“I love you” is a phrase often heard, but what does it really mean? Most everyone is quick to unleash the most powerful phrase in the universe, but almost no one thinks twice about what “love” is. We generally agree it is an expression of some sort of affection. Romantic love, obviously, expresses your desire to be with someone, but that does not fit with a child’s love for a parent or the love between two close friends.
I am someone who chooses not to use words casually (except when I do).
When I say, “I love you”, I want it to have profound impact. The fullness of the statement should be understood–few people in my life will hear it from me. For me to place an especially high reserve on a word or phrase, I must be sure I am crystal clear on my own meaning and the person receiving the words understands fully what I am saying.
My definition of love is this:
Love is the recognition and acknowledgment of your highest values in another.
Love, at its core, is a selfish act. To love someone, you must first know–that is, recognize (even if unconsciously)–what you love about yourself; otherwise, how can you recognize it in another? When you love another, a part of you is reaching to possess them, to claim a stake in some part of their life (even if only in your daydreams), longing to share their world or pull them into part of yours. Once you recognize the best of you in someone else, to fall in love, you must also acknowledge that you see it. I think this is why sometimes friends of many years do not realize they are compatible lovers. They both may recognize it, but one of them refuses to acknowledge it.
What about unconditional love? The Christian altruist idea that you should love someone no matter what, that all people are worthy of your love for no reason other than they exist, like molecules. I say it is a most foolish and selfless concept. Those who know me, know never to speak to me of unconditional love, unless it is for the joy of hearing me rant.
To love someone without any condition is not noble; it subjugates your life to a meaningless, worthless commodity that can be attained and disposed of at the will or whimsy of anyone who catches your fancy. Unconditional love is beneath even slavery. Indeed, slavery at the very least, allows the captive to retain an inner moral dignity and sense of self. A slave understands he is captive; someone who loves with no conditions gives up the effort of understanding or valuing their own life. It is tantamount to suicide.
I think people who speak of unconditional love probably do not understand the words drooling from their lips. Most people have conditions for their love. If you kill one of my family members, for example, I will not love you. It is a condition of my love. If you cheat on me, I will withdraw my love. I might still have feelings about you in both cases but my love is very conditional. It is an act of volition–an act of grace, honor, trust, and loyalty should I offer my love to you. It is because I have recognized and acknowledged, in you, the highest values I see in myself.
If I value integrity very highly, then I will never love someone who demonstrates time and again they are without integrity by lying, never showing up on time, stealing, cheating, etc. If loyalty is one of my prime values, then I know I could not be happy with someone who keeps many lovers or does not wish to be loyal to anyone; it would violate the sanctity of what I hold most dear. For the person who holds, as one of their highest values, being whimsical and able to follow their desire for anyone at any time regardless of consequences, they will not hold love for someone who is strictly monogamous or has opposing values.
Keep in mind I am only speaking of your highest values. We each have many, many things we value, but there are only a few things (maybe 10 but probably less than 5) we value above everything else. Many of us do not know what those values are; it seems like we are attracted to people who act opposite of us. It is not that opposites attract. It is that the other person is holding your own values better than you. For example, when a husband says, “She saved me from drinking and ruining my life”, it is because drinking was never one of his values. He may have thought it was until he recognized, by seeing it in someone else, that sobriety was his actual value–the thing he longed for most but was unable to achieve alone, and then acknowledged that she was confidently sober and powerful in her convictions (perhaps something else he valued highly). His love is expressed as a debt of gratitude, but the gratitude is not for making him sober; it is for showing him that it could be done by living his values and offering him a way to reach them.
Again, love is the physical action of you first recognizing the highest values in your self and then acknowledging the existence of those values in someone else. You love what you admire, and if you have any self-worth, your love is very conditional. The price to achieve it, and draw those words from your lips, should be set no lower than the level of your own self-esteem.
Fall in love, but not with just anyone for any reason. Make your love worth as much as your life. After all, one is not worth having without the other.