I have a language problem. No, it’s not cursing (living with a 14 year old made me clean that up). It has to do with the language we use for love. I am finding that the older I get, the more my thoughts about love evolve, the more difficulties I have putting words to it that resonate with other people.
I have been a student of language and words for most of my life. Language is critical in representing ideas, signaling what options are available for people, and their implications go well beyond their literal meaning. I have long participated in debates about insider/outsider language and the discussions about reclaiming negative terms. As an academic and policy writer, finding just the right words to convey an idea so that it would connect with its audience has always been a critical part of my writing.
How we describe something tells us how it is to be perceived and understood. Look at the evolution of the word “gay.” For many years, gay was a derogatory term for a homosexual man. For a while, people in the LGBTQ movement used the term “homosexual” instead of gay in order to distance themselves from the derogatory concepts of “gay.” Then, people in the LGBTQ movement found “homosexual” to be too clinical. The word literally feels like a diagnosis and not an identity and orientation. So, LGBTQ folks started using the word “gay” to describe all versions of same-sex attraction. Then women started speaking up about being gay. Some women identify as gay, others felt that the term was thought of as exclusively male, so they identifies as lesbians. Then younger LGBTQ folks came along and felt that gay was too “old” and started to reclaim the word “queer” to indicate a more radical identity. Today, we now have the acronym LBGTQQAAI just to make sure we get most of the people with non-heterosexual identities.
The expansion of the term led to critical discussions. The role of insider/outsider language arose. Each term in the acronym carries a specific connotation and links to an entire culture. I personally identify as bisexual, primarily because that was the term available to me when I came out in the 1980s. Dating was not going to be regulated by something as petty as gender for me. Today, I fit the definition of pansexual more accurately. I have dated people from multiple genders (male, female, trans) and my dating life is not binary as “bisexual” would indicate. However, I have not adopted the “pan” identity primarily because outside a very small subgroup of people, if I tell them I am pansexual, they have no clue what that means.
The Language of Love
The language we use for love needs to evolve as well. Like calling every non-heterosexual person “gay” the language we use to describe deep, meaningful, romantic love is too limited and does not capture want most people feel. I have reached a point where it is actually difficult for me to regularly use the phrase “I love you” with a partner. Its too nebulous. It comes with too much baggage. It fails to convey what I mean.
Love, at least deep, meaningful romantic love, comes with a set of phrases we all know. “I love you” has become attached to “You mean the world to me,” “I would do anything for you,” “Your needs come before mine,” “I would travel a million miles just to be with you,” “I want you and no one else,” “You are the pinnacle of every relationship I have ever had.” It is attached to images of people meeting atop the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day to meet their “true love.” It is attached to the idea that someone should be pursued at all costs. It is tied to the idea that this relationship will inevitably lead to a walk down an aisle in a big white dress.
At 40, divorced, and deeply in love again, I have battled with finding the right language to tell my partner “I love you.” He is in his 40s, twice divorced, and has too many tales of insane women for me to be comfortable regularly saying “I love you.” For both of us, this phrase comes with a lot of baggage, a lot of implications, and a lot of opportunity for messed up communication.
I do love this man very deeply. He is incredibly important to me. When we do certain things together I can feel the serotonin and oxytocin pumps turn on in my brain and flood me with happy, loving, bonding feelings. His ability to pursue who he wants to be and reach for his dreams is a primary goal for me. I thrive on being around him and having him in my life. So yes, I love him. But I still struggle with the language.
Doin’ It American Style
Let’s look at the American language of love.
“I would do anything for you.” “I would travel the highest mountains and deepest oceans only to be with you.” “You mean the world to me.” If I was from another planet that didn’t have love and I was here teaching a class on relationships and a student turned in a paper with those phrases in it, I would grade it poorly. The phrasing is to overblown. It is too grandiose. Its fulsome. It fails to convey the reality of the experience.
“I would do anything for you.” Really? You are so self-sacrificing that you would not take anything into account to do something for someone else? Part of my dislike for this phrase comes from being in the kink community. Everybody has limits. If they don’t they are not being very thoughtful or safe about their play. You may not have thought about it, but would you let your partner tie you up and let spiders crawl on you? Are you really okay being branded? Do you really think merging bank accounts is a great idea?
Healthy relationships have limits. Yes, I will do more for the person I love than just about anybody else in my world. I will do specific things with this person and this person only. But I will not do “anything” for this person. I have learned that making a relationship work requires that I know my personal limits. I am not okay merging all finances. I want my own retirement accounts. I want my own bank account. I do not want to have to account for every penny I spend with another person. Sure, some expenses are joint expenses. Some parts of a household need to be managed as a couple. But, no, I am not merging all my finances with anyone ever again.
We rarely talk about boundaries and limits with people who have not been married. We do not prepare most people for the boundary setting that needs to take place to have a successful relationship. We do not require people to know themselves and their limits as part of being “healthy.” We need to change this. It must be okay for everyone to say, “Ya know, doing XXXX is not okay with me.” Whatever that is, we need to empower people to set their limits.