I spent much of my childhood, teenage years, and, the wee hours of my adulthood, falling in love with love. As a teen, I watched every romantic comedy I could get my hands on, read every love story over and over again until the pages were worn out and earmarked around my favorite love scenes, listened to every country album released, memorizing the agonizing choruses and bridges of musicians professing their undying love for the person they dream about each night. I dreamt with growing frequency and intensity of the first time the words “I love you” would echo in my ears, rehearsed my responses to hearing them, and then practiced saying them back, “I love you, too.” I was, to the absolute strictest sense, a hopeless romantic.
And then, when I was 19, I had my first chance to live out my dream, to hear those words, tear up dramatically, and say them back, before flinging my arms around the love of my life and being swept off of my feet.
Instead? I heard “I love you” for the first time at the tail end of our first real fight. Looking back, I can see now that although he may have loved me, those words being uttered in such circumstances were likely his way of ending the feud and getting his girlfriend back on a more mellow emotional level. At the time, however, I didn’t care. My dream hadn’t come true and I certainly forgot what I’d rehearsed, but I was in love, at least for a while.
Then came boyfriend #2. I saw a new opportunity to have my grand scene take place and I began dreaming about the moment it would occur, too scared to say it first, of course, but about 6 months in, I was sure I was in love with him. But … the “I love you” that began as a mere blip on my radar soon grew into a fiery, stormy beacon that loomed over our relationship. Over a year in and the scene still hadn’t played out, even in the loosest, “let’s just end this fight with a bandaid” sense. So, I sat him down and chatted with him. Asked him if he loved me and, if not, why we were even still together; asked him what ‘love’ meant to him; asked him if he was scared. A discussion about the meaning of love ensued and by the end of it, we half heartedly uttered the three words to each other.
We broke up 3 months later. As in the first instance, hindsight is 20/20 and I can see now that I could have been the first person to tell him how I felt, but, hopelessly romantic, 22 year old me, wasn’t going to budge from her “love conquers all” pedestal and accept that in the twenty-first century, women should be empowered enough to dictate their love life.
Finally, boyfriend #3 strolled in. This time, I was wary. This time, I was pretty shaky whenever I thought I felt flickers of the L-word inside of my chest. This time, I beat them down. I stopped dreaming so much about my big love scene. Stopped pressuring myself to have something grand happen, and hoped that, this time, things would happen the way they do for everyone else, no frills, no bangs, no big emotional fireworks. Just the right scene and a few words. I was sure that “New relationship milestone achieved!” would flash across the scene somewhere but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be told I was loved in the purest sense.
After a year of being together and nearly 6 months of living together, there was still nothing. zip. zilch. nada. bubkiss. I had started to build up walls around my heart this time, measures to protect myself should I have to proactively ‘persuade’ another person to love me. And I had to. Not just have the conversation I’d had with boyfriend #2, but I actually had to sit down and drag the words out of his mouth, his heart. His protests that my “idea of love was different” from his own, and that “saying ‘I love you’ would mean something different to me” than what he meant. That was a slap in the face. But, desperate to hear those words from the man I’d been idealizing for a year, I acquiesced to his definition of my fantasy, pounding more cement into the foundation I thought I could finally break down. This should have been a sign from the gods that our relationship was doomed.
Being told ‘I love you’ is the purest way of expressing your desire to be with someone, to have a future with them, to ingrain them in your life, to tell them that they are yours and that they would like, no LOVE, for you to be theirs. ’I love you’ shouldn’t be painful. It shouldn’t hurt. It should release something inside of you that has been building up over time until it reaches a point of bursting out of your chest, filling your lungs with air, and painting your soul on every surface surrounding you and your beloved.
It shouldn’t be a conversation. It should be a moment. One marked by silliness, epicness, accomplishment, tears, laughter, beautiful views, dark nights, intense vulnerability….
This is how I think of love. This is what my experience has been. Now, today, the thought of having that conversation again makes my insides squirm and my heart scream in fear. It shouldn’t be a bandaid. It shouldn’t be a persuasion. It shouldn’t be held over your head like a ransom note until you’ve fooled yourself into believing someone else’s idea of what love is. I have conversations about love with friends and family and can feel something moving around inside of me, an empty void that has been wanting its fill since I watched my first Disney film. I can also feel panic set in and I do my best to beat it down. The difficulty is that after craving something for so long, the very idea of it starts to seem like a mirage, an unachievable ideal…