Magdalena Bak-Maier, Phd – How Does “I Love You” Let Me Recount The Ways?

Reflections on the many meanings of “I love you” and how they enhance or erode relationships

Symbiosis” by Rik Garret

For all its richness, the English language is actually a pauper when it comes to accurately capturing the sentiment of love. Being raised in America, my natural habit is to say “I love you” often. I say it to acknowledge how I feel towards someone and I love hearing it being said. After many years of training I have dropped the habit of loving physical things though I still love creative expressions such as dance, music, art etc. But having to work with clients whose lives are often deeply affected by love experiences – be they positive or negative – and having to deal with my own experience of love in various relationships, I have been thinking about the many meanings of “I love you” and their potential to enhance or erode relationships.

In trying to understand how these words shape and affect lives, I began to wonder about what it is that we actually mean when we say those words. It turns out to no surprise given how complex we are in terms of our psychology, “I love you” is complicated. It has many meanings that like icebergs often sit below the surface of what is actually said. Below is a list I started though I’m sure you will find others to add to this list.

“I love you” can mean:

  • I’m sorry

  • I’m saying what I think you want to hear

  • I appreciate you for your specific qualities

  • I want you because you enhance me/benefit me in some way

  • You’re enough

  • I’d like more/different but I’m lazy

  • I find you are fun company

  • You provide something for me that I need

  • I feel grateful

  • You make me feel great

  • I enjoy spending time with you

  • I can count on you

  • You are my family/blood

  • I feel I owe you my love for what you’ve done/who you are

  • You need my help

  • I have imagined a picture of our future and I love ‘that’

  • I admire you

  • I want to sleep with you

  • I want to connect with you

  • I hope to inspire you to love

  • I can’t explain easily how I feel but with you I feel better

  • You complete me

  • You are my soulmate

  • You make me a better person

  • I feel lucky you’re in my life

  • I want to create a great life with you

  • I want you to be The Partner

  • I’m not sure how I really feel

  • You’re the one I’ll always return to but I will have others.

  • You will inherit all my wealth

  • I expect you to take care of me

  • I’m devoted to you

  • You can count on me

  • No one may know you existed but I hope I find you in another life time

  • I love who I am when I am with you



All of these are forms of love though, like colours, each is different and uniquely beautiful in its honest form. When people express love by saying “I love you” they often mean something very specific and unique to their personality, culture, and context not to mention their perception of the specific relationships, themselves and how they truly feel. And yet by packaging the richness of our true emotional state into this blanket phrase “I love you”, we risk that meaning being lost, misunderstood or being misleading.

Most of us can navigate the grey zones and distinguish that “I love you” said to our good friend does not mean “I want to sleep with you” though it is possible that it does. As we get more and more reductionist within our culture, happily chopping peoples names into single letter initial and truncating many other words and phrases into acronyms and syllables that require schooling, I wonder if we may do better by being more wordy when it comes to conveying our feelings and emotions. After all, our relationships and loves concern and touch other people’s psyches and lives in very profound ways. They have the potential to cause anything from delight, inspiration and happiness to sorrow, regret, depression and even suicide.

As a professional facilitator and mediator, as well as a coach, I know all too well, the devil is sadly in the details and I’m passionate about helping others bring more conscious awareness to what they mean through and with their words by helping lower the water levels and reveal the hidden iceberg. It seems that more self awareness, honesty and courage, being true to what our heart and mind is really saying, combined with responsibility to convey our sentiments with more precision, helps us all develop more healthy and lasting relationships. This applies equally to the relationship we have amongst and with ourselves. Listening to what is true in our heart of hearts, processing what the feeling of “I love you” really means and acting in alignment with it, seems also to be a key to our general wellbeing.

Such awareness and acknowledgement of how we really feel and what we think brings profound self-respect. This integrity improves our self-image as well as our confidence and appreciation of who we are, what we need and what makes us truly happy. It also aids authentic and honest communication with others that engenders trust and builds strong foundations for lasting relationships. This may mean explaining or seeking clarity about the meaning of such words and phrases and not being afraid of what we feel, say or what others tell us. After all, what can be better than the truth?

People often deceive themselves and in the process end up deceiving others. They may shy away from difficult emotions and desires or fear that others will be offended if they are truthful. In bowing to these expectations and conventions however, we bury meanings that are foundational stepping-stones to effective relationships. Honesty and authenticity on the other hand, make for genuine and deep connection.

With time, some of us may get to the point with some people where we can read their meaning through their gestures, tone of voice or even silence. But to be safe, next time you feel compelled to say “I love you” pause and think about what you are really saying and/or what you’re not saying and take the time to say what you mean. It will save time in the long run, eliminate misunderstandings and will definitely help you respect yourself and others more.

Magdalena Bak-Maier, Phd | Get Productive!

For more information about good communication techniques, I recommend non-violent communication (NVC) work by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. You may also like to listen to my Tedx talk about why heart and mind union helps us lead better, more successful and happy lives:

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