California Forum

Everybody says ‘I love you.’ Are we devaluing love, actually?

Prior generations of parents and grandparents rarely said, “I love you.” As families gather for the holidays, this one will be saying it to their children constantly. Has familiarity devalued those three little words? Or are we better at saying what is so important to say?
Prior generations of parents and grandparents rarely said, “I love you.” As families gather for the holidays, this one will be saying it to their children constantly. Has familiarity devalued those three little words? Or are we better at saying what is so important to say? TNS

I grew up in a family that doesn’t spend much time on “I love yous.”

Don’t get me wrong, I know my parents love me – or maybe I should say I am only rarely disappointed by their love. They just don’t say it much, nor I to them. Rather, our love is like a subterranean core, a sea of magma – so scalding, yet so beneath the surface, that even to acknowledge it is to risk getting burned.

As a consequence, I say “I love you” to my own kids 10, 15, 20 times a day, with every phone call, every text. No conversation is finished without that as a closing sentiment. Even when we fight, even when we are angry, we spit it out through clenched teeth. If one of my children wants to hurt me, the easiest way is to withhold those words.

Every night I whisper ‘I love you’ and ‘Goodnight’ to my kids – even now, when they have grown and gone. I peer into their empty rooms and utter those words as if they were prayers, which is what they are.

The idea (if, in fact, this grew out of anything as rational as an idea) was to make love, or its expression, part of our daily interaction, to make it explicit, active, in our lives. All the same, I wonder if we have devalued it in some way, made love seem more common, less remarkable, than it is.

Think about it: Love is a miracle. Love pulls us out of ourselves. Love makes us altruistic in the most basic sense because it requires that we care for someone else. Shortly after I became a parent, I read an article that claimed having a family was the easy, default choice. It’s been so long I no longer recall the specifics, except for one: Easy was the opposite of how it felt.

There I was, with my wife, the parents of a baby who was dependent on us for his needs. The prospect of something happening to him was a constant source of anxiety. Twenty-some years later, this has not changed, only deepened; I worry about both my kids. Love is a long road, as Tom Petty sang, and in the end, it can’t protect us. Indeed, it makes us vulnerable.

This, I want to believe, is why my parents withheld their “I love yous” – as a talisman, a way to ward off the chaos of the world. Certainly, my own obsessive utterances began with such a desire in mind. Build a blanket of love, a shield of love, and secure everyone underneath or behind it, every minute of every day. Wishful thinking, yes, but when it comes to love, is there any other kind?

And yet, let me ask again: If we say “I love you” too often do we make light of it, reduce it to cliché? Are we opting for the easy choice denigrated in that piece I read so many years ago?

I want to say no, but I’m uncertain. At times, the syllables sound empty, even rote. “What time will you be home? Love you,” I text my daughter. “See you in an hour. Love you,” I tell my wife.

Nevertheless, every night I whisper “I love you” and “Goodnight” to my kids – even now, when they have grown and gone. I peer into their empty rooms and utter those words as if they were prayers, which is what they are.

In Japanese, there is a phrase for this – itte kimasu, which means, literally, “go and come back.” That, of course, is what we want from love.

English, though, is not so flexible. Perhaps, then, saying “I love you” represents a different sort of default: an approximation, the closest we can get to the scalding magma in our hearts.

David L. Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles,” shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He is the former book critic and book editor of the Los Angeles Times. Reach him at david.ulin@gmail.com.

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