“I just wish he would say, ‘I love you,’ more often,” the woman confided to her friend. “Is that too much to ask?”
I was listening to a couple of women talk about the problems one of them has in her marriage. They were sitting at a table next to me at dinner Saturday night. They weren’t very loud, so I didn’t get all the details, but I was struck very strongly by the fact that the troubled woman seemed to believe her life would be so much better if her husband just said those three little words more often.
We’ve been conditioned by our culture to think that words of love will make everything all right. The Beatles told us that “love is all you need” and many people believed them, because it feels so good to think that. Popular culture is full of this notion. If you say, “I love you,” and you mean it, everything will be great. (Cue romantic music and happy ending.)
But as I thought about the conversation I heard, I kept thinking the unhappy woman is almost certainly confusing herself. Saying “I love you” is a great start, but it’s never enough. If you don’t say and do other things that give the words meaning, then those three words will be empty at best and selfish at worst.
So if it’s not enough to just say, “I love you,” what sorts of things do we need to say? And what do we need to hear? Here are a few that occur to me. Your list might vary, because your emotional needs — and the emotional needs of your partner — might be different.
• “I need you.” There’s an odd idea floating around in pop culture that it’s unhealthy to need the person who loves you, but this is nonsense. If you love someone and that person loves you in return, there are few things as wonderful as being needed — when it’s mutual. Yes, there can be unhealthy relationships of need — typically very imbalanced — but mutual dependence can be a great thing. So tell the person you love why you need him or her. He or she needs to know.
• “I like you.” Love can start in mysterious ways and it can be a trickster. You might develop feelings for someone based on physical attraction or convenience or dozens of other things. Many of those feelings won’t survive over time. You’ll change what you feel as your needs change and as you get accustomed to being with someone all the time. So you need to like someone, too. That’s the sort of thing that’s less likely to change. If you truly like your partner, you need to say so — and you need to explain what you like about him or her.
• “You are beautiful to me, but that’s not why I love you.” Everybody wants to feel attractive, but nobody wants to believe that a love relationship is based on perfect looks. It’s great to find your partner beautiful, but that will change over time. We age. We gain weight. We physically change in a lot of ways. If your partner believes his or her love for you is based around physical appearance, you’re setting that person up for insecurity. If someone believes he or she is valued for beauty or sex, for instance, that person is going to be paranoid about failing to live up to an impossible standard.
• “I’ll take a chance on you if you take a chance on me.” No relationship is guaranteed. There’s no such thing as a perfect future. Love can end. People can change. As much as we want to believe love will last forever and relationships can be for a lifetime, that’s not always true. If you love someone and that person loves you, you need to make it clear that you know the future isn’t guaranteed and you know things could fall apart — but that you’re completely committed to taking a chance if the other person will do the same. Love relationships require a tremendous amount of faith. It’s important for your partner to know you accept him or her on faith.
• “This matters more to you than it does to me, so let’s do what you prefer.” Some people try to get their way all the time in relationships. Those people manipulate and scheme. They see their relationship as a contest of wills, not as a partnership. The truth is that there will be times when two partners want different things. Most of the time when there is disagreement, one or the other will feel more strongly about the matter. Be conscious of this and quit trying to get your way all the time. Tell your partner — as often as possible — that you’re willing to concede, not because you think you’re wrong, but simply because this case doesn’t matter as much to you. In the right kind of relationship, two people can almost compete to see who can please the other more about such things. It’s not weakness to give in. It can be strength.
• “What can I do to make your life better right now?” Everybody has problems in his or her life. With the way most couples live their lives today — going in completely different directions and not crossing paths all the time — it’s easy to lose track of the “pain points” in your partner’s life. You need to be willing to jump in to provide help whenever your partner needs it. And even if you don’t know about an issue, there are times when it’s valuable to ask — as often as you can — what you can do for your partner. Even if he or she doesn’t need help at the moment, your willingness expresses real love in an important way.
• “I choose you every day. If I met you now, I would choose you again.” We don’t make one relationship decision and that one decision lasts for life. You decide every single day whether you love your partner and whether you’re happy with the life you have together. We all know that, whether we admit it out loud or not. It’s easy to eventually fear that someone is bored with you. It can strengthen a relationship to let a partner know that you are still consciously choosing him or her every day — and that you would choose him or her all over again if you just met today.
• “You are my priority.” Your partner needs to know that you put him or her above other things in your life. Your partner needs to know that you will be there when he or she needs help. Your partner needs to know he or she matters more than your friends or your job or your other daily priorities. Your partner needs to know that he or she can depend on you in times of need.
• “Whatever’s wrong, we can work it out; I won’t give up on us.” Every relationship will have problems, so it’s easy to become insecure about your future together. This isn’t the same as saying, “You can’t leave me. You’re stuck with me for life.” That’s entirely different. This is a pledge to actively work through inevitable issues. It’s a commitment to doing whatever is necessary for both of you to be happy — so it’s actually the opposite of just saying, “You’re stuck with me.”
• “You’ve been on my mind today, even more than usual. I can’t take my mind off of you.” When you’re apart from someone, it’s easy for that person to wonder whether you really think about him or her. For me, I constantly think about someone I love and constantly have the desire to pick up a phone and say, “You’re on my mind. I can’t stop thinking about you, because I love you.” We all need to believe a partner cares that much about us. We all need to know we have the sort of relationship that means we’re on someone’s mind even if we’re not there. When you feel that pang of longing for a missing person, say so. It can change your partner’s day to know you’re thinking of him or her.
Those are just a few of the phrases that are important to express. Saying “I love you” is great. It can be meaningful. But if it’s not backed up with other words and actions, those three little words will quickly become meaningless even if they’re said.
Think about what you want to hear. Think about what your partner actually needs. (His or her “love language” might be different from yours, so think in terms of what your partner needs, not what you need.)
Love is an amazing journey, but “I love you” is never enough to get a relationship to where it needs to go. There are plenty of other things we need to say and do. Make a conscious decision to talk about the things that need to be talked about. Take the lead. You might be amazed at how much your vulnerability and willingness to start can be worth.
There’s nothing in the world more powerful than the right kind of love. Don’t take it for granted when you are loved and when you love someone else. Nurture it. Work at it. That’s the only way to make love last.