Love and Relationships: On Open Declarations and Learning to Say I Love You
The first time I met Sharon, she told me she loved me. It was at a house warming and I was set to leave. Then in the manner in which strangers become acquaintances, I reached out to say goodbye: First to my host, then to Sharon and her sister and the two other ladies in our small half circle. That was when she said it: Love you! Her words falling out in a sing-song manner, her arms circling my back, her eyes seeming to dance a little.
Earlier that evening, she had made me tea, and served food and mopped the spills that some of the guests made. So, maybe in the way small events tend to add up, her words, though appearing from nowhere, felt real and true.
Nearly six months later, I meet Sharon at a small birthday party. Again she serves food, easing her way through the living room with plates of rice on each hand. She stays back in the kitchen, I suppose to supervise the distribution of cakes and ice cream. When I tell her I am leaving, she reaches out to say goodbye; another hug, another ‘I love you’.
There is a way past events come knocking in my mind: sometimes soft and casual, other times fierce and haunting. With Sharon, it would be the latter. That night, I think of her with a sense of wonder and a small creeping anxiety. It is not that she says I love you, but that she says it with a strange assurance, without hesitation or doubt, so natural, like a song that bursts out from the belly. Also, she appears to mean it. There is something free and lacking ambition in the sound of her voice, especially when you consider that these days a declaration of love either clarifies pursuit or cements commitment.
To meet a stranger and love them because you are so full of it is a rare and beautiful thing. But to say it so confidently, at the risk of suspicion, doubt and even rejection is something that leaves me nervous, chasing away sleep at night. So I lie on my bed and wonder if Sharon senses the pause from the receivers of her open declarations. If she feels our surprise or sees our shoulders hunched from the weight of those words?
Some years ago, I told a man I loved him. It was not the kind of love that was hungry. There was no burning desire, no expectation, no secret silent waiting for him to say it back. Just there: out in the open, I love you. The declaration was inserted in the middle of a conversation, one where we had joked about the tragedies that had befallen him. I felt he needed to know he was deeply cared for. I wanted him to see the place he had in my heart. Unfortunately, months of conversation came tumbling down, every subsequent statement was weighed, every action, swollen with meaning. Eventually, I said it again. I love you, but not like that. Naïve of me maybe, considering the countless philosophers who claim a man and a woman can never be just friends.
These days, I curate my friendships with a learned caution. My love burns on my tongue but I never say it out, especially where the friendship is with a man. In chatting with some of my besties, I use the heart emoji but that is as far as it goes. I somehow just hope I am transparent enough for them to catch a glimpse of how I truly feel. I hope my affection is never crippled by a lack of words. So I bend and I stretch and I try to paint my love in their consciousness. There is no need for words, I convince myself. Surely they can see that I love them.
The other day, a friend mentioned some trouble with his girl friend. She wanted him to verbalize his affections. You never tell me you love me, that kind of thing; a small trouble except that it sat like a huge monster between them, fed fat by each person’s refusal to compromise. How can she not see I love her? Why must she insist I say it? What if I say it and don’t mean it? At the last statement I wanted to tell him: but you mean it, so what does it cost to say it?
In a world saturated with careless statements and untruths, should all words then lose their meaning? Is publicly declaring love fickle because it is peddled by many without conviction? The thoughts bounce in my head, but I stay silent and just let him rant.
Very recently, I told a friend I loved her. It was via chat, but it did not stop the ramming of my heart against my chest, chiefly caused by not wanting to sound ridiculous or overly emotional. Still, I let the words fall unto the screen, uninvited and unchecked. A fact she says she knows already, a fact she has witnessed. I am glad I got to say those words; an experiment of sorts, giving voice to feelings, or maybe as an act of faith, an expression of what a human life is worthy of.
I love you.
There! Said. And maybe in saying it too, we can bring our actions to match our words.