Is "I Love You" Obsolete?

by Shauna Springer

About twenty years ago, when I first met my future husband, when two people who have been dating wanted to profess a special, unique and exclusive bond with each other they would say “I love you.”

“I love you” indicated a lot of wonderful things all at once. First of all, it indicated that you had been singled out as very precious to that person. There was also an inferred commitment to developing the relationship further.

Polyamorous relationships aside, “I love you” generally implied an intention to pursue a monogamous, committed partnership. It was the thing you waited for and the thing that gave you the deepest thrill of the delight to hear for the first time. And apparently it’s not the same that people wait to hear these days, at least if reality TV dating shows are any indication of the cultural zeitgeist.

Nowadays it would appear that people instead will make a two stage declaration of feelings instead. First, they will tend to initially utter the phrase, “I am falling in love with you.”  That is a tentative statement – an exciting one to hear for the recipient – but does not seem to indicate any intention of exclusive commitment.

Someone who is “falling in love” with one person over a romantic breakfast may find him or herself “falling in love” with another person entirely at dinner if they have enjoyed 2 very exciting dates with two different people that day. The statement “I’m falling in love with you” seems to indicate movement toward something, but no firm commitment.

The next statement, which I think might be seen as the ultimate profession of feelings these days, is “I’m in love with you.” This is the one that nowadays brings tears to the eyes of the recipient. This two stage sequence, ending not in “I love you” but “I’m in love with you” seems to be what many people now say to profess strong feelings towards each other. So much so, that plainly saying “I love you” seems rather quaint and out of place.

I definitely don’t watch a lot of reality TV dating shows but I’m pretty sure that I have observed a pattern of people saying “I love you” and watching the other person looks slightly dejected as though awaiting something…but what? The “what” turns out to be that the expression “I’m IN love with you” which now seems to be the go-to way to signify a special attachment.

Words have meaning, and paired with the inherent push to see explosively positive feelings as the mark of “true love,” this shift in how we profess our feelings seems interesting. What we are hoping for now and waiting in anticipation to hear is that someone is under our spell. “Falling in love” seems to indicate a process of lowering defenses as you begin to be pulled into the spell of new love and being “IN love” seems to place the emphasis on euphoric feelings.

Could it be that “I’m in love with you” refers less clearly to an intention to commit and love someone else and is more a reflection of one’s own state of intoxication? Could we accurately translate “I’m in love with you” to mean “I am now bonded to you by virtue of the fact that I am now fully under the spell of these feelings I experience in your presence?”

Could this shift in our wording of professions of love be yet another reflection that what we are told to chase during courtship is chemistry, and not character?

Bottom Line: It does not serve us well to take explosively positive feelings as a sign that we have met our “soul mate.” If our goal is to create a happy lifelong relationship it is critical that we assess not only chemistry, but also character. 

In my book, Marriage for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)ventures of Well-educated Couples, I studied how highly educated women construct equal partnerships. My sample of over 600 married women had a divorce rate of less than 6%. The reason for this is too complicated to cover in one short blog post, but a practical take-home message is to develop a model for how you would assess character in a potential partner.

To provide some practical examples, it is helpful to notice how a potential partner speaks about their past relationships. For instance, have all of their exes turned out to be “complete psychos” or do they speak about their past relationships in a respectful way? Do they acknowledge some part in whatever did not work well in their past relationships?  Do they respect your time – call you when they say they will and let you know if they happen to be running late? Do they understand that trust is something to be earned over time, not immediately granted in a flurry of romantic excitement?

As a final note, I was given permission to create and post on my website a profile of an emotionally safe person based on the book “Safe People” by Cloud and Townsend. Many of my clients have used this targeted assessment as a tool to help them assess the character of potential partners. While this permission does not extend beyond posting it on my personal website, you can access it here, at no charge and with no strings whatsoever attached.

Shauna Springer

about the author

Shauna Springer

Shauna is a licensed psychologist with a personal mission to help other women understand what it takes to create and sustain exceptional relationships. She is also the author of Marriage for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)ventures of Well-educated Couples, which pulls back the curtain on a number of dangerously misleading messages promoted in the media and popular press that encourage us to commit to ticking-time-bomb relationships. In addition to revealing the telltale signs of doomed relationships, this book also describes a form of marriage that is highly successful and deeply rewarding to many of the smartest women in this generation. To profile these relationships, Dr. Shauna Springer drew from a poll of more than 1200 women, mostly Harvard graduates and their equally capable friends, who are working to create truly equal partnerships. The end result is a guidebook to a marriage of equals that offers a blunt, bold, and refreshingly truthful approach about what it takes to create and sustain an exceptional partnership.

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