Seven Ways to Say, “I love you,” and Six Ways That Fail.

“I love you!” says your partner as they go off to get on with their day. “Love you” says your mom as you end a phone conversation and you say it back. Do you feel loved in that moment? Are you experiencing loving feelings when you say, “love you too?”

How can you feel truly loved for yourself when you hear that “I love you” phrase used so casually and prolifically? And do those whom you say, “I love you” to, feel really loved or just feel that you are pleased with them in the moment?

“I love you” can mean several different things depending on the context where relationship roles get played out. You may be surprised to learn that most often, “I love you,” means anything but.

Let’s look at all the different ways in which the phrase “I love you” is used, and how it doesn’t actually mean that the person is loved for themselves.

Here are a selection of six ways in which “I love you,” suggests an entirely different message about a person’s worth in a relationship.

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I love you – a ritual parting phrase

If you’ve ever heard someone on the phone, ending a conversation with a partner, child, parent or other significant other, you’ll probably hear, “love you,” or “love you too,” as the parting shot.  In pre-covid-19 days, maybe you’ve taken a child to school; gone to work or a gym and said, “I love you,” as you separate. No doubt you’ve been told the same too; and no doubt you’ve said it back automatically. Yet a few minutes prior to the party you may have been at odds with your partner, child, parent or sibling. You may have been dismissed or verbally abused. Perhaps you let off steam and said things that were hurtful.

Even if the conversation was fraught with tension; cantankerous or threatening, at the moment of separation the words, “l love you,” have become a standard way of saying goodbye by preserving the relationship. But the words don’t convey love in the sense of positive worth and vitality in being connected. In fact, “I love you,” as a goodbye reflects a fear that the separation could harm the connection. Maybe you’ll be perceived as a bad, mean, demanding, unreasonable or cruel person. Maybe the reunion will be cold. So the words “I love you,” used as a parting phrase ensures that the internal threat is minimized and that you are carried around by the other person as a ‘good’ guy.

I love you – but you are a naughty girl/boy unless you do as I say

The ‘love’ here is conditional if it’s there at all. It’s just a way of saying I have time for you if you play the role I have scripted for you. Then you get some regard, attention or value – but it’s not about ‘loving’ you. In fact it’s actually appreciating you when you choose to NOT be yourself and put on the costume that fits the role your loved one values in you.

Ursula had a hard time managing her 10-year-old son Anton. He rang rings around her and usually evaded her attempts to catch him, pin him down, and tell him off. But then came the moment when he’d tire himself out. She’d start off on him, out of breath, full of indignation and say, “You know I love you, but you mustn’t ever take the food off the table and run off without asking. You’re rude and selfish and ungrateful.”

Anton heard “I love you,” but do you think he believed it? No, of course not. What he heard was that love was anger and control, making him feel bad. He grew up thinking that saying “I love you” was a code for saying how disappointed his mother. Ursula as a parent was really communicating that she didn’t feel loved by Anton when he was mischievous. It was also a way of her attempting to manage her anger at not being shown obedience which was her criterion of love. So Anton learned to think of love as obedience and used the “I love you” phrase in the same way with his kids when he had his own family. Until he felt real love in individual therapy and gave it to his kids before it was too late.

I love you – you are so accomplished!

Sitting in my therapy office, I saw Judy, a 34-year-old CEO of a clothing company with tears in her eyes, looking away as her 35-year-old husband Gabe said, “I love you” in a deadpan voice after her impassioned plea to find out what she meant to him. In fact, those words, “I love you,” churned in her stomach, as if she was dealing with rotten food. In their personal and intimate life, Gabe paid lip service to love; but when she got an IPO on the stock exchange Gabe was saying “I love you,” with excitement in his voice. His eyes lit up, just the way they did when she opened her third store!

Gabe’s energy when he said “I love you” in response to her accomplishments, sapped hers. His good feelings made her feel depleted and hollow. He wasn’t seeing her, Judy the woman who chose to share a life with him. All he saw was a shell of a body who knew how to achieve socially desirable goals that enhanced his life style.

Gabe was astounded when he saw the effect his words had on Judy on the therapy couch. After all, his parents pushed him to achieve like his brother so that he too could hear so longed for words, “I love you.” How could Judy not feel the beauty of those words that he had treasured by achieving to please his parents?

Judy was a brilliant and determined young girl who wanted to prove that girls could be successful in business. That’s what appealed to her dad, and she so wanted to be special to him.  Her mother was a meek, submissive person despised by her husband because she didn’t excel and shine in the world. Judy filled the bill and found a similar man to her father in Gabe. But the need to please the men in her life faded, and Judy’s deep longing to be loved for herself brought the couple into couples therapy. The work of what “I love you,” meant to each of them enabled them to understand why things weren’t working and see the real magnificent souls under the facades they had both built up.

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I love you – I’m dependent on you and don’t you leave me!

Michelle a 47-year-old hospital administrator cringed every time she heard her 68-year-old mother, Gillian say “I love you. You are such a good daughter. What would I do without you?” All her life Michelle had seen her mother cajole first her dad, then her elder brother and now her to feel responsible for Gillian. Michelle had heard her mother gush with “I love you,” phrases when her father took the hits for Gillian’s mistakes. Those words had always felt false. “I love you” referred to some kind of acknowledgement that her carers allowed her to be dependent on them without complaint – allowing her to forgo her responsibility for herself and put it on her family members.

If this was the only way Michelle was going to hear that her mother loved her, then she bought into it – even if the love felt manipulative and toxic. Unfortunately it meant that she avoided all other adult relationships because love to her was dependence. As she approached her 48th birthday Michelle felt her personal life passing by, and an emptiness which her work once filled. This combination of fears brought her into therapy and she worked on her co-dependency issues and her fear of intimacy – giving her a fighting chance of making a healthy balanced relationship with a man who honored her needs and didn’t try to seduce her with “I love you.”


I love you – you do wonders for my image

Cole a 35-year-old rising star in his investment firm, often told his 34-year-old wife Maxine he loved her when she threw the most spectacular parties for his bosses and colleagues. He said, “I love you” when she bought just the right gifts at holiday times for his family and work friends. Cole hugged and kissed Maxine, saying “I love you so much,” when she took care of the housekeeper, the maintenance of their holiday retreat, and looked perfect when he took her to work functions. But he never said, “I love you,” when they were lounging by their pool, playing ball with their kids, or when they were watching a movie late at night.

Maxine noticed that Cole only appeared to love her when she fitted the image he had of the ideal wife. She was just a cut-out-figure doing what he needed so he could shine in the eyes of those he wanted to impress. She was depersonalized and therefore couldn’t be loved as a person in her own right.

She fell into a deep depression which brought her into therapy.  She came to understand through some family of origin counseling that she had been feeling this way forever. Maxine was reliving the same experience with Cole as with her parents. Her father told her he loved her only when she won all her gymnastic competitions and her mother said, “I love you” only when she got perfect grade-point-averages at school or won beauty competitions. There was no word of love at bedtime when she was little; no word of love when she was hurt or upset; and she never heard her parents speak of love to one another spontaneously. For Maxine, ‘love’ was dry and conditioned on excelling at making her parents shine through her accomplishment and now the same with her husband.

For the first time in her life Maxine felt truly seen and loved just for herself in therapy. She was a ‘person’ and was entitled to be recognized that way. It made a huge difference to her sense of self as she came out of her depression and had the courage to address what love meant in her marriage.


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I love you – if you never expect me to give you anything back

Rory a 45-year-old divorced architect with young adult children was in a new relationship and wanted to introduce his partner to his eldest daughter. Texts between them didn’t make it clear whether or not she was receptive. He was upset at having to ‘read’ her through these communications. He felt unloved and rejected. Having to work at ‘reading’ those who were important to him felt like work he shouldn’t have to do.

Rory’s experience of love growing up was his father making contact via letter, text and email when away on business. He felt secure in his father’s affections, feeling thought of and reached out to, but without having to respond. That’s what love meant to him, and he could feel love for his father without having to say it or show it in any particular way. Now, as an adult he didn’t believe his daughter when she said, “I love you,” because not only did he have to work out what she meant in her texts, but he had to respond to her and keep the contact going. He felt equally resentful during his marriage when his wife wasn’t decisive and made him strive to figure her out in a continuing engagement. He longed for his wife and now his daughter to prove their love by never asking for him to reciprocate. On top of that his new partner seemed to expect him to read into her silences, body language and subtle communications – infuriating him even more. In great distress about the disappointments and losses he felt in relationships, Rory began therapy for stress and depression. Processing his sadness that relationships couldn’t mirror the one with his dad helped him accept reality and his part in contributing emotionally.



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When does saying “I love you,” actually mean that YOU as a person is loved?

Be specific about what and how they act spontaneously – giving themselves to you, not doing things for you.

Come from a place of spontaneity.

Allow your feelings of tenderness and warmth to set the flow and choice of words that reflect the mutual connection between you.

Show the elements of mutual connection by addressing the both parties effect on each other.

  • When a parent of a young child says, “I love you when you snuggle up with me on the couch and we watch cartoons. It’s so nice to feel you next to me”
  • When a romantic partner says, “I love you when you smile at me and touch my shoulder after a hard day at work.”
  • When an adult person says to their adult sibling “I love you when you send me a funny face text to say goodnight.
  • When a parent of a teenager says “I love you when you play with your little brother and the dog. The fun you give each other is adorable.”
  • When partners, siblings or others play in a loving way, and one says to the other, “I love you when you laugh. It’s so full of excitement.”
  • When one family member says to another, “I love you when you say what you think. It helps me know what’s going on for you.”
  • When one significant other says to the other, “I love you when you sense the knots in my neck and come and massage me without me having to say anything.”



Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2020

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