Saying “I love you” to my family and friends has always been easy for me. But saying “I love you” to someone I’m romantically, emotionally or physically involved with is a whole different story.
Even just thinking about saying those three words used to give me that horrible feeling in my stomach. I’m not talking about butterflies—I’m talking about the feeling of being out of control, scared, vulnerable and rejected. It took me years to sit down and write about these feelings, and to dig deeper into my beliefs, my stories and my soul.
But when I did, I had my first big aha moment about saying “I love you.”
When I started to dig deeper into why this phrase triggered so many fearful emotions for me, I began by asking myself what was so hard about saying “I love you,” and what meaning those words held for me. I had to look back on how I was raised, on past relationships I’d been in—from long-term ones to one-night stands—and experiences where those words had made me want to turn and run the other way.
After a lot of soul searching, I discovered that it wasn’t the words as much as the meaning behind the words that scared me. And not my meaning, but what they mean in our society. I took into account the fact that I’d spent the first 17 years of my life in a state where Mormonism is the prevalent religion and where it’s normal to wait to have sex until you get married at 18 and start a family. I also thought about the 15 years I’d lived in France, where couples do not get married as often and definitely not as young. The European view on sex and marriage is different, and much less prudish, than the American one and, dare I say, much more mature and fun.
I discovered that my personal meaning behind these three words was so different from that of my parents, my friends, my home state and my country. That was the second aha moment for me. I was afraid to utter these words because I was fearful that the other person would take them to mean that I wanted a committed long-term relationship, which in most cases, I didn’t. I am, and always will be, a free spirit. I believe it’s natural to want to explore love and sex with different people in our lives, and that as we evolve and grow, our definition of love and relationships should too.
If you ask most people, they’ll likely tell you that saying the words “I love you” in a romantic relationship is a sign of true devotion. But long-term devotion does not always equal love. Love is something we feel with our senses and experience with our bodies. We want to be close to this person in both a physical and emotional way. Long-term devotion and commitment can both exist without the feeling of love. They are choices we make with our heads, not our hearts.
And the problem for me was that they both imply that this feeling—love—is supposed to continue to exist for an extended period of time, even when paired with growing responsibilities. I failed to examine my belief that love and commitment were inseparable, which caused me to feel trapped and want to run in the other direction.
I had been equating love with commitment when the two are completely separate ideas. We can love someone without committing to them for a day, a week, a month or a lifetime. And I love that, because one of my essential needs is freedom—the freedom to feel alive inside. I was twisting these ideas into a jumble of emotions and definitions, which was causing me a lot of fear.
Turns out I had placed placed too much of a hidden meaning behind those three little words.
I now know that every single person and every single relationship has its own unique definition of “I love you.” We need to continually redefine it so that we can clearly express what we feel to our partners. When we do this, we step out of that place of fear and into a place of truth.
One year ago, I was still existing in my jumbled definition of love. I was in a long distance relationship with a guy I was head over heels in lust with. Over the course of two years, we only saw each other a total of 10-12 times, but we got to know each other well. I have amazing memories of us together at the beach, watching the sunset and soaking up each other’s presence in beautiful silence. He taught me so much and I will forever be grateful for the person I became because of him.
Knowing what I know now, I wish I had told him what I was feeling—but I was too afraid to do so then. I’m no longer afraid to say “I love you,” because I know what those words mean to me. I now embrace them, instead of avoiding them.
I know that love can exist without expectations. Love can exist without having a future or the pressure to plan one. The power of love lies in giving it away. We can love with no strings attached; we can love simply because it makes us feel both free and connected at the same time.
Last week, I found a journal entry and it inspired me to write this. I had one of those moments when I wished that I could turn back time and tell this man how I felt. But then I realized how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned, and so I just read it and smiled and decided to share it.
I hope you will take some time to sit down and ask yourself, “What does ‘I love you’ mean to me?” Knowing this can bring more freedom, peace and acceptance than you ever thought possible.
The sun on my upturned face, the sound of the ocean filling me with the knowing that
This. Is. Enough.
The silent power of you sitting next to me, the idea of us for a split second.
I feel free and as big as the ocean, able to hold each wave that crashes against my shores.
The clouds, the breeze, the sand, the heat, all of the different shades of blue, the way time slows down and your shoulder touching mine brings me alive.
If this is as perfect as it ever gets, if this is as authentic as I ever am—this is enough.
I still feel you and me; I feel everything in my body. I feel your arms around me, your gaze locked with mine, the sand between my toes, the dryness of my mouth, the way the sun makes my hair burning hot, the possibility of feeling so alive doing nothing.
In this space of emptiness, I find everything important and I know it in my bones that this is what matters. These moments, this feeling of connection, of being loved and understood, the way that time slows down.
Seeing a reflection of myself in someone else, putting myself in situations that bring me alive, taking emotional risks and being present for it all is so important.
It’s not money, not success, not work, not feeling sexy and beautiful, not feeling smart and capable and safe that brings me into presence.
Ultimately, that is not when I hear what my body has to say.
It’s when I stop, slow down, find emptiness and let something else fill me up. These chills I get when I am being true to myself, these chills that make me shiver in the heat, tell me that it is simply about being myself and loving myself as I am right now.
Just me—a little crazy, wild, sentimental, spontaneous, needy, adventurous, independent, scared, loving, loved, unsure, strong, alone—a beautiful mess of contradictions, so much love inside to give.
I feel lost in the right direction, but I’m still running away from you.
Why? Because I want to tell you how I feel and I am too afraid of what you might think it means.
Instead of saying those three words that hold so much meaning for me, I’ll just say thank you. Thanks for being here with me, for truly showing up. You didn’t have to do all of the little things you did.
Making picnics for us, bringing ice to the beach, getting a pillow to put in between my knees, making me a smoothie the morning after, making me ache for you again and again.
Thank you for telling me over and over again to slow down, for leading me out of my comfort zone, for trusting me trusting you, for the good conversation, the mind-blowing sex, our mouths and tongues locked together, the passion, the connection and reflection I have with you.
Thank you for sharing so many little moments, for creating so many memories that I can take home with me, for sharing sunsets, emotions and bodily fluids, laughing with me, listening to me, leaving the door unlocked for me, being excited to see me when I called you and told you I was in town for a few days.
Thank you for being there for me, but not asking anything of me.
You know me well.
I will be leaving you in a few hours, leaving this beach, this sunset, this ocean and these memories, and going back to my life. And there is just one thing I wish I could say—I love you.
This doesn’t mean that I want you to call me every night or see you every month or that our relationship has to grow more committed or that we have to call ourselves a couple and get married some day.
No, it just means that I love who you are as a person right now and how I feel when I’m next to you.
But for now, I’ll keep these words inside, tucked away in my heart, safe and warm. I’ll love you like I do the ocean, the sun and the sand—as a part of me that I can take out on a rainy day and, closing my eyes, let it fill me up until I am exploding with warm light and love inside.
And for now, this will have to be enough.
Author: Melissa Snow
Image: Robert Bejil/Flickr
Editor: Nicole Cameron