'I love you': the most treasured (and misunderstood) expression of all time

I love you: those three magic words are the most powerful and misunderstood words in the English language, according to writer and contributor Marianne Apostilides. She draws from Shakespeare, Freud, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton and other greats to parse how "I love you" can be enriching, manipulative and even empty.

When strung together, these three simple words wield a force beyond our intentions, says writer

'I love you': these three magic words are the most powerful — and the most misunderstood — words in the English language, according to writer and contributor Marianne Apostolides. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

* Originally published on February 14, 2020.

"I love you." It's a simple statement loaded with meaning, yet often misunderstood and misinterpreted, even by the person declaring those words.

"The person might think he or she is in love with another," says psychoanalyst Don Carveth, describing the initial passionate stage of love. "But when you look closely, it turns out that the 'other' is really themselves."

The declaration of love can also be used as a tool of manipulation.

"You need to be able to read that," adds Carveth. "Is this person conning me? Is this person charming me in order to manipulate me?"

Psychoanalyst Don Carveth and his wife have been together for 25 years. But she rarely says ‘I love you’ because, as she puts it, she doesn’t want to ‘debase the currency.’ (rozdesign / Shutterstock)

The one (and perhaps only) thing that is clear with the statement of "I love you" is that no matter the motivation for saying it, or how it is interpreted, it is a declaration that, once made, will initiate some kind of response and will permanently alter the relationship. 

"The common sense understanding of language is that we use it to communicate, to say what is or is not the case... But a whole lot of language is doing things. It's making something happen," argues Peggy Kamuf, professor emerita of comparative literature at the University of Southern California. 

She's describing a theory called the performative speech act, proposed by British philosopher J.L. Austin in 1955. His theory radically shifted our understanding of how language shapes reality.

If we think of "I love you" as a performative, we can ask what it initiates — not just what it expresses. 

Sometimes it initiates nothing more than sex, and that gesture should inspire skepticism. 

"You shouldn't trust those words," says Carveth.

"Men have been using those words to get women to undress for centuries, and that's a manipulation."

The subconscious affects the meaning of 'I love you'

According to Carveth, even when a person isn't consciously being manipulative, the words might reflect only the needs of the speaker. "I love you" can mean "I love how you make me feel."

That's common when a person speaks from the narcissistic position of the psyche.

By contrast, when a person speaks from a more mature position, "I love you" is about the object — the "you" — rather than the person declaring love.

Psychoanalyst Don Carveth points to Sigmund Freud's discovery of the split mind and how narcissism can amplify love. (Hans Casparius/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"Freud's fundamental discovery is that we're all split. We're all both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Carveth says. "And we cycle between those two positions. 

"I don't mean to put it [romantic love] down by calling it 'primitive' and 'narcissistic.' Who would want a life without the experience of falling in love?" 

"I love you" is a phrase where lust and deeper longing intertwine.

This union of sexual passion with spiritual desire is encapsulated in the music of Aretha Franklin, says Yale University Prof. Daphne Brooks, the award-winning author of the liner notes to Take A Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia.

"The merging of earthly sensuality with a desire that transcends our mortal being is informing the potency and aspirations of how she sounds."

The way that Franklin sounds affects our ability to listen and feel the meaning of "I love you." This is the other side of the equation any time we speak: not just what we say, but how our words are received by the listener.

Through her phrasings and vocal techniques, Aretha Franklin gave voice to "the infinite ways that we can turn over the meaning of love," says Prof. Daphne Brooks. 

"It does jolt you out of a kind of complacency," says Brooks, referring to Franklin's performance of I Never Loved a Man.

"The sensuality and spiritual longing put pressure on the listener to think about what's at stake for them… to think about what one's own longings and philosophical aspirations and desires are."

The desire for connection — the unique "I" joined with "you" by love — is the ultimate promise of love's declaration. 

"That's the conundrum with this very conventional, rule-governed phrase," says Kamuf.

Although we've heard it and said it countless times, we want to say that phrase "as if it's being said for the first time, and you've just invented it. Or your lover has invented it. That's what you want to do, each time." 

Guests in this episode:

  • Don Carveth is a psychoanalyst, past director of the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis, and professor emeritus of social and political thought at York University.
  • Daphne Brooks is a professor of African American studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University. 
  • Peggy Kamuf is professor emerita of French and comparative literature at the University of Southern California.

* This episode was produced by Marianne Apostolides and Nicola Luksic.

Marianne Apostolides is an award-winning author of seven books. Her latest novel, I Can't Get You Out of My Mind, explores what it means to say "I love you."


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