If you’ve read the “About” section of my blog, you know I’m a big fan of Dear Sugar. I think the advice she gives is so straightforward, compelling, from the heart, and clearly from someone who has experienced a great deal in life.
I was thinking about what to write today, and it occurred to me that rather than talking about anything philosophical or biological, I wanted to share a particular Sugar letter on when you tell someone you love them.
“Johnny’s” twenty-year marriage fell apart three years ago, and he’s recently been seeing someone who is going through a bitter divorce. He thinks she is falling in love with him and he might be too, but he’s afraid of saying anything because in his experience love is “loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken.”
Johnny asked Sugar, “When is it right to take that big step and say I love you? And what is this “love” thing all about?”
Before I post Sugar’s response, I will say this: 1) Yes, her response is a bit long but please please do read through all of it. It really is worth it; and 2) I don’t need to say anything or comment on what Sugar’s said because I agree with her whole-heartedly and she is far more eloquent that I could ever be.
So…here is what Sugar said:
The last word my mother ever said to me was love. She was so sick and weak and out of her head she couldn’t muster the “I” or the “you,” but it didn’t matter. That puny word has the power to stand on its own.
I wasn’t with my mom when she died. No one was. She died alone in a hospital room and for so many years it felt like three quarters of my insides were frozen solid because of that. I ran it over and over it in my mind, the series of events and choices that kept me from being beside my mom in her last hours, but thinking about it didn’t do a thing. Thinking about it was a long dive into a bucket of shit that didn’t have a bottom.
I would never be with my mother when she died. She would never be alive again. The last thing that happened between us would always be the last thing. There would be the way I bent to kiss her and the way she said, “please, no,” when I got close because she couldn’t any longer bear the physical pain of people touching her. There would be the way that I explained I’d return in the morning and the way she just barely nodded in response. There would be the way I got my coat and said “I love you,” and the way she was silent until I was almost out the door and she called, “love.” And there would be the way that she was still lying in that bed when I returned the next morning, but dead.
My mother’s last word to me clanks inside me like an iron bell that someone beats at dinnertime: love, love, love, love, love.
I suppose you think this has nothing to do with your question, Johnny, but it has everything to do with my answer. It has everything to do with every answer I have ever given to anyone. It’s Sugar’s genesis story. And it’s the thing my mind kept swirling back to over these five weeks since you wrote to me and said you didn’t know the definition of love.
It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.
The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it. And, Johnny, on this front, I think you have some work to do.
But before we get to that, I want to say this, darling: I sort of love you.
I love the way you wrote to me with your searching, scared, knuckle-headed, nonchalant, withholding dudelio heart on full display. I love that you compelled me to write dudelio, even though—on top of the fact that dudelio isn’t a word—I am morally opposed to the entire dude and dude-related lexicon. I love how for five long weeks hardly a day has passed that I haven’t thought: But what about Johnny? What will I tell Johnny? I love that one recent evening when I was lying in bed with my man and he was reading the New Yorker and I was reading Brain, Child, I had to stop and put my magazine on my chest because I was thinking about you and what you asked me and so then my man put his magazine on his chest and asked what I was thinking about and I told him and we had a conversation about your troubles and then we turned off the lights and he fell asleep and I lay there wide awake with my eyes closed writing my answer to you in my head for so long that I realized I wasn’t going to fall asleep, so I got up and walked through the house and got a glass of water and sat at the kitchen table in the dark and looked out the window at the wet street and my cat came and jumped up on the table and sat there beside me and after a while I turned to her and said, “What will I tell Johnny?” and she purred.
I always knew what I would tell you. Not knowing wasn’t exactly the problem. What I was mulling over is how I’d get at the layers of things your letter implies to me: the questions you didn’t ask that stand so brightly behind the questions you did.
You aren’t afraid of love, sweet pea. You’re afraid of all the junk you’ve yoked to love. And you’ve convinced yourself that withholding one tiny word from the woman you think you love will shield you from that junk. But it won’t. We are obligated to the people we care about and who we allow to care about us, whether we say we love them or not. Our main obligation is to be forthright—to elucidate the nature of our affection when such elucidation would be meaningful or clarifying.
And in your case, it will be. You asked me when is the right time to tell your lover that you love her and the answer is when you think you love her. That’s also the right time to tell her what your love for her means to you. If you continue using avoidance as the main tactic in your romantic relationships with women, you’re going to stunt not only your happiness, but your life.
I encourage you to do more than throw up your hands in your examination of “whose fault” it was that your twenty-year marriage fell apart. It was no one’s fault, darling, but it’s still all on you. It would behoove you to reflect upon what went right in that relationship and what went wrong; to contemplate how you might carry forth the former in your current and/or future relationships and quash the latter.
There’s a saying about drug addicts that they stop maturing emotionally at the age they started using and I’ve known enough addicts to believe this to be true enough. I think the same thing can happen in a long-time monogamy. Perhaps some of your limited interpretations about what it means to say the word love are leftover from what you thought it meant all those years ago, when you first committed yourself to your ex-wife. That was the past, as you say, but I suspect that a piece of yourself is still frozen there.
A proclamation of love is not inherently “loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken.” The terms you agree to in any given relationship are connected to, but not defined by whether you’ve said “I love you” or not. I love you can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful and I’m going to do everything in my power to be your partner for the rest of my life. It can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful but I’m in transition right now, so let’s go easy on the promises and take it as it comes. It can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful but I’m not interested in a commitment with you, now or probably ever, no matter how groovy or beautiful you continue to be.
The point is, Johnny: you get to say. You get to define the terms of your life. You get to negotiate and articulate the complexities and contradictions of your feelings for this woman. You get to describe the particular kind of oh-shit-I-didn’t-mean-to-fall-in-love-but-I-sorta-did love you appear to have for her. Together, the two of you get to come to grips with what it means to have an exclusive, nicely clicking, non-committed commitment in the midst of her bitter divorce and in the not-too-distant wake of your decades-long marriage.
Do it. Doing so will free your relationship from the tense tangle that withholding weaves. Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word love to your lover has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel.
So release yourself from that. Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.
We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime.