We toss these phrases around a lot in our relationships. We expect them, in pivotal moments, to transform our relationships: to acknowledge a deeply thoughtful gesture, to help us level up from crush to partner, to grant us absolution when we’ve wronged.
But we also reach for them unthinkingly, in routinized exchanges. Shot back and forth, these knee-jerk assurances feel less like sacred relational tools and more like obligatory conversational tokens: “Sorry” cues “no worries,” and “thanks!” cues “no problem.” A quick “love you” receives another thoughtless, knee-jerk “love you” in exchange. Cemented in our conversations, their meanings bleach with uncareful use.
Madeleine: We learn about the big, romantic “I love you” very young, from doe-eyed couples in rom-coms. It’s presented as a magic trick, a gateway to the next, more serious phase of the relationship. To being In Love.
Sonnet: My first romantic “I love you” was to a boy I dated in my senior year of high school, drunk in a common room in the UC Santa Barbara dorms where we were visiting for admitted students’ day. He was upset because I’d been joking, loudly, about flirting with frat boys to get us into parties. A defense mechanism, on my part: I didn’t think he cared about me that much. I was testing him, maybe. I guess it worked. The words had been on my lips for months, and finally, holding his imploring face in my hands, I ripped off the Band-Aid. “I love you.”
That time, it really was a magic trick. We were driving back up the 5 the next day and he said, “I’m really glad you said that to me last night.” We spent the next several months passing it blissfully back and forth, free to be transparent with each other, until we parted ways for college in August.
Madeleine: In my most recent serious relationship, we were friends long before we started dating. I’m almost sure we traded casual “I love yous” back then, meaning some version of “I enjoy you and want to know you more, be there for you.”
When we started dating, that verbal slate was wiped clean, and we had to work our way back to those words. I remember edging closer to it, couching it in modifiers: “I think” and “I might.” When we finally did say it, the words had this hallowed feeling. We’d say it only in whispers, under cover of darkness, sheets pulled over our heads. Those first “I love yous” felt like we were holding our relationship up in front of us, deciding together what it was made of. Over time, the words became a daily exchange, invoking that something-deeper without always needing the premeditation, the heart-in-throat feeling.
When we broke up (but remained friends), those words became ambiguous. At the beginning, they rang hollow, a reminder of loss. They couldn’t be casual, couldn’t be a commitment. It took us time to redefine our connection, to imbue our “I love yous” with new meaning. Now, more than a year later, our end-of-phone-call “I love you” exchange feels natural. It is different from our romantic agreement: not a promise of exclusive partnership but an acknowledgment of how much we mean to each other.
Sonnet: It can be dizzying, how many different things “I love you” can mean — or not mean. I remember being told, once, by a guy I was smitten with, “You know I love you more than anything.” My small, trusting self, leaning against the railing of his apartment, wanted so badly to believe the words. But he was looking over my shoulder, past me, as he said them. He was trying to justify himself: The day before, he’d been kissing someone else right in the middle of a party, right in front of me.
In these contexts, without a basis of shared understanding, the words are brittle, empty.
Madeleine: There are moments, too, when a rogue “love you” — or even “luv u” — from an acquaintance catches me by surprise: in response to a comment on an Instagram post, a goodbye after a shared class.
Sonnet: I think our habit of omitting the subject “I” reflects, on some level, a desire to distance ourselves from the gravity of the phrase, absolve ourselves of the need to show up in the sentence.
Madeleine: “I’m sorry” is another phrase we’re quick to fire off unthinkingly. One morning recently, I was making oatmeal and a big pot of coffee in our shared kitchen when Sonnet walked in, void of her usual vigor. Her “good morning” deflated midair and her kitchen putterings were punctuated by sighs.
We reached for the same cabinet at the same time and she recoiled, apologizing. “It’s OK,” I assured her. She opened the fridge, turned around. “Can I borrow an egg, sorry, I really need to go to the grocery store.” I told her yes, of course. “I’m sorry, I’ll go tomorrow.”
Before this exchange, her mood hadn’t really affected me. But something about her profuse apologizing made me feel like any grace I gave had to be doubled by an assurance that I didn’t mind giving that grace.
Sonnet: Caught up in feeling sorry for myself, I think my attempts to minimize how much I’m encroaching sometimes end up encroaching further. That’s me externalizing my anxiety, forcing her to deal with it too, rather than expressing genuine remorse.
Many of us have encountered the (often gendered) advice floating around to exchange “I’m sorrys” for “thank yous”: to say “thank you for waiting” instead of “sorry I’m late” — this can be powerful, centering the other person’s generosity instead of our own shortcomings.
Someone I was seeing for a while last year would often say “thank you” when I kissed him. At first I found this jarring, even arrogant, like he was weirdly calling attention to the fact that I’d given him something instead of just sharing in the kiss with me and giving it back.
But this was one of the most soulful, earnest people I know, and eventually I came to realize that, much like asking for explicit verbal consent, pausing to say “thank you” serves to reimbue the act of kissing with its sanctity, rather than letting it happen out of habit or reflex.
In fact, it didn’t just make the kissing feel more powerful: It made the words “thank you” more special, too. Instead of ducking bashfully out of sincere acknowledgement, as we so often do with our rapid-fire “sorrys” and “love yous,” he was forcing us both to slow down, recognize the significance of what we were doing and what we were saying.
Madeleine: That is all it takes, really, to give these words their power back: slowing down and being intentional.
Recently, I found myself needing to apologize: Sonnet and I were back in the kitchen, only this time it was me in a bad mood. I spent my stress on Sonnet, answering her bubbly “good mornings” with sharpness.
Later, she joined me in my room and I told her that she didn’t deserve my ire.
“I’m sorry,” I told her, doing my best to admit fault without expecting forgiveness or comfort. She smiled, squeezing my shoulder.
Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected]