Love, in case you were wondering, is complicated. Let’s just take the word “love,” for a starter.
Since the advent of language, we humans have been using words to communicate our most complex feelings and ideas to each other. This was probably a really simple idea for Adam and Eve, because there were just two of them, and they named stuff together, so they could plausibly know exactly what the other person meant by each unique word.
With more people and disparate experiences, though, language has become increasingly complex. I’m not a linguist, but I know we each get a slightly different visual when I say a word as simple as “armchair.” Things get increasingly complex with words that have varying degrees, like “sadness” and “pink.” Even when we try to keep up by creating more and more words, like Eskimos coming up with a gazillion different words for snow, each person’s use of language is still colored by context and individual experience.
The meaning of love is never as simple as it seems. When I say, “I love peach cobbler!” the meaning might seem fairly obvious. I have strong positive emotions toward my experiences with peach cobbler. The degree of those positive emotions, their duration and the actions I associate with them are up in the air. Perhaps I love peach cobbler enough to eat it anytime someone offers it to me. Perhaps my love for peach cobbler is so strong and enduring that I always have the fixings on hand to whip up a batch at the slightest whim, or at least fortnightly.
Apply the word to humans, and things get more complex. Obviously, saying “I love you” to my sister or even to a good friend means something entirely different from what it would mean to say it to a significant other. Just because the words are said in a relationship that doesn’t mean they always signify the same thing. The degree of the emotions, their duration and the actions potentially associated with them can vary, even if people use the same words to express them.
Likewise, for some people the words “I love you” signify a person is also “in love” with the other person – whatever that means (the phrase “in love” can be used to connote anything from slight infatuation to a commitment to grow old together) – but for some people the two are different concepts.
The only advice I have on this topic is it behooves us to take the word “love” with a grain of salt and an open mind. Take it in the context of a relationship, and don’t assume the word “love” has the exact same fairytale meaning to the other person that it does to you. While “love” is a beautiful and defining word for all of our stories, we each have a slightly different plot and timeline in mind to get us from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.”
In my experience, the words “I love you,” while they carry a disproportionate potential for ambiguity, are some of the most beautiful to say and hear. Whatever else we’re after in this life, we each long to be part of a relationship in which the words “I love you” are exchanged frequently and with common understanding. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the word “love,” probably the word we yearn to hear applied to ourselves more than any other, carries such complex and even conflicting meaning.
Julia Shumway grew up in Centerville, Utah, and is studying maternal and child epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. Her column, “Pairing Off,” explores the intricacies of the Mormon YSA experience. She’d love for you to contact her with your dating stories, questions and complaints at email@example.com.