What Does “I Love You” Really Mean?

Elizabeth and Darren.
Elizabeth and Darren.

It is easy for me to talk about how much I love birthdays. I don’t mind saying I love you to my parents or best friend. But it took me awhile to be comfortable saying I love you to my husband Darren when we were dating. He told me he loved me after being together for three months, but it took me some more time to make that decision.

Why would I be able to say I love you easily to my brother, but not to the guy I’m dating? Because I love each of them with a different type of love.

When I was younger one of my friends and I used to crack up over the “Why don’t you marry it” joke. When someone would say they loved something (example: “I love grapes!”), the other would respond, “Then why don’t you marry it?” Although silly, I think this shows the obvious failing of the English word love.

I love my husband. I love my favorite dress. I love my best friend. I love my apartment. I love my sister. I love God. I love swimming. I love my dog (well, I probably would love my dog if I had one). However, do I love all of these things and people in the same way? No. It would be completely inappropriate to love my sister the same way I love my husband. It is also completely impossible to love swimming or my favorite dress in the same way I love my best friend. There are different types of love and different ways to show the different types of love.

Understanding the different kinds of loves can help us to navigate different kinds of relationships. (The list below is very loosely based on the ideas of the different Greek words for love. For a more in-depth discussion, see The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis.)

Types of Love

  1. Love for things/ideas
    Elizabeth meeting an elephant.
    Elizabeth meeting an elephant.

This kind of love is the love we have for stuff. It is just an emotional connection. I really, really like elephants. I like collecting all things elephant. I enjoy going to the zoo and watching the elephants play. I love elephants. The use of love here is synonymous with other words: enjoy, like, am attached to, etc.

  1. Love for people in general

This is love directed toward other people who are not necessarily family or friends. This love is similar to compassion or empathy. It is the kind of love that you show to people by holding open a door for someone or offering to help someone carry his groceries to the car.

  1. Love for family and close friends

Think of your family or your closest friend. This type of love is the hardest for me to describe, but the easiest to pinpoint. This is a type of permanent attachment, not based on circumstances. This type of love can include feelings of love, but it also exists without those feelings. (See my article here for more details on love feelings vs. love actions). As I’ll explain next, this type of unconditional love is also something that spouses and significant others should have for each other. It might sound weird to say “I love her like a sister,” but a husband should love his wife in a similar unconditional and committed way that he loves a sister (although there are of course differences).

  1. Love for spouse/significant other

This type of love is also very difficult to describe, but harder to pinpoint than love for family or friends because it adds an extra component. This type of love partners passionate love with rooted love.

a.) Passionate/feelings love

This type of love is based on feelings and attraction. This is the love that motivates people to get married and to pursue sex. This is playful, romantic love and what makes dates fun. But this type of love must be paired with rooted love for it to belove—otherwise it is lust. Mere attraction is not enough to build a relationship. As Lorelai Gilmore from the TV show Gilmore Girls once said: “I am attracted to pie. Doesn’t mean I feel the need to date pie.”

Many times lust is classified with love, however it is not a type of love. Lust is all about what I want in the moment, not what is best for the other person. Lust may feel like passionate love, but it lacks the desire to get to know someone beyond sex and attraction.

b.) Rooted/actions love

Rooted love is love that grows and stays. This is the love that says “I will show you love even though I don’t feel like it right now.” This love is closely related to love of family and close friends. It is a long lasting, permanent type of love, one that isn’t swayed by emotions or circumstances. It is a love that sacrifices and truly wants what is best for the other person. This is the love that motivates commitment and faithfulness.

  1. God’s love

This type of love is incredible. It is a love that is not at all based on what we do or say or feel. It is completely unconditional. Once we receive God’s love, we are able to give it to others without their needing to do or be anything special. This type of love we cannot produce in our own hearts, but it is freely given to us no matter who we are.

It’s really too bad the English language only has one word to express these different forms of love. Because understanding these different categories helped me to have a clear idea in my mind what I was really saying to Darren when I finally did work up the courage to tell him that I loved him.

I knew then that I wasn’t just telling him that I was attracted to him. I wasn’t just telling him that I loved him like a brother or a friend. I was telling him both things—that I loved him in a passionate way, but also that I loved him in a way that wanted what was best for him as a person.  Who knew that so much meaning could be packed into those three little words?


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