What Does the Word "Love" Mean to You?

I’d been dating my boyfriend for a couple months when something curious happened…

My friends started asking a question I wasn’t prepared for.

“Have you said, ‘I love you’ yet?” They inquired hopefully, like children waiting for a baby bird to hatch.

“No,” I reported, “We haven’t.”

“Have you said it?” They followed up, over coffee.

“Still nothing?” They asked, on the line at Trader Joe’s.

To be clear, I was not concerned about this. But apparently, everyone else was.

After the umpteenth negative update, I started to feel like my relationship was a failure, when, by all other benchmarks, I would classify it as the best I’d ever known. My friends didn’t ask if this person showed up for me, or if he had the patience to get to know my particular quirks. They didn’t ask if his presence brought me peace or if we made up songs that no one else would find funny. They didn’t ask if I felt safe or comfortable or like the truest version of myself. (For the record, the answer to all of these questions is yes.)

More saliently, they didn’t ask if I felt loved. They only asked if I’d heard it.

Is this one phrase the barometer by which one measures the progress of a relationship? And why, in our contemporary culture, is speaking it (versus, say, actually demonstrating it) so very important?

Recent events aside, these are questions I’ve thought long and hard about over the years. In my limited experience, it’s clear that “love” is a word with too many interpretations. For some, it refers to an emotion, more of an “I adore you,” or a declaration of infatuation. For others, it’s a sign of commitment, weighed heavily and with care. For others, they really are just words, as informal as “I’ll call you,” and just as easy to disregard.

On The Bachelor, widely heralded as the model of sane and carefully considered romantic relationships, contestants are known to say things like, “I can totally see myself maybe someday falling in love with you.” That’s at least three generations removed from an emotion and definitely not a promise of care. Yet, time and again, they foretell that this all-important thing is totally maybe someday coming, lest their lover lose hope.

In my universe, people have said “I love you” as early as a second date. They have whispered it in their sleep. It’s been spoken and then rescinded. It’s been declared with the ultimate confidence, followed by a hasty exit. I once read that the average person says, “I love you” within the first 90 days of a relationship. Misguided overachiever that I am, I spent my twenties measuring every relationship by this standard. Like magic, around the three-month mark, it always came rolling along. It felt nice, sure, and in some cases serious. But what do those words actually mean?

In her book All About Love, bell hooks writes, “The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists agree that we would all love better if we used it as a verb.” In other words, love is as love does. (Not, ah-hem, as love says.)

I posed this question to my friend, during the latest round of “Has it happened yet?” If the real meaning of love is action, why are we so hung up on the phrase?

“Because sometimes, you just need to f*cking hear it,” she replied.

It was a fair point.

Still, I’d argue that we’re just as inclined to hear different meanings as we are to speak them. Case in point: At the end of When Harry Met Sally, Sally tells Harry that she hates him, she really, really hates him. It is one of the best declarations of love I’ve ever heard, though the word “love” appears exactly zero times. To me, what she’s saying sounds pretty close to my own definition of love: I see you, I accept you, and I will do whatever I can to make your life better, because I so value your presence in mine.

For those of us who aren’t fluent in flowery, effusive proclamations, there are many other ways to communicate one’s feelings. We may share common words, but each of us speaks our own unique language. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can find someone who understands it.

And now, for the million-dollar question: What does the word “love” mean to you? When have you said it in relationships?

P.S. How to know if your partner is the one and the love story I never thought to tell.