When to say “I love you”

by on November 18, 2007 at 6:24 pm in Philosophy | Permalink

No, this question applies not at the beginning of the relationship, but after a few years or more.  Sure, you love the person but this is economics and we think at the margin.  Why did you say "I love you" right now rather than two minutes ago?  I can think of a few reasons:

1. Anxiousness and a desire to reassure oneself in the face of self-doubt.

2. Irritation at the other person, leading to #1.

3. Desire to manipulate the other person by first making him or her feel compliant and secure.

4. Being overcome by suddenly stronger feelings of love, perhaps because of a Proustian reminder.

5. The simple feeling that too long has passed since having said "I love you," presumably combined with the belief that the words are uttered rarely enough to still have potency.  You need to signal you are keeping track of such things.

6. The sex was either very good or very bad, see #1 and #4.

7. One has work or chores to do, and is hoping to create a distraction of some kind.

8. To announce that a conversation is over.

Natasha asks whether in a marriage one hears "I love you" more or fewer times than is optimal.  We both think "fewer" is usually the answer, although given the low cost of generating the message, and the possibility of reaping gains from trade, it is not entirely clear why this equilibrium persists.

1 PB November 18, 2007 at 7:05 pm

I told my wife the day I married her that I loved her and that if I ever changed my mind I’d let her know. Once seems to be enough for me.

2 thehova November 18, 2007 at 7:12 pm

I probably say it too much.

I’ve gotten into a habit of saying it before I go to bed. But I try to say it at random moments too (#4). Which often concerns her.

3 gorobei November 18, 2007 at 7:17 pm

How about:

8. After watching your spouse get through another day dealing with kids or whatever for 12 hours straight, snapping a bit, but basically handling everything really well, simply acknowledging your ongoing respect and admiration for her?

People withholding words of affirmation to a performing long-time partner seem kind of stuck in junior high.

4 Katie November 18, 2007 at 7:34 pm

I suspect also that there is something of gift theory involved in it too: I say I love you to hear it back.

I also think scarcity increases the value of it, as with all things, so less often than is optimal is, in fact, optimal.

5 J. November 18, 2007 at 9:14 pm

How often? More than you do.

6 The other Eric November 18, 2007 at 9:50 pm

What an easy question: In the morning before heading out the door for work make sure to say it in German. Before dinner or over a drink, say it in French. Whispered during a movie say it in Japanese. At the appropriate time say it in English, one word at a time, as… you… kiss… her.

But if you want to make the point and an impression at the same time don’t say it. Look her in the eye and tell her you care about her, think about her every day in ways that make you smile like you’ve done something wrong, and that you really, honestly like her. Really.

7 Samir Nurmohamed November 18, 2007 at 10:58 pm

Katie – perhaps saying it less does increase the value of each time you say it…until of course, the opportunity to say it is no longer there. If that happens you’ll realize you did not say it enough, and wish you had.

So much for an “optimal” number of times.

8 Macneil November 18, 2007 at 11:03 pm

It should be said and heard often enough that it’s an automatic reflex.

Save the “so much”s and the “really”s for special times, should you need it.

9 dWj November 19, 2007 at 12:00 am

Incidentally, while I insist that “You’re beautiful when you’re cooking for me” is a compliment, I was promptly informed that it is not.

10 notsneaky November 19, 2007 at 2:09 am

You know how they say that poetry is that which is lost in translation? There seems to be something lost here as well. It’s as if you’re reading a foreign book and trying very hard to understand it but alas, its language is foreign so the best you can do is go with the translation. You enumerate all the reasons but the biggest, maybe even most common, most plausible one.

11 Oreg November 19, 2007 at 9:55 am

Then what does it mean that Americans say it orders of magnitude more often than Europeans? (Attributing this to #6 would be too cheap… 😉

12 TruePath November 19, 2007 at 12:33 pm

In reply to both the commentators and the post I’d like to point out that there is no one good under consideration here. It’s not the case that we value those we love making a particular sound. Rather it’s that we value them expressing certain meanings and sentiments.

Now, unlike most other examples of language use, saying ‘I love you’ in that way tends to be restricted to a small set of intimates. As people tend to put a fair degree of importance on this statement unlike most terms it’s reasonable to assume that most couples share a private meaning for the term that differs significantly from that which other couples use. Sure different people may be pointing in the same general direction (I feel positively about you) when they use the word but the actual meaning they give to it can vary from, “Hey, nice to see you.” to, “I’m overwhelmed with feeling for you,” to “Thanks, you know I appreciate what you do for us.”

Also I think it doesn’t really make sense to critisize people who don’t say it all the time as missing out on something or vice versa. Quite likely these couples have other phrases/forms of expression that fill these roles. How they assign these notions to sounds isn’t really that important as long as they agree on it.

I mean I’ve never used “I love you” casually in any relationship but in every serious relationship I’ve had there was some other way I referred to or addressed the person that filled in the role that other people use casual “I love you”‘s for and I assume the reverse is true.

13 920222421 November 20, 2007 at 12:29 am

So as I am reading this post, I think of the song “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol. A line in the song goes, “…those three words are said too much but not enough.” Reading through those reasons for saying “I love you” makes me realize the validity of the song’s statement.

People are so confused about love these days because we take those words for granted. Like the last reason–a way to end a conversation. We’re so used to just saying this phrase after phone conversations that we forget the brevity of it. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend, and he always says I love you after our phone conversations. I’ve never said it back to him because I know he’ll take it in the wrong way. Well, a friend had walked up while I was on the phone with him, and she looked like she was in a hurry. I was trying to get him off the phone so I could chat with her really quickly. So in his farewell, he of course said I love you and not thinking at all, I repeated it back to him. Midphrase, I realized what I was saying and tried to shut the phone really quickly so he wouldn’t catch it. Sure enough, within minutes of our conversation, I saw him, and the first thing he said to me was, “Soooo, did you realize what you said when getting off the phone with me?” I tried to explain my reasons why, but now I realize that yet again–these words are so unappreciated because in my situation, it was simply a playback of what was being said to me.

At this, I just think of the wonderful phrase, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” I believe this would solve a lot of problems in our world today.

14 Yogi November 20, 2007 at 7:52 pm

I’d really like to hear people’s opinion about when, and for what reasons, to say it the very first time in a relationship. If someone says it first, do they lose the upperhand? Do you say it before meeting the parents/family? If you don’t feel comfortable saying it 6 months, a year, or more into the relationship, is it not going anywhere?

An inquiring mind wants to know….

15 Sasha November 21, 2007 at 5:43 pm

Fewer, obviously. It keeps the phrase precious, valuable. Also, if the phrase is used selectively, its meaning can be enhanced based on when it is used.

Never, however, does not increase value, it simply removes the phrase from the equation.

16 Chris November 24, 2007 at 7:37 pm

It seems to me that love should be self-evident enough that it isn’t necessary to broadcast. I don’t like telling a girl I’m in a relationship with that I love her, no matter the depth of my feelings for her… I am an (unfortunate) believer that feelings should not be sheltered, so typically my feelings for and about any given person or situation are self-evident. I may get hurt more often, but it clarifies my life and prevents missed chances.
The only time we have to tell people how we feel about them is when we don’t trust them enough to show them.

17 cfw November 27, 2007 at 3:28 pm

A good bit of motivation for me (after decades of marriage) has to do with distance (easier from a distance) and privacy (easier with more privacy).

Becoming good as a care giver (“carer”) is a goal, and it would likely entail more use of the ILY phrase.

18 翻译公司 February 25, 2008 at 9:13 am
19 Eva January 9, 2009 at 10:31 am

TJ, you forgot to check the second order condition. Thus, I suppose, satisfying both sides on here.

20 租車花蓮 February 9, 2009 at 7:06 am
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22 twv May 27, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Descriptivism or emotivism or prescriptivism?

I think we all understand that the real meaning and import of the statement “I love you” is rarely its descriptive meaning. In reiterations of the statement, one is not informing someone of a fact. To reiterate the fact already stated and known, it would be more accurate to say “I still love you,” which would likely rob the statement of some if its emotive meaning.

For women I have known, the statement has a ritual meaning. And the women who yearn to hear the words really do count on its ritual significance.

For men of my sort, we often get hung up on the exact, descriptive meaning of the statement. And this leads to a typical problem in communication between the sexes: Saying the statement performs the ritual and pleases the woman, but has the tendency actually to undermine the truth-value of the statement, as said by the man.

That is, the more some men say “I love you,” the less true it becomes, until the phrase becomes a lie.

But I have known wives to perform the ritual word for years, and then ask for a divorce. It is quite possible for hollow rituals to continue and, over time, bely the exact meaning, also.

I don’t see any easy solutions to this. The fact that love changes over time — that, in fact, we mean distinctly different things by the single word — allows for something like inadvertent lying.

I recommend Leo Tolstoy’s story “Family Happiness” as a counter to naive views of Love Eternal. It would probably serve better than any economics lecture.

23 roissyfan621 May 28, 2009 at 12:52 am

this is when we need roissy

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