What We Mean When We Say ‘I Love You’

Credit: tomazl/Getty Images

No matter what 2020 has taken from us, this remains.

I remember kind of swooning when I learned how the French say it: Je t’adore. I was in high school and the phrase brought to mind kitten heels, martinis and open mouth kissing. But really, when you’re a grown up, I love you is more romantic than the perfume-y Je t’adore. Informed love, love that has cut across time and thwarted its pressures, is a two-ton emotion, and the plain, full statement of it often makes my throat clog with feeling.

It is not: I love your giggle and mysterious expressions or the way your bra matches your panties. It’s: Even though your neck dropped into a waddle last year and you burp a lot after you eat Thai food and have not conquered your social insecurities and I heard you yell sharply at our kids again and you still can’t seem to bring yourself to be nicer to my mom or ask for that raise, I love you anyway.

As for the rest of our permanent relationships, where we come to know each other too well for breezy bubble-love, it is of the highest conceivable order that we can, in spite of every offense and oversight, still say I love you and mean it. I am a regular beneficiary of this emotional largesse, which I believe is sometimes called forgiveness. Family life, I’ve learned, requires a particular brand of forgiveness — fast, without being asked, without a cold and exacting deconstruction of grievances, and if necessary, without merit.

Our parents for being wrong about us in so many ways, for seeing some things and not others, for missing the point. Our siblings for being smarter or more athletic or happier than we are. Our children for diverging from our expectations, for scaring us with your developmentally-appropriate-but-still-dreadful risk taking, for growing up and leaving and forgetting to call. Ourselves for being less than we planned when we were young and dreamed of outer space and Olympic medals. Such sprawling deficiency — ours, theirs, ever more varieties and degrees as each new day passes — to be acknowledged, to be pardoned. And yet, we do. We love anyway.

From parent to teenager, it is not: I love the way our interactions leave me feeling useful and appreciated and like I am definitely in the top percentile of parents working today. It’s: Even though I delivered you at permanent expense to my genitals and you rolled your eyes at me when I tried to hit the dab, and you trapped me in that modern-day torture chamber of club music and olfactory assault, Abercrankie and Filth, then later that day, impatient to be taken to Bridget’s house, you beeped at me from the passenger seat in the driveway, like maybe I worked for you, I love you.

Or from one sibling to another, it’s not: I love the way we instantly make sense to each other and fall into plans effortlessly and always remember each other’s birthdays. It’s: Even though we hardly agree about a thing, including who should be president, how often we should call each other or even where to get cheesesteaks, I love you.

Or from a middle-aged woman to her mother, it is not: I love how we share clothes and taste in movies and concur on all aspects of raising a girl circa 2017. It’s: Even though every time we talk, you tell me Joan Jenning’s hearing is shot and ask me if I saw what Mark Cuban said on Shark Tank or if you should get a Roku or why your avatar in Netflix is a purple raccoon and then we pretend you might one day come out to California again even though it’s been five years and we both know you’re never getting on a plane again, I love you.

Or to a dying parent — in this case, a father — it is not: I love your spot-on career advice or how you always give it to me straight. It’s: Even though you said you were feeling better after I smoothed your corn silk hair and put a pill way back on your tongue and cleaned your dentures under the running water and changed your diaper, even though I begged you not to leave — or if you had to leave, to just open your eyes one more time — and you left anyway, and I can’t find you anywhere except on my answering machine where your boyish voice is asking me if we caught the last play of the Notre Dame game, I love you.

The first time the words pass between two people: electrifying.

Ten thousand times later: cause for marvel.

The last: the dream you revisit over and over and over again.

Kelly Corrigan is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, a host of shows on PBS, KQED and WHYY, and a podcaster who believes knowing more and feeling more will make us do more and be better. Listen to the most recent episode of Kelly Corrigan Wonders about losing the ones we love.

This is an excerpt from Corrigan’s book Tell Me More.

New York Times bestselling author, host of new podcast: Kelly Corrigan Wonders and PBS show: Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan

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