January 13, 2013

What We Mean When We Say "I Love You"

My friend Manfred Wolf recently published a column with the above title in The West Portal Monthly. He wanted to discuss “that most problematic of utterances, those between two, shall we say, ‘romantic’ partners.”
                      “Why problematic?” he asks, and he answers, “Because it is at once indefinable and absolutely indispensable. Expressing it in any good adult relationship is not optional... But when lovers or a married couple say it to one another, what do they mean?”
                      Manfred goes on: 

The problem, I suppose, boils down to this: we don't know what ”love” is and what the word stands for when we say it. I might mean ”I like being with you,” but my partner might mean ”Your well-being matters to me more than your presence.” More disconcertingly, one partner may mean ”I'd love you more if your presence were more agreeable” and the other partner might well think to herself, ”I am concerned about his well-being but I sure wish he were different.”

And that raises yet another semantic problem in ”I love you.” The statement can be aspirational, even performative; we want to elicit something more than we say. The age-old problem here, I believe, is that people crave to be loved as they love, and they find the others' different understanding and style of loving to be less than fully, really, genuinely loving.

Take the familiar problem almost endemic to the relationships of men and women: The woman might well think, ”Real love would be much more expressive than this man,” while the man is thinking, ”Doesn't she see that all my acts of consideration, thoughtfulness, concern are much better, more genuinely loving, than frequent effusions of feeling?”

My response: does ”I love you” really present us, as Manfred says, with a semantic problem? I find the issue intriguing because of the way in which problems of philosophy and problems of love get intertwined here.

“I love you” expresses a commitment
There is some truth to the idea that saying the words is often performative (and this may be one source of bewilderment). This is connected with the realization that it feels unsatisfactory to think about them simply as a report, say, of some definite inner state (like thirst or fatigue). Rather, they will primarily be used as a declaration or an affirmation. (It is true that they may also be used in a more report-like way, as when I confess my love to someone: “I love you; I’m afraid I can’t help it”; say, circumstances being such that I consider it wrong for me to have these feelings, or my having no hope that my feelings will be reciprocated. But a confession may equally well be uttered to a third party, whereas a declaration or an affirmation will primarily be addressed at the person one loves or professes to love.)
                      The performative character of “I love you” is bound up with the fact that the speaker is undertaking a commitment. This means that there are ways of acting that may be regarded by the other as a betrayal of those words; though not necessarily as a refutation of them. I may fall short in my love, even badly so, and still have love – in fact, it is only as long as I love that I may fall short. This is one reason why saying ”I love you” is not like a report of a state.
                      (But if so, you may ask, when will the other’s words start to sound hollow? Well, who’s to decide that for you if you can’t decide it?)
“I love you” may be true or false
“But ‘I love you’ must be more than a commitment”, we feel like saying. Of course it is not the same as a promise. If I’ve promised to help you move, then if I turn up with my van I’m fulfilling my promise regardless of whether my heart is in it. But if I say I love you it’s not enough that I cook your meals, listen to you talk about your day or accompany you on your vacation – or whatever it is you expect of me – unless I do so willingly and with some degree of enjoyment.
                      In saying I love someone I present myself, my feelings, in a certain light. Even if ”I love you” is not a report of my feelings, I do not speak truly if my feelings aren’t in it.

“Do we mean the same?”
“But this is all intolerably vague”, someone will retort. “You speak about feelings and commitments, but you don’t tell us exactly what you’re supposed to feel and what you’re committing yourself to when you say you love someone.”
Manfred concludes:

when it comes to the basic style and content of loving we want done for us and to us what we do to others. That has the power to make us truly happy. The failure to receive the kind of love you want often leads to the thought that the other "doesn't love me," or, more perniciously, "never loved me," when in fact it was only the difference in style of loving that became the problem. - - -

Perhaps the only thing to do is try to understand that the other person needs, requires, insists on the style of loving he or she wants, and not the one you want. Almost certainly the two of you mean something different when you say "I love you."

My response: it may not be true in all cases that what we want done for us is what we do for others. But even where that is the case, does this point to something problematic about the very concept of love?
An account of the use of the word “love” must allow for its being used between people who have different demands and expectations, between those who are hopeful and those who are disappointed in love, between those who are self-centred, cynical, sincere or generous. Where misunderstandings arise, they do so because people misunderstand each other; it’s not the fault of our language.
We should not look to a conceptual investigation to tell us whether we love truly or are truly loved. What philosophy can do is try to indicate the kind of place the word “love” occupies in people’s lives. It is up to us how we use it.

For more on the topic, read Ilham Dilman’s book Love and Human Separateness, as well as Camilla Konqvist’s essay “The Promise that Love will Last”, Inquiry 54 (6): 605-668 (2011).


  1. Manfred asked me to enter the following comment:

    If I have one quibble it's that I'm not sure you recognized the crux of my argument -- what I like to think of as my "unified field theory of love" --- that we love differently and that that is precisely what causes so much difficulty in relationships. Or maybe you did see it but didn't think it was as important as I did, since you say, "Does this point to something problematic about the very concept of love?"

    My answer is Yes, though I can't quite prove it other than to to cite a number of ill effects it has. In addition, I'd say that it's more a point about psychology than semantics, though you might disagree.

    1. Actually I think we're on the same page here. The difficulties come from people's different understandings, expectations, etc, but this, as you say, is a point about psychology, not about semantics. In other words I don't think the difficulties people have could be superseded, say, by reforming our vocabulary. On the contrary, as one might say, we need to share the *word* "love" if we are to be able to quarrel about what love really is.

  2. Quite fascinating. Of course, the problem of definitions or semantics does not begin and end with the concept of 'love.' 'Honor,' 'courage' 'commitment'...may also produce multiple views and images. Are suicide bombers killers or courageous? All depends on what side you're on!

    On an episode of "Downton Abbey" not long ago, one character was revered as 'honorable' for intending to go through with a marriage, though he loved someone other than his intended bride. Apparently, it was considered more noble to shortchange his wife by living with her without true affection, rather than break his promise to wed. (Luckily, the lady died, enabling him to marry his REAL love). In other words, all these concepts are like empty baskets, filled with whatever the individual may care to put in it; leading of course, to many unintended consequences later on.

    1. Sure, “love” isn’t the only word whose application will be contested in human interactions. However, one should beware of taking too reductive a view of disagreements about what is to be called love, or honour, or courage, etc. I don’t follow “Downton Abbey”, I regret to say, but I would imagine that the character’s determination to go through with a loveless marriage was not just a personal quirk but was bound up with an entire view of life, a view that he might have been able to articulate. In doing so, he might have invoked considerations with which we could agree (say, concerning the need to keep a promise), even if, in the end, we didn’t accept his conclusion.
      There are, of course, cases in which people hide behind words like “honour”, “commitment”, etc, when they simply want to get their own way. But if they’re unable to dignify their position with at least the show of an argument, they may not be very successful in convincing others.

    2. Good point...though I do feel very much the 'flexible nature' of 'truth,' 'honor' and so forth. I'm an author, writing a fantasy/adventure series, "The Boy with Golden Eyes." In my work, this is a recurring theme...that what is 'right' or 'correct' or even 'true' varies upon local traditions. Thus, the mere act of crossing a border into a new territory may produce a whole new set of 'realities.' The young hero, Rupert, ultimately finds this liberating and exhilarating, allowing him to constantly redefine the boundaries of his beliefs.