By Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D.
We take a risk when we express our love directly.
I was thinking of a friend of mine recently—not a terribly close friend, but a guy I like talking to when we run into each other. We connect easily and have known each other for a long time, and we seem to understand one another.
As I thought of my friend, I remembered his recent birthday and realized with a bit of alarm that both of us were almost certainly in the second half of our lives. I felt a real pang of sadness as I imagined his leaving this world, and thought to myself, I really like that guy.
And then I thought, No, I love him. It’s true—the feelings I have for him are more than simply “liking” or “caring about” him. And I also realized I would probably never tell him that I felt love for him. Even as I wrote the previous sentence, I chose to say “I felt love for him” rather than simply, “I love him.”
I don’t think I’m alone in this difficulty with baldly expressing my love. Why is it often so hard to speak frankly about loving people outside our family and romantic relationships, and even to tell them, “I love you”? If it’s true, what stops us from saying it?
What Does “Love” Mean?
Of course, it depends on how we define “love.” Unfortunately, our concept of love is often limited by the idea of being “in love” with another person, with butterflies in our stomachs and a compulsive need to be with them. But that hearts-and-roses version of love falls short of what it means to truly love another.
Perhaps the best way to define love is to ask ourselves how we would like to be loved. Robert A. Heinlein said love is “that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” That definition seems to fit many of our close relationships, and I suspect most of us would like to be loved in that way.
M. Scott Peck’s definition in his bestselling book The Road Less Traveled seems to come from the same place: “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing … another’s spiritual growth.” Both of these expressions of love describe an overarching care for another person—wanting the best for them and being willing to do something to make their life better.
Rather, love meant showing genuine care for another person.
And yet expressing our love is not without risk. “To say you love another person is a kind of extreme vulnerability,” “Because if what you love gets hurt or gets taken away, then you, too, are going to be hurt or diminished.” Maybe that’s why I was reluctant to call what I felt for my friend “love”—it hurts more to lose a person we love than someone we “really like.”
Love Is Your Nature
Despite the daily expressions of love we give and receive, there are countless examples of unloving behavior—meanness, abuse, spitefulness, neglect. These experiences can make it easy to overlook instances of love. But when we pay attention, we’ll likely discover a commonplace love that fills the space around us.
No matter who we are, expressing our love is imperative if we want to protect what we care about. “We need to practice noticing and articulating and hollering about what we love,” he said, “because it helps us to preserve those things.”