Every time I hang up the phone, I’m at risk of “I love you” popping out of my mouth. I have to coach myself at the end of professional calls and credit card-fraud inquiries. If you do me a favor, I tell you I love you. If you say it to me first, chances are I’ll mirror you. If I have been drinking, I’m ready to marry you. My casual use of “I love you” has become a reflexive habit.
I also say “I love you” with full sincerity, of course. I say it to my family, to my friends, to important animals in my life. I say it on purpose and with purpose when I really need someone to know it — like I’ll get all intense and look into the recipient of my emotion’s eyes until I feel confident that they get it. I will not avert my gaze until they reciprocate. And I mean it. I really, really mean it when I say it. But I’ve started to worry that my excessive, outside-the-inner-circle use of “I love you” is in some way diluting the weight of those words in relationships where I most needed them. A friend, who is kind of a shit, recently countered my affection with, “You say that to everyone.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I posted a Facebook status and polled friends about how casual they were with these words. There wasn’t a consensus, but rather seven different categories that people seemed to fall into:
They say I love you to everyone and anyone. Free love whenever the mood strikes, even if it’s accidental (like my friend Rachel, who said it to a pizza-delivery man because she was so hungry and thrilled at his arrival) or because of an unexpected endorphin spike (there were stories of casual I love you’s to bosses after raises and one-night stands after orgasms). They see it as a happy reaction to honest emotions, one that doesn’t need to “mean” anything beyond a feel-good moment.
Mirrors don’t initiate the L-bomb, but they respond to “I love you” with some version of those three words (love you too, love you, me too, same!) as though on autopilot, or to be polite. Some mirrors told me that this was an occupational hazard within their professional industries (“I love you” in response to a favor or to maintain strong networks despite superficial relationships). Other mirrors didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and saw no harm in saying an empty “love you” back.
My favorite of the bunch and far from my natural response: hard nuts to crack replied to unrequited “I love you’s” with “thanks.” Or, “thank you so much!”
A huge majority of people who I spoke to said that they say “I love you” to all of their friends, close or not. It seemed as casual — and, paradoxically, as sincere — as a hug.
A few people told me that they feel uncomfortable saying “I love you” no matter who they’re saying it to, even if it’s said to them. I have one friend who is such a “Nope.” She told me she loved me once and I have never let her forget it.
Less rigid than the Nope group but far more conservative than the Hippies or Friend-Zoners, my friends the Selective Lovers were adamant about the fact that they only say it to VERY specific people: close relatives, childhood bests and long-term, in-it-until-the-bitter-end relationships. More than any other, this group seemed to notice how causally others use “I love you.”
Meanwhile, a majority of people seemed to agree that no matter where they fell, “love you” without the “I” (see: Mirrors) was a more casual, less-intense delivery than the full three words. Though it’s an accepted form of true affection among friends, it’s an infuriating response when meant romantically.
After talking “I love you” with my entire Facebook feed, multiple group chats, guys, girls and anyone who would answer me back, I came to my own conclusion: If I love you so much it hurts, you know it, whether or not I “say it to everyone.” Otherwise, casual or not, there are so many worse things you can do than tell people you love them.