My first dating relationship happened when I was 15 years old. My girlfriend and I knew each other from high school band, where we had pretty much the same group of friends. We started dating basically because we didn’t hate each other and neither of us had anyone to kiss. I know now that physical contact is probably the worst foundation for a relationship of any kind. I should have known it then, but I was 15, high on hormones, and low on rationality.
We tried to act like what we had was “the real thing,” that we were “meant to be,” that we fully intended to stay together forever, but I doubt that either of us believed it deep down. Still, we played at romance. We tried giving each other silly nicknames (none of which ever stuck for more than two days), we tried to do something special for birthdays and Valentine’s, and every time we spoke to each other we said “I love you.” I don’t pretend to know what was in her mind when she told me she loved me, but I said those words because that’s what boyfriends and girlfriends say to each other. I didn’t understand what it meant, but I somehow knew that I didn’t really mean it. Nevertheless, she said it to me so I echoed it back.
Looking back I think I know why the words rang hollow to me even as I said them. To me, they meant that I had a girlfriend and that she liked me enough to spend time with me. But in truth, they were just words based on nothing, like a piece of notebook paper on which someone has written “This is worth $100.”
I know now that love means more than kissing. Love means a lot of things, but to me what it means most is sacrifice. When I say “I love you” to my wife, I mean that I willingly and regularly give up part of myself to benefit her. I mean that I will continue to do so into the future. I mean that I will make any sacrifice necessary to keep her well and happy. And I mean that I expect nothing in return. Granted, the fact that she loves me as well, that she regularly sacrifices herself for my benefit, makes it easier for me to love her. That’s part of what marriage is—two people taking joy in mutual sacrifice for each other’s sake.
After my high school girlfriend moved to another state, I vowed to myself that I would never again say “I love you” to a woman until I was ready to commit the rest of my life to her. After I met my wife, I gradually fell into a disposition of intense affection toward her. I wanted to say “I love you,” but refrained. Instead, I showed her. I went out of my way to make her life easier, to brighten her day, to make her feel special, to help her in any way she needed and in any way that I could. When I proposed, when I finally said “I love you,” she knew that I meant it and she knew what I meant. And I, for the first time in my life, felt right about saying it to a woman I was not related to.
People want love so much that they end up infecting their computers with a debilitating virus in an effort to get it (see yesterday’s post). They achieve nothing but disillusionment with the idea of love and discard it as irrelevant (a la Ms. Turner’s song). They throw powerful words around without giving them any substance (as does Marie’s admirer). I think a lot of people want to say and hear “I love you” without having any sacrifice involved. I can tell you from experience, that ends only in emptiness and disappointment.
Express love through action first, then words. Trust me, it works a lot better that way.