immediate and familial relationships. The question is and remains: If I say I love you and you say you love me, what exactly does this mean?
If we are unable to come to a agreed upon definition of love and what it entails then we will have some serious problems down the road. When I was very young, I dealt with adults who could be cruel and manipulative one moment (bringing me to tears) then offer a heartfelt apology the next moment with the agreement that I should forgive their idiotic behavior and accept the fact that I was just "too sensitive."
Not having the vocabulary to articulate the wackiness of these situations, I simply accepted the domination and coercive version of love.
This troubling and unsupportive type of interaction was not love.
It was some care with a bit of love thrown in to justify the adult inability to deal with emotional upset as a result of little or no emotional resources. The problem with this way of thinking is that is sets up those who have been at the effect of this misguided emotional terrain to go out in the world and recreate more of what doesn't work.
My dating life was chaotic and grief-filled. I didn't believe that my dating life and subsequent relationships were riddled with emotional abuse.
The first time somebody pointed out that I was in an abusive relationship, I laughed.
To me abuse meant physical confrontation, blood shed, police, and the things I saw in movies where a young, white female had to leave town and change her name because her old man just wouldn't stop using her as a punching bag.
This wasn't my situation, so it couldn't possibly be abuse. This type of thinking kept me passionately and righteously recreating relationships that were not love based at all. Instead they were needy, clingy interactions that had some care thrown in now and again.
To me, it made perfect sense that someone could lie to me or humiliate me one moment then have a breakdown the next all the while wailing through an avalanche of tears: "I love you so much it scares me." Naturally, as I aged I began to ask: Why not just say "I'm scared?" All of the men I dated were as confused about it as I was.
At 31, I met a wonderful guy and, still not understanding the marvelous journey this relationship would allow, I was constantly pissed when he didn't quiet certain demons or magically make all the lifelong problems I had go away. My assumptions were simple, direct and wrong: You love me and I say I love you, so there will never be a conflict and you will be an incredible mind-reader (thank God - now I don't have to ask for what I want and risk disappointment)
In addition, as my mate, you will also be able to right every childhood wrong and give me all the love I didn't get as a child. We will feel good all the time and, most importantly, there will never be any hurt feelings or miscommunication.
Anybody who has ever fully committed to anything knows that saying you are committed and being committed are two very different things.
If love's true power is the ability to transform us and make us better human beings and better able to really love others, we should all take a serious gander at the individual who states, "I love you." I am not suggesting we vigilantly look for chinks in the armor of those we love.
Rather, love's challenge is that we change and those around us become who they are meant to be. Love will not demand that we be less of who we are.