Why You should say “I love you” often
I grew up knowing I was loved. My mother showered me with affection, and from my early childhood I remember nothing but safe, warm cushy feelings of love in an exciting, magical world. Or something like that. Many people were not so lucky as to have warm, loving parents, thus after nearly 20 years in the field of clinical psychology, I can tell you with certainty that a lot of people’s issues stem from just that - insecure attachment and the million dollar question: “Am I worthy of love?”. In fact - many psychologists would argue (based on theories developed by A. Beck, Cognitive Behavior Therapy) that if you take all our problem behaviors; anger-management problems, anxieties, fears, negative thinking patterns, over-reactions, jealousy…well, pretty much all our bulls*** behaviors and boil it down to an extract,- we end up with 3 core beliefs - or fears, if you will: Will I continue to feel helpless? Will I amount to anything? Am I worthy of Love? The latter is one of our deepest, most dreaded questions. Left unanswered, it leads to a lifetime of problematic thinking and behaviors at best, pathology at the worst. Love is such a primal need for humans and animals that through observational studies and gruesome experiments in labs, we have learnt that humans and animals will pick love and safety over food when forced to choose. As someone who loves someone - you actually do have the incredible gift and ability to help answering the ultimate questions of ‘Am I loved? Am I worthy of love?’ for your loved ones, allowing them to live safe in the knowledge that even with all the sham, drudgery and broken dreams,- the world is still beautiful (M. Ehrmann) - because they are loved.
As much as children observe what we do and model from our behaviors, they are also keen listeners. Contrary to common behavior of many young children, they actually do listen to what we have to say about them, and to them. We know from research on labeling and type casting of children, that there is a strong link between how children are being talked about, to how their behaviors unfold and to how they interact with the world. For instance, letting a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder hear the conversation between educators: “this one is all trouble, he can’t sit still and I don’t think he should be in this classroom with the other kids” will with certainty lead to the child confirming this hypothesis in time. Why? Well, the educator for one, has an expectation that the child will be trouble, and will be looking for it. This is called the confirmation bias,- what you look for you will find, since you rule out all factors that don’t confirm your hypothesis, or deem them as irrelevant or less important. Further, the child knows he is not like the others, and that he is most likely going to get in trouble. Whether the child actually really misbehaves or is slightly out of the conforming context does not really matter, as the reactions will be the same: "That kid again, always up to something, never listening". This will be his brand, he might as well stop trying to be “good” he is so “bad anyway”. Everybody says so. Even if he didn’t quite feel that at first, all the evidence points in the direction that he is less capable of conforming than the others. He wouldn’t have been in trouble so much otherwise. Might as well embrace it.
If labeling a child as ‘troublemaker’, makes a ‘troublemaker’, is it not possible that we by failing to clearly express love - LOVE - a primal need, which deficit evokes a core fear, could lead to a child starting to have a negative self-narrative doubting whether or not they are worthy of love? “I don’t hear ‘I love you’ so I must not be loved”. “Mommy is angry again, it is because I am so unlovable”.
So, what does this have to do with how rarely you are telling your loved ones that you love them? Everything! Because if you are of the impression that “my children knows I love them” or “my husband/wife/significant other/partner knows I love them, I say it in many ways in how I provide for them, cook for them, take out the trash for them, spend time with them, throw a ball with them, grab a beer with them, teach them things, f*** them”, - well - then you are not quite there. Many of those actions are lovely signs of love, indeed. But sometimes the recipient don’t even consider those tokens as love - you may have to tell them. In all my years in private practice, I have observed that when I ask people how they know that their loved ones love them, they will convey these tokens of love in a hopeful, wishful, somewhat uncertain recount: “Well, my mother used to cook a lot, and I could sort of tell that she really cared when she kept saying ‘mangia! mangia!’ She wasn’t very warm otherwise, but I know she loved me…?” The uncertainty hanging in the air. Or: “My husband is a man of few words. But he is really helpful around the house and he does things without me even asking for it. I do know he loves me….?” Though there is that doubt again; he may just be complacent. All the wonderful, and invaluable tokens of love from the many love languages (acts of service, words of affirmation, gifts, quality time, physical touch, G.Chapman) are just further solidified as love tokens when accompanying the lead singer of the love band here: The actual, non-debatable words. It simply takes the uncertainty and guessing out of it. And since we have just established that wondering if you are loved is actually quite troublesome for wellbeing and mental health, - why would you keep your loved ones guessing?
You are not convinced, I get it. It seems redundant, it doesn’t roll off your tongue easily, seems to get stuck in your throat on the way out, you weren’t raised like that and look at you, you turned out fine… And all that. Sure. Lets bring in the questions:
Q: In a romantic relationship - a little bit of cat-and-mouse-game, - the hunt, - the playing hard to get, - keeping your cards close to your chest, - that is just fun and keeps it exciting, no?
- Sure! This is all very common and exciting practices in the human mating game. And there certainly seems to be a correlation between winning the prized mate and having sporadically engaged in a little of this game. But we are not talking about prematurely showering a love interest with declarations on the first date (My easily distracted mind goes to the movie clip of Will Ferrel in the movie ‘Elf!’, when he sees his father for the first time: I love you I love you I LOOOOVE you!….Too much, too soon…) What we are talking about is in an established relationship,- with your significant other, child or parent; there is nothing to lose and everything to gain in expressing that you love them. You gain their certainty in your love and you won’t have to deal with all the interesting behaviors people engage in when they feel uncertain, doubtful and unworthy of love.
Q: But I can’t just go around saying it all the time, - the word ‘love’ is sacred, it shouldn’t be overused. There will be an inflation of the word and it will lose its power?
Nobody lies on their death bed wishing they had said “I love you” less to their loved ones. I think you deep down know the opposite to be true? Furthermore, we do know that words can lose their meaning due to inflation,- as evident when a parent is trying to tell a toddler ‘no’ for the 275th time that day, and the toddler still grabs the cat food and launches it into her brothers face. In the situation with the parent of the toddler, it can be a good idea to combine ‘no' with a redirection: “No, instead of playing with the cat food, play ball with me”. After a while, the child learns right from wrong through the pairing of the word ‘no’ and the redirections. So the word isn’t all lost. As far as inflation in the love word goes, you are likely not going to say ‘I love you’ 275 times to your loved ones today, so we are not risking having to propose an intervention to prevent that kind of inflation. Arguably, it is pivotal to prevent ‘love’ from losing its power. It is a highly overused word; Hollywood and pop-music have taken the word to the hills, sometimes worshipped it, sometimes cheapened it. The wonderful thing about human language is that the words are really only 10% of the communication. How you say 'I love you’ can give it more or less power from situation to situation. If you mostly say it matter-of-factly before going to bed, but one day, you really feel like screaming it from the mountain top, - well, shy of a mountain top readily at hand, you may consider combining intense eye contact and a whisper. I can guarantee it will be received as powerfully as intended.
Q : But it is embarrassing to say ‘I love you’ all the time, - people could hear it. I’m not used to saying it.
- You should see a therapist about that. But seriously, - say it in private, then. Practice really does make perfect, the more you say it, the more natural it feels. Love is a privilege, a primal need, a gift, a yearning. Some may argue that all you need is love, and that it holds the true meaning of life. Embarrassment is a completely socially constructed emotion; only felt if you decide that the thing you find embarrassing is embarrassing. So, you could really just knock it off. Fill your heart with love and gratitude, practice saying it, decide it’s not embarrassing…and knock it the f*** off. Or see a therapist that is less direct in their language than me.
Q: But it feels raw, vulnerable and scary. I’m worried that the other person won’t say it back, says it back out of obligation, or will laugh at me.
Yes, all that makes sense. I’ve explained how deeply we fear rejection of love earlier in this blog post, and it is truly terrifying to succumb to feelings of love, make them be known, risking that we publicly may lose all these things and our world will unravel. Love IS fragile. You feel fragile saying it. This all makes sense. But here is the thing,- It is very rare that people are ridiculed for saying I love you to their loved ones. There may be times when they may not respond; they are hurt by you, they feel too vulnerable. Guess what helps people that are hurt and vulnerable? Hearing that they are loved. So most likely they will come around: More secure with you, more willing to give from their fragile love (remember less insecurity, less problematic behaviors?). If your love is actually unrequited, the relationship will end whether you say it or not, so you don’t have anything to lose in saying it. It may just hurry the inevitable. From a probability point of view, saying it is likely to make the other person feel safe and secure and loving towards you. They will show that, you will feel more love, they will feel more love. Quite contagiously, like a Hollywood romcom: Love is all around. (Wow, my music and movie references are endless!)
Love is very much like a plant in a garden. Water your plant - and it will flourish and grow. So many things are conducive for growth for the plant; weeding, flipping of soil etc. These are analogous to love languages, tokens of love, all conducive for a lovely, vital plant. But the three words are the water. Cease watering your plant - and it will eventually wilt and die. (and humans will add a healthy dose of resentment in there while you’re at it). And you can then argue that your core fear of not being worthy of love was true, because the relationship ended. When in fact, it is possible you killed a perfectly good plant for leaving it without nourishment for too long. But sure, you have no plants, you never had plants, should never have plants, are not worthy of plants.
Or… Just go water your plants. All of them. Happy growing!