I love you!

Just three little words, eight letters in all. And yet they make up the most powerful and perilous sentence in the English language.

Powerful because it is the ultimate spoken expression of romantic desire, the great aim and glory of serious relationships, the Big Bang of love and passion.

Perilous because it is the most intimate and vulnerable sentiment a person can make, putting the speaker in the thrall and power of the listener. It humbles us to say it, to mute and minimize, if only for a moment, our usually overwhelming ego.

Ego is what love is not. Love is the triumph of the other over our own needs and desires. I love you is like an arrow traveling to its target, capturing and linking us both. No wonder Cupid is always shown wielding an arrow.

Three little words, yet so hard to say. The fashion nowadays is to truncate and cheapen the expression to a casual love you, conveniently dropping the “I.” Evidently it is as hard to commit our personal self, our “I,” in expressing love, as it is admit a mistake, to tell someone: “I was wrong.” Instead people say, “my bad,” and forgo the “I” there as well.

The battle over the “missing I” is joined in snail mail and especially email sign-offs, where people frequently use “xoxo” to stand for bland hugs and kisses. There is a complex hierarchy to such valedictions. As reported by my friend Reba:

“xoxo=I like you, we are pretty friendly. XOXO=I like you more and we are pretty good friends – I mean it. Luv ya= You’re a pal, nothing more. Love you=Lightly, not with my whole being. I love you!= All in, 100%!”

“How do you decide the appropriate sign off?” Reba asks. “It’s a drag if someone’s sign off isn’t what yours would be, if you receive an ‘xoxo’ and you would write ‘I love you.’ If you say ‘I love you,’ it’s heavy, it demands a response.”

So why is it we so rarely go all in, even with our loved ones, and put the “I” in I love you? In our highly impatient world, maybe people don’t have time to say the “I” in I love you. Implausible? Yes, but there’s more to it. Saying I…love…you demands the extra moment of emphasis. It is a statement not to be made lightly, to be trifled with, to toss off casually.

Without the “I,” something important is missing, the seriousness of our commitment, the fervor of our feeling.

No, I love you remains the ultimate expression of love. Let’s put it back in our conversations, use it with our children and say it to our other loved ones. It can be humbling and sound old-fashioned and sentimental. Yet it expresses something critical, the valence and parity of our feelings, the equal sign in our relationship.


Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...