In my adolescence, I was always hypnotized by those moments in movies or novels where the couple would say ‘I love you’ to one another. Or where the parents would say ‘I love you’ to one of their children. For me, this was not something that happened in my reality. They were three words I grew up never hearing; although in the imaginary world I had constructed for myself, I heard those words time and time again.
Expressing love through words was not something that was a done thing in my household. Love was expressed through ‘things’. So I got to learn that my parents loved me when they got me ‘things’. And I came to interpret them not getting me ‘things’ as a sign of disapproval or rejection.
I remember coming out to my mum in my late 20’s, with her saying ‘thank God your father is dead’. And when I said ‘when was he ever a father to me’, she responded with ‘at least he paid your school fees’. I remember looking at her to see if she was joking, but she was serious. And deep down, I could understand that she meant it; this was on the basis that for her and my dad (and many Nigerians of that generation), providing an education for their children was an act of expressing love.
A couple of years after that coming out conversation, I remember dating someone who after a few weeks together said to me at the end of a phone conversation late one evening ‘I love you’. It was the first time in my life that I can recollect someone saying that to me. I remember feeling shock for a second and then a moment of anxiety. And before I could even process my feelings, I heard myself say ‘No, you don’t’. He responded with ‘of course I do’ and I said ‘you don’t know me enough to love me’. A few weeks later I stopped returning his calls and the brief relationship soon ended. I had come face to face with love and in my moment of insecurity, I had thrown away the gift that I had so much longed for.
A few years later in another relationship, when the guy I was dating said ‘I love you’, I remember simply pretending to not have heard, as I reached for his lips as a way of distraction. I did this on two separate occasions. On the third occasion when he said ‘I love you’, again I remember being so nervous, vulnerable, exposed and confused. In my mind, I had built up those three words to mean so much – ‘I will always love you’, ‘I will never leave you’ and ‘we will be together forever’. This time I did not try to deflect the gesture and responded with ‘I love you too’. And the only way I was able to do that was by focusing on the fact that in that moment, I did love him and saying that ‘I love you’ was not a guarantee that this would be the case the next day.
As an adult, I have found that the rules I learnt in my childhood and adolescence regarding expressing love simply through things, no longer hold up. I have come to learn that expressing love in words is important and necessary to me.
It comes a bit more naturally to me now, but it has taken (and continues to take) a lot of practice. I am reminded of trying out a new piece of gym equipment two weeks ago and aching for a number of days afterwards. That’s how it initially was with me working out the ‘saying I love you’ muscle. Today I feel really blessed to be surrounded by people who give me plenty of opportunities to practice saying those three words.
It’s an ongoing journey and its one that I am very much open to. For me I have come to learn that saying those words mean, ‘I accept you exactly as you are, and you don’t need to change for me’. I have also come to understand that sometimes love cannot be put into words and like intimacy – it’s an expression, not a thought.
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