Many times I have found myself frustrated that we have only one word in English to describe a wide range of feelings and intentions that we call ‘love’.
“I love you,” can be spoken by a lover, by a parent to a child, by a politician’s or guru’s fanatic, by one life-long friend to another, by a rock star to his audience.
We use it for ordinary objects in one moment and sacred things in another.
“I love God.”
“I love America.”
“I love the way you say that!”
“I love chocolate chip mint ice cream.”
To love something can mean I lust for it, I adore it, I am devoted to it, I crave it, I appreciate it, I prefer it over other things on the menu, or I am ready to die for it. It can be extremely strong, or slightly more attractive than other trivial objects.
It is used so much, for so many common things, over such a wide range of intensity, that it is difficult to communicate precise feelings with that word alone.
Up until now, I have found it hard to use that word toward someone in the situation where I held one form of love for that person, but definitely did not feel or focus on another form of it. If I were to to say “I love you,” in that context the person may be mistaken about which form of love I currently held and which form I did not. At other times I have found myself feeling unauthentic, or even manipulative in the use of that word because my intention would have been to express a more shallow form of love when they would most likely interpret it as a deeper one – I had only one word to choose from.
But I’ve recently realized, for this very same reason, the vagueness of the word ‘love’ could actually be useful. The inability to be precise with that single word leaves room to mean one aspect of love without meaning all of them – yet, leaves me without obligation to precisely define the boundaries of my current feelings and give an explanation for it.
For example, there are times when there is a strain in my relationship with my spouse or with my child. It would be important for me to affirm that some essential feature of love is standing firm in that moment, while I may not be obligated to feel or declare love the other forms of love that might apply at other times in that relationship. “I love you” can communicate there are boundaries to our conflict, but we’re still having a conflict.
The vow to unconditionally love the other person – as in the context of marriage and parenting – does not mean I have to always uphold all the forms that might be appropriate under good and easy circumstances. I can love you, but not particularly like you at this moment; I am committed to working this out but I don’t feel like kissing or throwing the baseball around.
Sometimes, to someone I am having a conflict with, I need to say “I love you” and leave it certain that some essential form of love is there – that the other person is safe, in this regard – while leave it mysterious as to what other forms are missing. It may be good that the other person notice the imprecision, and wonder which parts of love have gone missing and why. Hopefully, he will notice the commitment and the protest loaded in that single word. Hopefully, he will be motivated by his own love to ask and find out if he has done something to injure it.