What Does it Mean to Say ‘I Love You’?

My entire life, I have been accustomed to hearing one particular response when I say the words, “I love you.”  That’s right, I have always heard, “I love you too” in return.  Whether it was a parent, sibling, grandparent, or best friend, I never expected to hear anything different. So you can imagine my surprise when my husband was the first person to reroute this natural dialogue.

We were lying in bed, and I leaned over to give him a goodnight kiss like I did every night. I squeezed him and recited the usual “I love you,” to which he was supposed to respond, “I love you too,” but he didn’t. Instead he said, “Thank you.”

“Well,” I chuckled, “you’re welcome, I guess.” But I was seriously taken back. What a response. I was so used to hearing an I love you in return, that I really had to think this through. I asked him why he said that, and he said simply, “Because I’m thankful that you love me.”

His comment did two things. First, it made me realize that true love should not give love only for the sake of seeking a return on that love. I had, at first, almost been offended by his response. How dare he not say “I love you” back. So then, why was I saying “I love you”? Was it because I did indeed love him, or was it because I was using that cliche goodnight phrase to elicit the words I wanted to hear in return? I realized that telling my husband, or anyone else, that I love them, should be purely because of my love for them and not in anticipation of a reciprocated love.

The second thing I learned from my husband’s unconventional words was something deeper about his past. He was truly thankful that I loved him. And he was grateful to hear the actual words expressed to him. Words that I took for granted had not always been so common to his ears. I learned that my husband had not heard those words very often. As a child, he was loved, but it wasn’t always felt or even said. The older he got, the less he heard it. And when I fell head over heels in love with him, he wasn’t yet used to hearing “I love you” said to him.

That made me sad and then it made me angry. I hated that the gentle, wonderful, kind soul I knew my husband to be felt that he owed me a “thank you” for loving him. I have always believed that everybody is worthy of being loved. It broke my heart to think of the emotional pain that he must have endured to make him view being loved as such a special event.

My husband has used his little “thank you” response many times since then. Now it’s more of a joke, and he does it to make me laugh. But every time he says it, I do think about how important it is to love selflessly. I tell him often that I love him simply because I do. We should indeed be thankful if we have someone in our lives who truly loves us because not everybody does.

On the outside, my husband appears to be a very tough, unemotional sort of man. I, on the other hand, am quite an emotional and soft kind of woman. But our need and desire to be loved is the same. We both need to hear the words “I love you.” They are powerful words and capable of healing a world of hurt. My children and I are using those words often on our sweet man because we are trying to make up for all the years he didn’t hear them. The result is a lot of love and a lot of thankfulness. And we want to keep it going.

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