The meaning of ‘I love you’

For the first time in a long time, I have recently had cause to ponder the meaning of ‘I love you’. Something that I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about before.

IMG_3224To my mind, the ancient Greeks had the right idea in assigning not one, but four words, to describe love.

Agape – A love that is selfless and sacrificial. Like the deep love God has for mankind, or the love for children or a spouse. True love.
Eros – Passionate, sensual love. Desire, longing, attraction. Love of beauty, both on the surface and the beauty within.
Philia – A dispassionate regard for friends, family, loyalty, a sense of community.
Storge – Acceptance for others – especially one’s children – and all of their failings.

Talking specifically about romantic love – Eros and then Agape, rather than love for family, friends or objects, there are generally two stages to love. Eros, the initial attraction and desire, followed by Agape, which comes when you really know and see the object of the desire and affection, and love them deeper and more fully, more selflessly and unconditionally.

The urge to tell someone you love them for the first time is usually a big deal.  You might agonise over it for weeks.  ‘Is it too soon?’  Do they love me too?’ “Will I scare them off?’ It’s an interesting exercise to ask yourself, what you mean when you say to someone “I love you’. And also to ask yourself why you are saying it.

My recent observation is that the first time you fall in love, ,”I love you” means Eros. It almost explodes out of you.  You are so bowled over by these new and amazing feelings that you are desperate to share them with the object of your desire and affection. In this context ‘I love you’ means “I want you’, “I think you’re amazing’, “I can’t stop thinking about you’.

As time goes on, maybe those definitions change and subside as the initial desire wears off – and you’re out of the honeymoon phase, and Agape takes over. So that now when you say ‘I love you’ you mean “You are deeply important to me’, ‘I would sacrifice myself for you’, ‘ I want to build a life with you’, ‘I know everything about you and I accept and love the person you are.’

The second, third and however many subsequent times you connect with someone, the more time you generally allow before you say ‘I love you’, because you recognise the difference between Eros and Agape and you want to wait to see if the former turns into the latter, before you speak the words that, for you, mean more than just infatuation. The more experience you have of love, the more weight and promise is held in those three words, and you don’t want to say them, in case you over-promise something you can’t deliver.

Never more publicly was this disparity displayed than with Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.  When asked by a journalist if they were “in love” Diana – 20 – replied without hesitation “Of course” and Charles – 12 years her senior at 32 – qualified her response with “whatever ‘in love’ means”.  The young idealist and the older realist.

But there is something very free and giving in saying ‘I love you’. It’s selfless and generous and joyous; and it seems cynical and miserly to quantify something so innocent and beautiful with conditions.

So next time someone tells you they love you, why not ignore the tempering voice within and accept their gift with grace and gratitude, and maybe give it back to them, without condition, just with feeling.


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