Valentine’s Day: The politics of saying ‘I love you’

We’re much more preoccupied with declarations of love than any previous generation

We all know those three magic little words, welcomed the world over, and no, we don’t mean “tax rebate scheme” or “full, open bar”, but rather the altogether more charged, contentious and coveted phrase: “I love you.”

The world is obsessed with love. It’s an important thing, so we’re told, maybe even the most important thing. And hopefully, between friends, family, significant others or even a pet, almost everyone has a little bit of love in their lives. But for an emotion that ostensibly underpins our very reason for being, how often do we actually mention how we feel? Or does that part truly matter when it comes down to it?

The intricate, loaded politics of saying “I love you” first started to interest me many years ago when I was involved in a rather juvenile relationship, albeit with an older man. One evening he told me he loved me, only to take it back in a fit of pique a few days later. I’m not alone in having the strange curse of “I love you” taint a relationship or, at the very least, provide one more mortifying anecdote for the arsenal.

Cast your net around your own friends and you’ll get a diverse range of responses on this topic – some heart-warming, some downright toe-curling. I’ve heard tell of “deadly buzz” being given in response to an earnest outpouring of feeling, and it being blurted out in a rush far too soon in a budding relationship after one over-eager party misheard the other saying “I love food” with their mouth full. Let’s face it: the looming pitfalls and potential for utter disaster with this ticking time bomb of sentiment are as numerous as the lovey-dovey, gooey tales we hear in wedding speeches.


Watershed moment

For many (if not most) couples, saying “it” is viewed as a watershed moment in which the relationship settles into being more serious, gaining a new element of security and even somehow legitimacy. There’s a whole tangle of cultural perceptions around saying “I love you”; it’s a big deal, a momentous shift, it involves a balance of power in the relationship, women shouldn’t say it first, you have to time it just so, saying it too early is tantamount to a fatal jinx, not hearing it back is the worst thing ever, confessing it for the first time when drunk is a huge faux pas, and so on and so on.

“It put too much pressure on us too early on,” says Abby* (28). “He said it to me after a party one night and I felt a lot of pressure to say it back. Then he seemed so happy, I just went with it. From there, things went too fast – moving in together, getting serious. In the end, we broke up because he felt more strongly about me than I did about him. It’s more complicated than that of course, but the red flag was there from the start with the ‘I love you’ miscommunication.”

Eddie* (31), on the other hand, doesn’t think it’s such a big deal. “I say it whenever I feel it and I don’t think about it too much. I hate all the baggage that’s supposed to go with it, like it really means something. If it’s how you feel, just say it. It doesn’t have to mean anything more than what it is. It’s not a death sentence.”

Clearly, it's a minefield. Should we really be so hung up on these small words? Allison Keating, chartered psychologist and author of The Secret Lives of Adults, attributes our fear of being the first to say the inaugural "I love you" to a fear of rejection – essentially, it's a big risk to put yourself out there and show vulnerability.

"It's immensely scary," she says, "because rejection hurts. Functional MRI ([fMRI)] studies have now shown that rejection feels the same as physical pain and is felt as you would feel when burnt or stung."

Only a few decades ago, love was seen and not heard

Added to the mix is that arguably these days we're much more preoccupied with the idea of love, or potentially just declarations thereof, than any previous generation in Ireland. Only a few decades ago, love was seen and not heard. Effusive, verbalised outpourings of emotion between partners or family were seen as uncouth and . . . well, distinctly foreign. "We have become more comfortable expressing our emotions both verbally and physically," Keating says. "Words like shame, pride or appearing a certain way would have guided many families to not let other people know their business and certainly to not be displaying PDAs [public displays of affection]."

Not only that, but the gnarled roots of “I love you” go deeper than romance. Despite the fact its importance has been drilled into us by popular culture from every conceivable angle, the truth remains that for a decent proportion of Irish parents of a certain vintage, the words aren’t in their commonly used vocabulary.

And that works both ways: as a result, there’s a swathe of Irish adults who have never said the words explicitly to their older parents either. Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t love there, just that it’s not explicitly referred to, lest we all blush ourselves to death at the embarrassment of naming it. When you don’t grow up hearing it, it can be hard to first broach it with a parent.

From her experience as a psychologist, Keating says “many an adult feels the pain of never hearing those words from their parents”. But she adds, “We always have to be aware of time contextually; it wasn’t the norm in many homes.”

Keating points out that this has a potential knock-on effect for our relationships with other people as adults. She says our parents’ “emotional attachment style” as we grow up will strongly influence how we later interact with romantic partners in the push and pull of negotiating intimacy.

Hefty currency

Is it any wonder “I love you” is such a big deal in relationships if we didn’t hear it from those closest to us for most of our lives? Maybe it’s no big surprise it takes on such hefty currency later in life when we meet a partner and open up – perhaps for the first time ever.

“If we take your introduction to love, it came straight from your mum and dad,” Keating says. “As adults, our partners re-trigger these attachment styles and therein lies whether you feel secure in giving and receiving love. Or do you feel anxious and afraid that they will at some point let you down as you push to constantly check do they really love you. Or do you feel uncomfortable when you feel the person trying to get closer to you?”

That said, things are changing for Irish parents on this front. Whether or not the importance of saying the three words was shipped to Ireland in recent years from schmaltzy US sitcoms, there’s certainly been a generational shift with the frequency of “I love you” to family and friends.

Back in the day, you'd be lucky if you got it muttered to you after a funeral of a close relative, but these days a younger cohort are calling it over their shoulders without a second thought as they head out to get a pint of milk. Psychotherapist and author of 15-Minute Parenting, Joanna Fortune, says nowadays parents are "keen that their children grow up confident and secure, and telling and showing them that they are loved is a part of that".

Here’s an anecdote I think neatly encapsulates the evolution. When I asked, my father said he can’t recall ever hearing “I love you” in his house growing up. In turn, I myself only heard it during times of extreme emotion, and yet my sister, a young mother, says she consciously makes an effort to say it to my small nephew and niece every single day. So, from blanket silence on the subject all the way to daily affirmations, how did we get here? And what might the result be?

Fortune says this shift could be attributed in part to our general opening up to all aspects of emotional intelligence and mental health in recent years. “Anecdotally, people do seem to be more open,” she posits. “This is likely because we talk more about our feelings, both positive and negative, and there has been a general de-stigmatisation around mental health . . . It’s a generalisation, but it’s also possible that we have more relationships than in previous generations and, as such, we have more experience of negotiating boundaries and a deeper awareness of who or what we want in our lives, and how that makes us feel.”

Our relationship with our parents is our first experience of loving and being loved

In terms of the positive knock-on effect, it’s clear that it will lead to a generation of more emotionally resilient Irish people. “Our relationship with our parents is our first experience of loving and being loved. When we are first held by our parents and they look at us with love, it teaches us that we are loveable and deserving of good things.”

Fortune says that when it comes to love: “It’s nice to say it, important to show it and it is essential to feel it.” She also underscores the importance of actively showing your love, not just saying it – lest the words become empty vessels not backed up by being present.

Keating mentions research that suggests people who put themselves into states of uncertainty or curiosity more often in life may end up happier – and she thinks taking the punt on saying "I love you" might be one of the biggest of these risks.

“Love is not just for Valentine’s Day,” she says. The bottom line is, it’s important to express how we’re feeling, even if it feels scary, maybe even especially if it feels scary. And, of course, all too often it’s the people we care about most with whom it can be hardest to communicate.

There have been many mental health initiatives in recent years, such as the HSE’s Little Things campaign and events such as Pieta House’s Darkness Into Light, encouraging us to reach out when we’re not feeling good. But what about when we are? It can seem almost a challenge to be vulnerable and open up ourselves to another person, to say out loud that we love our friends, our parents, our kids . . . But it’s worth it, no matter the response. Why? Well, love can even change our physiology.

Fortune refers to research by James Coan in 2006 that indicates that if someone who is in physical pain has their hand held by someone they love and are loved by, they feel physically better. Not just three little words after all, perhaps.

So, is there someone in your life who you love, but you haven’t told them? Go on. Say it. You never know how much they might want to hear it. What do you have to lose? Just don’t blame us if they reply “deadly buzz”. No risk, no reward.

*Not their real names