What do you mean when you say "I love you?" Are you sure? You may be 100 percent sincere when you say "I love you," but what are you trying to say? Get a pen and paper, and complete the following sentence 10 times: "When I say 'I love you,' I mean..." Do this now before reading on.

How did you get on? A lot of my students report some difficulty doing this exercise. During one Loveability course, a three-day program I teach which explores the psychology of love and loving relationships, a lawyer named Daniel told the group, "I must have said 'I love you' to my wife at least 10,000 times, but this is the first time I’ve consciously thought about what it means." Students often report that saying "I love you" can mean something different each time they say it.

The meaning of "I love you" has been tainted for some. For example, Claire, a nurse who attended my first Loveability program, told the group, "I find it difficult to know what 'I love you' means because I was raised in a family in which I never heard those words spoken." Other students have told me that although their parents said "I love you," they didn’t feel loved by them. The meaning of "I love you" was distorted by parental behavior that was manipulative, possessive, critical or controlling.

These three magic words—"I love you"—can cause a lot of confusion and pain in romance, too. "My first serious boyfriend left me after I told him, 'I love you,'" said Paula.

"My last boyfriend said 'I love you' only when he wanted sex," said Julie.

"When my girlfriend says 'I love you,' I feel a pressure to say it back to her," said Kevin.

"Each time my ex-husband was physically violent to me, he'd apologize and say 'I love you' in the sweetest way," said Carole.

"The only girl I've ever said 'I love you' to betrayed me with my best friend," said James.

So let's return to the I Love You Inquiry. When you look at your list of 10 responses, what stands out? How clear were you? What was the most honest thing you said? When my students complete this inquiry for the first time, they often discover that "I love you" is full of agendas. For example, "I love you" means "I need you" or "I want you" or "I own you" or "Agree with me" or "Now say you love me." No wonder these three little words can cause so much trouble.

In a moment, I'd like you to do the exercise again, filling in the blank in the following sentence five times: "When I say 'I love you,' what I really mean is..." Getting clear on what you really mean will help you to be a truly loving presence in your relationships. The people you love will feel even more loved by you because your intention to love is conscious and clear. This is so important, because the real meaning of "I love you" is not found in the words themselves, but in the intention behind them.

Next: A few ideas that can transform your relationship


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