Harmful Communication: The "I Love You" Defense

[Content Note: Abuse; gaslighting.]

"I love you" can be a beautiful and welcome turn of phrase, when it's said to someone who wants to be loved by the person saying it, whether in a romantic or non-romantic context.

It can also be a fraught phrase, especially between two people with different expectations about when and how it should be used—as inside a relationship where one person wants to say and hear it often, and the other person thinks it ought to be held in reserve for special occasions.

It can be a weirdly obligatory phrase, compelling people to reply, "I love you, too," in accordance with embedded expectation, personal or cultural.

One's individual comfort with saying and hearing "I love you" is neither right nor wrong; it's just something that has to be negotiated with other loved and loving people in one's personal sphere.

This post, however, is about a very specific deployment of "I love you," which is always wrong: Saying it in one's own defense.

Person A: I am upset by X behavior toward me, and here is why, and I would like you to not do that, please.

Person B: But I love you.
That's a very simplistic representation of a type of exchange that will be familiar to many of us. It might go something a little more like:
Person A: I am upset by X behavior toward me, and here is why, and I would like you to not do that, please.

Person B: You are wrong to feel that way. Intent argument. Gaslighting.

Fight fight fight.

Person B: I'm sorry if your feelings were hurt. But you know that I love you.

Person A: BRB going to read the Terrible Bargain again.
Here's the thing: Love is a verb. (So is "care" in the similarly deployed "I care about you.") It's not a fixed state of mind, where as long as someone has decided they love another person, that's all there is to it. Love is an action—or, better, a series of ongoing actions that constitute loving behavior. The act of loving somebody.

When "I love you" is deployed as a defense, an invoked reminder, it functions to communicate the idea "I can't hurt you, because I love you."

In refusing to apologize, and to be accountable, and to listen to someone who is articulating a boundary, and instead "reminding" them that you love them, that you have always loved them and always will, you are effectively, even if unintentionally, communicating these things:

1. That love and harm are mutually exclusive capacities.

2. That love is static, and does not require the active work of negotiating boundaries.

3. That the person is saying they don't feel loved, rather than saying they don't feel respected.

This last one is a biggie. And it's a biggie because, while certainly there are times that a consistent subversion of safety and/or respect can undermine one's belief that someone loves them, mostly people who are willing to take the time to address an issue of safety and/or respect with a loved one is aware that the person loves them. (Otherwise, there's little incentive to invest the time to address it.) So "I love you" thus functions as a red herring, to make the issue about something it patently isn't.

As a result, treating "I love you" as a defense or resolution may also function, inadvertently or maliciously, as a way of implying that the "real" issue is that the person with a rightful complaint is the problem—a broken person who just doesn't have the capacity to accept love.

When the problem is not feeling unloved, but unheard.

The response to "this thing you do makes me feel unsafe or disrespected" is "I hear you, and I will not do that thing that makes you feel unsafe or disrespected anymore." It isn't "I love you." Listening is the required act of love.

"I love you" comes after that love is in evidence, and not before. Or instead.

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