The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

“Not Just ’cause You Insisted…”

Looking back over last year, there were three posts I didn’t write because I thought they might upset people. I don’t mean make them angry – I just do that – I mean actually distress them for various reasons.

On consideration, at least this one is going to see the light of day. Please just bear in mind that there might be fraughtness. This stuff is personal. But when it comes to our unexamined assumptions about relationships, it’s also political.

So, after partially destroying our sense that the word “sex” has any meaning, there was really only one place to go: do the same thing for “love”. What, actually, does the word “love” mean, and how do we know, when we use it, that we all mean the same thing?

The word “love” does ridiculous duty in English, covering a range of feelings so vast it seems impractical they bear the same label. I love my partner, and my friends, and my daughter, and my cat, and strawberries and, according to the last time I used it, David Mitchell. I mean very different things in all those cases, but the word I have to use is “love”.

Some months ago, I was having a conversation with my partner about my exes. I was trying to work out how many of them I’d been in love with. Now, of people I had actual relationships with, there are ten. Unless I’ve forgotten someone. Every single one of them, I thought I was in love with at the time. I told them I loved them. Looking back, I was prepared to confess to having been in love four times, and two of those were really hard to admit even to myself. One because he treated me very badly, and the other because he’s not actually one of those ten, but a friend I never had a sexual or romantic relationship with. (Not, however, “unrequited love”. It’s complicated.)

What I realised in the course of this conversation was that I was commodifying love the same way some other people do sex. I was making up reasons why things didn’t count. Love was special and rare, and so I had to protect the use of the word. I had to wonder, if I felt I loved them all at the time, where did I get off denying it now? In what way was what I felt not love at the time, even if it didn’t endure?

Thing is, “love” is not a thing that happens. What happens is that, at some point, you make a conscious decision to describe the mixture of feelings you have as love. You choose to use the word, if only to yourself. It’s probably not the same mixture of feelings you had the last time you said “I love”.

So when you say to a partner “I love you,” and they say it back, how do you know you’re feeling things even vaguely similar? What’s happened is that you’ve both decided to use the “love” word. One of you possibly because the other one did.

We put so much weight on this word culturally. Saying “I love you” seems more significant than being loving. When people have strong feelings for each other, it seems awfully important to work out whether the word “love” can or should be applied. Or, you know, we could just FEEL.

We do have one linguistic demarcation with love, and it’s the difference between “I love him” and “I’m IN love with him”. I love my friend Megan hugely. I’m not in love with her. (It is, as an aside but an important one, vastly more acceptable to say I love one of my female friends than that I love one of my male friends. I love all my close friends, but I’m much less likely to publicly say that I love the male ones, because people are so much more likely to read that as indicating sexual or romantic love. What with everyone being straight.) I can be very sure that, while I love someone, I’m not in love with them. What’s slightly disturbing is that, on examination, I appear to consider “in love” to be a narrower and less generous idea than simply loving.

This, perhaps, relates to our cultural ideas of Romantic (sexual) Love as unique. You can love many children or friends or cats, but only one lover. That person is your True Love. We can only have one of those loves at a time. If you fall in love with a second person, you must be taking that love away from the first, because Romantic Love is a finite resource. Even serially, if you find a subsequent True Love, then the previous one must not really have been proper love. And perhaps that’s why we’re supposed to be so careful with “I love you.” Thing is, for me at least, that simply isn’t true. I can be in love with more than one person at once. I know because I’ve done it.

So. You know the drill. Sit at the table, equip yourself for drinking and/or smoking as necessary, and let’s talk it out. Do you withdraw love in retrospect? Give it looking back when you didn’t realise it at the time? Do you use the word love easily, or try to maintain its value by holding it back? Do you love easily or with great pain? Have you been sure of the emotion and withheld the word? How do you feel about people who love easily, or use the word love easily? Just how important is it to know when to say “I love you”?

18 responses to ““Not Just ’cause You Insisted…”

  1. Gossipy Moz January 5, 2012 at 11:43 am

    “I love you the way I love a cup of Lapsang Souchong in the morning, your tantalising aroma is promise readily fulfilled by deeper engagement”.

    I think I’ve always been inclined to descriptive statements rather than “I love you”, because of the broadness and inconsistency of “love” statements. I have learned to say “I love you” because otherwise people get grumpy with me, but to me it’s too tied into how my family acts to have a lot of positive meaning. “I love you, therefore you must obey this ridiculous command”… that’s lovely, but no.

    • Emma January 5, 2012 at 11:56 am

      I’m not a big fan of tea, but I love the hell out of that simile, it’s beautiful.

      I like descriptive statements. I’m also learning to say, “I feel a thing, and I don’t know what the words for it are.”

      When I say I love someone, which I might do quite casually, I don’t actually mean to put any pressure on them to say it back. But it is absolutely impossible not to, culturally.

      • Rachel Howard January 5, 2012 at 12:21 pm

        “When I say I love someone, which I might do quite casually, I don’t actually mean to put any pressure on them to say it back. But it is absolutely impossible not to, culturally.”

        I’ve often held back from telling someone I love them because of this. How do you tell someone how you feel about them and that it’s ok if they don’t feel the same way? Or that they don’t even have to tell you how they feel if they don’t want to.

  2. Rachel Howard January 5, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    I really enjoy the grayness of the idea of love. It’s very tempting to tell myself that the love I felt for my old boyfriends, especially those I had in high school, wasn’t real love as I was too naive to know what real love is which I think is doing a huge disservice to my emotional intelligence at that age. So now I can look back and distinguish that yes I had strong and legitimate feelings for those men but perhaps I was naive to think that they were relationships that could have lasted. (I shudder at the memory of calling one of my boyfriends “my one true love”)

    This has also reminded me of several friends I have had in the past where the distinction between loving them and being in love with them was a little blurred. It’s not something I realised at the time I think because I never felt jealous or that my feelings were unrequited. It seems we’re taught that if we love someone if the feeling isn’t requited this is a bad thing instead of merely counting yourself lucky that you know this wonderful person which is how I’ve felt about my friends.

    I love your points about how romantic love is viewed as a finite resource. After reading the Ethical Slut it’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to and something I still struggle with when I talk to my partner about his exes or the possibilities of relationships outside of our own. As it is we’re both really bad at meeting new people so this hasn’t come up too often. However I enjoy the thought that whenever my partner meets a new person it is my choice as to whether I feel threatened and jealous or simply relax and enjoy having new people introduced into my life as well.

    Lastly I find it odd that I have no problem telling my partner on a daily basis that I love him yet I hardly ever tell my family I love them. I used to find it awkward telling my Grandmother that I loved her in letters and yet I did love her. One of the very reasons I tell my partner I love him is because I would hate for him to spend any part of the day in doubt about my feelings for him. Maybe when I say it so often it deadens the effect of the words but I like to think this isn’t the case as whenever I do tell him it is because I have been thinking about my feelings for him. I guess I’ve known my family longer and take it for granted they know how I feel I don’t think is the case. So New Years resolution: tell the people I care about that I love them.

    Sorry for all those thoughts. I got to thinking and it didn’t stop. 😛

    • Emma January 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      Rachel, gosh, don’t apologise, this is brilliant.

      Of those four loves of mine, the first was a relationship that started when I was 13. And I do get a bit of “Oh, but you were too young, you couldn’t possibly have been in love.” Well fuck it, but I was.

      And yes, I have recently told my partner that actually, I’m not naturally monogamous. It was a conversation that went a hell of a lot better than I was expecting.

      • Gossipy Moz January 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm

        And yes, I have recently told my partner that actually, I’m not naturally monogamous.

        Was this one of those times he just looked at you and went “well, duh”? And, um, I didn’t realise you identified as monogamous. Sorry for not picking that up 😉

        I tend to go for “I love you” as a kind of amorphous affectionate feeling, but I am more comfortable with concrete things. And slightly odd similes.

        • Emma January 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm

          There’s a lot in this I can’t talk about because I have to respect my partner’s privacy (srsly, I actually try to do this, despite how it might look) but no, the reaction was not “well, duh”. It was me making sure he knew something I’d taken for granted that he knew, because I’d recently discovered he didn’t know, or realise the significance of, something I really thought everyone knew.

          I don’t identify as monogamous. But, hopefully, we have a guest post coming where we can have that conversation in finickity detail.

      • Rachel Howard January 5, 2012 at 12:47 pm

        I also think there’s a danger in telling teenagers that what they’re feeling isn’t real. How else will they learn about their feelings if they’re being disrespected and subdued? I also have a feeling of if I didn’t love them then why was I with them which is maybe not a helpful thought as there is nothing wrong with enjoying the company or bed space of a person without it being love.

        Thankfully for me it was something my partner got me thinking about non-monogamy. I’ve always felt that jealousy was an inappropriate feeling but only as far as flirting and maybe even kissing. I like the thought of flirting or kissing other people so why shouldn’t I extend the same luxuries to my partner? It was him however that got me thinking that maybe sex and even romantic feelings were things to be shared with other people and I really feel this is something I could comfortable with if I put a bit of work into it. I’ve always wanted my partners to feel like no subject is off limits when it comes to talking to me so if there’s someone else they like I want them to know they can talk to me about it without the fear of upsetting me. Which also means that I can talk to them about how I feel about the situation and all in all have a very reasonable and rational discussion. Like I said though we’re both really bad at meeting new people so I’ve yet to put any of this thought process into action. I think that although we’re two progressive people we’re actually quite monogamous underneath it all. 😛

    • Max Rose January 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm

      “So now I can look back and distinguish that yes I had strong and legitimate feelings for those men but perhaps I was naive to think that they were relationships that could have lasted.”

      As Emma says, it’s important to recognise the legitimacy of such feelings, even if we can see now that they were perhaps misguided. There’s some good stuff in The Ethical Slut about this, too:

      “Our monogamy-centrist culture tends to assume that the purpose and ultimate goal of all relationships – and all sex – is lifelong pair bonding, and that any relationship that falls short of that goal has failed.

      A sexual relationship my last for an hour or two. It’s still a relationship: the participants have related to one another – as sex partners, companions, lovers – for the duration of the interaction. Longevity is not a good criterion by which to judge the success or failure of a relationship.”

      I’ve also had lovers in the past, who I said I loved at the time, and about whom I might doubt that now. Maybe I felt the need to reciprocate the spoken declaration; maybe I had talked myself into it; maybe I genuinely though that what at the time was a shallow lust or desperate need for affection was something more noble. But I don’t think I can judge those relationships based upon whether they meet some standard of “loving”, “romantic love” or “being in love”: they only meaningful criterion might be “did we make each other happy?”

      And that’s a whole ‘nother question.

  3. Gossipy Moz January 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Actually, isn’t it funny that you can say “I love all my children equally” but “I love all my lovers equally” is regarded as odd? Of course, I go for “love them all, but in different ways because they’re not all the same”.

    Also, WTF people getting grumpy when you deny their extra special unique snowflake nature, but then also getting grumpy when you don’t love them the same as you love all the other generic people you love?

    And it’s not quantifiable or even quantised. The question “is purple more than apple” is ludicrous, but “do you love X more than Y” is not, even if it’s “do you love purple more than you love apple”.

  4. Max Rose January 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    I have a lot of other thoughts about this, probably too much for a comment. But for now I just want to say how much I love (hard to avoid the word!) the way you’ve subverted what people would normally consider to be their deep respect for the uniqueness of romantic love by referring to it as “commodification”.

    Some would say that sex and love get cheapened when they’re shared, but you’ve pointed to the opposite effect: that one of the things that makes love so powerful is that it is inexhaustible, and once we start to think of it as something to be calculated, compared, divvied up and squabbled over, we reduce it to a commodity. Love is not like bauxite or pork bellies (although I love pork belly!): it’s more like a language or a social networking platform. The more people who share it, the more valuable, powerful and expressive it becomes, which shouldn’t be surprising given that love is a type of connection.

    Of course, time is indeed finite, even if love and sex are not. But there are techniques for dealing with that, as various polyamory (a word I’m not entirely happy with) resources suggest, just as there are for dealing with limited time in all aspects of our life.

    • Emma January 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm

      Time; time and attention, which is what I found so difficult about being in a polyamorous relationship, the constant balancing act with the things that I actually didn’t feel like I had enough of. Love wasn’t one of them.

      Now I am, of course, craving pork belly.

  5. Isabel January 5, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    There’s a lot to think about here and I suspect I’m going to be churning it over for days. We do mean so very many different things when we say “love”.

    When I think about what, for me, has characterised the difference between loving and being in love I think it’s a combination of sexual desire and the thrill of that which is new and uncertain. These are wonderful things to feel but, when I put them like that, don’t really seem worthy of being lauded above other ways of loving.

    I really hate the idea that our different loves can be ranked and quantified. How am I supposed to know whether I love my partner more than my children or my parents more than my friends? How am I even supposed to untangle where loving my kids ends and loving their father begins? (To be clear there is definitely a separate, loving relationship with each, individual person but there’s a big squidgy bit of generic family-love in the middle.)

    And, yeah, I totally don’t get the ‘one true love’ thing. While monogamy is working for me quite nicely I am well aware that it is possible (even common?) to romantically/sexually love more than one person at a time. Some of the very worst mistakes I have made occurred when I bought into the belief that I had to choose (and choose in haste) rather than figure out a mutually agreeable arrangement or even just keep things flexible while I untangled my feelings.

  6. Jackie Clark January 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    For me, love is a word, a collection of feelings, that may be ascribed to many of the people in my life. They come from the same place, but manifest in different ways. I loved my father, but my love for him is very different to the way I love my mother. The feelings are different, how I act/acted on that love is different. I love my husband. I love certain of my friends – of whom most are women, and only one is a man. I love some of the kids I teach – although I’m not really supposed to.
    As Isabel said, there’s alot to think about here.

  7. isaacfreemanIsaac January 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I’ve always thought that having a single word for love is a great insight embedded in the English language. At base, love is love is love. Whether it manifests as eros, agape, philia or storge is a matter of circumstance, according to sexuality, family relationship, status, physical proximity and any of the other complexities of life.

    Those of us who are religious tend to see all the forms of love between humans as deriving from the love between God and humanity: we love for the glimpse of divinity we see in each other. I think, however, that you don’t need to be religious to see love as a deeper concept uniting numerous manifestations.

    Do you withdraw love in retrospect?

    I say no. The love remains real, even if it turns out the object of love wasn’t the person you thought they were, or wanted them to be.

    Give it looking back when you didn’t realise it at the time?


    Do you use the word love easily, or try to maintain its value by holding it back?

    That depends on the implication. If it’s clear that we’re talking about love-is-love-is love, then use it freely. If the context might confuse people about how that love might be expressed, then it’s time to pick words carefully.

    Do you love easily or with great pain?

    To love is always to risk pain.

    Have you been sure of the emotion and withheld the word?

    If we’re talking eros, never for very long. For more general love, often. There’s not always a suitable opportunity to say “I love you, man” and be understood clearly.

    How do you feel about people who love easily, or use the word love easily?

    I think it’s great to use it freely, but not to be indifferent to how it’s understood.

    Just how important is it to know when to say “I love you”?

    It’s important inasmuch as it helps people understand how you’d like the love to be expressed. But even for eros, I think it’s seldom important to wait too long before saying.

  8. Sinead January 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Oh what a fun complicated topic!

    I love all kinds of people to all sorts of degrees and in all sorts of ways. I tend to be monogamous in relationships because I have no ability to balance. When I eat, I tend to focus on one portion of my plate at a time and enjoy it thoroughly, I eat my green beans, then my potato’s and then my steak . . the back and forth and harmonization of the elements is not my thing. The few times I have maintained multiple relationships I tend to forget people for a week or two/brush them off ect. and then be like ‘Oh Yeah!’ which, while the green beans don’t mind being neglected, people find it quite upsetting.

    I would not identify as naturally monogamous, and sorta question if that exists or whether that’s just behaviorial. So! Labels. Problems.

    I think part of the problem is the conflating? conflation? of desire with being in love. If you love someone, and you desire them, you are ‘in love’, and then that gets confused with if you desire things they do for you or with you – commit to you exclusively, provide security, children, – and the things you do for them – commit, provide, ect. and then being ‘In Love’ becomes all sorts of things, and if later desire falters or fails we get to say we love some one but we aren’t ‘In Love’ anymore, and from there springs the debate about whether it can be rekindled. Or if it was ever ‘real love’. For instance, when I am “in Love” I tend to adopt monogamy which for me is not part of being in love, and is not necessarily something I feel an overwhelming desire for. Its just this behavior that goes with that ‘feeling’.

    Love when it is just love can be anything. Cats, strawberries, children and that is okay, because no one expects you to desire your cats, strawberries or children at least not intensely. Its only when it is more intense and become ‘in love’ that restrictions are so key.

    Desire, just wanting to jump someone and bang their brains out, is similarly problem ridden when conflated with love which is often is – though less so than in the other direction. The idea that you can desire and very much WANT someone for whom you feel no amount of love is viewed as irregular (Even if it is becoming more main stream). People still get confused about one night stands and what people should feel the morning after ect. Currently I have a raging crush on a guy 10 yrs younger than me and I am not even sure I like him or have any interest in him beyond his accent and his equipment. Having been through this before I am relatively confident I won’t know until I get some of the desire fog out of my windshield and the quickest way to do that .. well. I know I can be sweet and friendly and get to know all sorts of things about him, and I can come up with a million reasons to like him, and I get even get to the point where I love him and think myself “In Love”, but until I wake up the morning after I’m acting in an altered state. Desire is stacking the deck to make me be ‘in love’.

    And, I think this conflation in both directions is part of the confusion about what in love is, and how we know, and whether we eradicate it retrospectively. If we do not desire someone anymore it was never real love, it was hormones or a fling, though there might still be love, its not ‘True Love’.

    Those are just the top of my head thoughts anyway.

    • Emma January 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm

      Desire, just wanting to jump someone and bang their brains out, is similarly problem ridden when conflated with love which is often is

      We teach children this from a very young age, that sex = love. “When a mummy and a daddy love each other very much…” That sex is best with someone you love. So we’re quite conditioned, when we feel intense desire, to read it as love. And that strikes me as quite dangerous – at least until you’ve had the ‘complete arsehole who’s really good in bed’.

      I would not identify as naturally monogamous, and sorta question if that exists or whether that’s just behaviorial. So! Labels. Problems.

      Boy do we (hopefully) have the guest post coming for you. I’m also ridiculously pleased that my instinct that this discussion would blend into that one was so bang-on.

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