What Does “I Love You” Mean?

February 14, 2011
What is the relationship between saying the words “I love you” and the actions you take?

My computer is giving serious signals that it will crash at any moment. So I am writing quickly, saving frequently, and have already put in an order for a new hard drive to be installed Tuesday.

In the meantime, I want to write a story for Valentine’s Day that, for me, illustrates what it means to love someone.

Here’s the story.

About two-and-a-half years ago, a woman who had previously worked for me part-time called to say she desperately needed a place to live and asked if I knew someone from whom she could rent a room. Although she had fibromyalgia and worked as hard as she could as a salesperson, she couldn’t afford much. Nevertheless, she expected a raise and promotion in about three months.

I knew we would be compatible and asked my husband if she could stay with us rent-free to give her a chance to save a little. I knew he wasn’t keen on the idea, but he agreed and she moved in.

What with one thing and another, the promotion didn’t come through and she didn’t move out for 14 months. I knew she was trying to get a better job, so my husband and I allowed extensions, knowing she wasn’t going to stay here forever.

Nevertheless, I could see he wasn’t happy about the adjustments he needed to make, like giving up his bathroom. Then, about a week before she finally left, he said he was counting the days until he could get his bathroom back. As we were talking about the fact that she had stayed longer than we expected, he acknowledged that he really hadn’t wanted her to move in in the first place. So I asked, “Then why did you say she could move in?”

He replied simply, “Because you wanted her to come and I love you.”

His answer is part of the reason we have been married more than fifty years. He doesn’t buy me fancy jewelry. He doesn’t share my spiritual beliefs. He doesn’t read what I write. He isn’t enthusiastic about many of the things I enjoy doing. And I am still waiting for him to finish several things on his to-do list.

However, I don’t have a need for expensive jewelry. I can share my beliefs with others. If people buy my books, I don’t need my husband to read them. And while I can possibly get him to go to one movie a year with me, usually a children’s movie with the grandchildren, yesterday I was very happy to take myself to “The King’s Speech” while he went on a ten-mile hike, which is at least ten times farther than I can go.

All-in-all I think we accommodate one another in many ways and that’s what it means to me when we say “I love you.” And while I would say that we don’t experience ourselves as “soul-mates,” we are definitely “sole-mates.”

Our marriage is, like many marriages of long duration, complex. But it works in large part because we try to live our “I love you” as well as say it. We don’t need to exchange fancy gifts on Valentine’s Day — today I’m giving him chocolate chip cookies I baked from a package of store-bought dough and tonight will give him the same card I gave him last year.  We will say “I love you” and know that it is true for both of us.

One last note about my friend’s stay at our house. She had fibromyalgia, which Half a year after she moved out, she married and soon discovered she had metastasized cancer. She died a  year later. I feel so grateful to my husband for going the extra mile and giving her a place where she could gather strength for the difficult months ahead, although of course, we didn’t know that at the time.

May there be someone in your life whose “I love you” means the willingness to do what needs to be done for a relationship to flourish. And may you do the same thing for him or her.

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Here are a some related posts from this blog, and articles from the Support4Change website:


My First Relationship Stress-Buster

January 31, 2011
Reduce your stress while you work on a relationship.

If you’ve been reading my posts for awhile, you’ll know that I’m learning to create videos. Loving it! A bit time-consuming as I work my way through glitches caused by my ignorance of minor technical points that cause major problems. But all and all I’m looking forward to taking the many things I’ve learned over the years in helping people and putting them into a form that can reach people who want to watch a lesson rather than read it.

Today I bring you the first of what I expect will be many videos to help you reduce stress while you work on improving a relationship. Here you learn the importance of disconnecting stress neurons that are all tangled up with the thoughts you have of another person.

NOTE: The video may take awhile to load depending on your computer, the size of the video file, your Internet connection, your server, our server, and whether you had a cup of coffee this morning. It shouldn’t take very long, but it’s worth the wait.

If you want to read what I have to say in the video, below is a text version of what I said (well, approximately anyway).

Welcome to Relationship Stress-Buster #1

I am Arlene Harder and if you wonder why I’ve put Pumba from The Lion King on my head and set the timer for 1 minute, I’ll tell you. It’s a demonstration designed to show how you can reduce your tension and improve your relationships.

One of the problems with strained and broken relationships is the tension in your body when problems don’t get solved. The neurons in the brain grow ever more tight around thoughts of the other person and the problems you have. We tell ourselves that our bodies will have less stress if we resolve our conflicts. Well, what I’ve learned is that we can feel calm despite our conflicts, and because you are more calm, we are more likely to solve our conflicts.

So what I’ve done is create a series of what I call “stress busters,” that can give you a sense of freedom even while you have a relationship that needs a lot of attention. You can work on the relationship, but your body doesn’t have to suffer while you’re doing it.

This is Stress Buster 1, the first of more than ten and I call it “A 60-second Balancing Act.” Many of them are inspired by a special feature of Support4Change called Take-a-Break. I’ll add other Stress-Buster videos from time to time.

So let’s get started on improving a relationship you have that gives you stress by having a little fun.

Balance something on the top of your head for 60 seconds. As you can see, it doesn’t have to be difficult to do, like using a heavy book or a round object that would roll off. I just suggest you don’t use anything breakable. The only requirement is that you balance it for one minute.

Sometimes I make a face because it’s hard for me to focus on the difficulty I have with someone else when I’m making silly faces. My brain can’t handle silliness and seriousness at the same time. I imagine none of us can.

You see, I’ve learned that no matter how much I want another person to change, the only person I can change is myself. And that can be hard sometimes, so I need things that distract me from the difficulty I am having with someone. What I discover when I’m not focused on getting the other person to change, I am calmer and I’m able to see solutions that aren’t so obvious when I’m focused on the problems I have.

I invite you to do this Stress Buster right now, but before you do, for just a moment think about a relationship that is difficult for you. Notice how your body feels a bit tense, or maybe very tense. Then pick up the item you will balance and do the one minute balancing act.

Notice that while you were balancing something on your head, the difficulty of your relationship faded, even if for only a minute. The tension neurons in your brain were disconnected from the idea of the other person and they were able to relax and, just possibly, open up a pathway to a solution to your relationship.

Look for other Stress Busters in the weeks to come.

Good luck.

Related Articles:

Dating Before and After Marriage

July 2, 2010
Discover the importance and pleasure of dating, whether or not you are already married.

Tonight is our date night. Every Friday for more than twenty years, out of fifty, my husband and I have made it a habit to go out to dinner and then on a walk. Sometimes the walk comes first, but it is always our “date” night.

When we first started this, we made it a habit to walk around the city hall and downtown area of every town in Los Angeles County, home to 88 incorporated cities and many unincorporated areas (like the place where we live). We had to miss gated communities that won’t let in just anybody (even though I wrote and asked whether they would make an exception for upstanding citizens like ourselves).

In this fashion we have walked all the way from our house in Altadena, which is up against the San Gabriel Mountains north of Pasadena (the Tournament of Roses city), to the Queen Mary in Long Beach. We have also walked across Los Angeles County from Claremont in the east to Zuma Beach in the west. We would take this in sections, of course, driving to where we ended the last week and continuing on our route.

I think we have probably walked over more of the county of 9,848,011 residents (2009) than most people have. That doesn’t make us better than those who haven’t, of course, but it has given us a perspective that makes us appreciate the rich diversity of the area in which we live. This includes poor and rich neighborhoods alike, and I can tell you that the poor ones were not as scary for our date as Beverly Hills. There we were trying to walk on Sunset, where there are no sidewalks, and even though we stayed far to the edge of the road, the cars were going very fast. Guess they don’t like pedestrians.

These days, since our bodies aren’t as strong as they used to be, we don’t walk as far. We also don’t go so far from home. But the commitment to the routine encourages us to spend time together much like couples do when they are dating.

Incidentally, the picture is of me and my husband in the old part of the city of Quito, Ecuador. Now that is a city with character! You may have seen the video I made of our recent trip there.

If you are married, I heartily encourage you to set aside a night, or day, that you consider your “date” commitment. And it won’t kill you to turn off the Blackberry and cell phone, or you will only be half there with your partner, and get only half the benefit from your time together.

What if you aren’t married and you think a date night sounds interesting but your relationship has ended, you are divorced, and your spouse has died? Where does a date night fit in your plans? Well, first of all, you need to ask yourself some questions to help you “get ready” to date again.

Fortunately, my friend Michelle Vasquez, who specializes in helping people find love after just those kinds of things have happened, is planning a tele-class on July 6 that will cover these questions:

What is on your mind about dating?
Are you ready to start dating again?
Do you wonder about online dating?
Do you think you are ready? (after a breakup? after divorce? after widowhood?)
Do you wonder if the rules have changed since you last dated?

Whatever your burning question is, you can pick Michelle’s brain during this call. Click here to get the sign up information: http://askmichelleanything.com/

I am so glad I don’t need her advice on dating. At this stage of life I’m not sure that I would want to start over again. But marriage has been very good to me and I recommend it to those who are in love.

Are You and Your Partner Like Chalk and Cheese?

June 25, 2010
Are you and your partner happy even though you are as dissimilar as chalk and cheese, or are you happy because you are very much alike?

Children's chalkAbout a week ago my brother shared a post called Chalk and Cheese from the Life With the Campbells blog, saying it reminded him of me and my husband. Curious, I checked it out and decided Molly Campbell definitely has a way with words; she is the second-place winner in the 2010 Erma Bombeck writer’s competition. Her description of the relationship between her and her husband is like that of my marriage, except that in our case the roles are reversed.

Stack of Swiss cheese piecesAfter reading the post, I decided to see whether she had made up the phrase “chalk and cheese” or whether it was an idiom others would understand. So I visited faithful Google again and found in The Phrase Finder that the idiom comes from England and describes two things or people that are very different and have nothing in common, yet are used together. Think about “hocus-pocus, the bee’s knees, riff-raff, etc.” There doesn’t seem to be much purpose in the rhyming or connection of these words expect that they go together in a fun sort of way.

Certainly you wouldn’t confuse chalk and cheese, just as you wouldn’t confuse me with my husband, even beyond the physical characteristics. This is what I wrote in a comment on Molly’s post in describing how the roles in our marriage are like the roles in her marriage except that the roles are reversed:

He’s an engineer and I couldn’t understand what he does if my life depended on it. I’m a therapist with a spiritual bent and have written three books, none of which he’s read (says he’s not a reader, which is true, but couldn’t he at least read his wife’s?).

When something happens, he takes his sweet time to decide what he feels about it. I immediately know what I feel in a situation. (In psychology this is called being a slow-responder and fast-responder). However, after fifty years, some of his traits have rubbed off on me and I guess some of mine on his.

What two words would describe your relationship with someone with whom you are connected in some way — partner, spouse, friend, child, neighbor, parent, sibling, etc. — that express similarities or dissimilarities?

Would you choose common words like “cat and dog,” which conjures up an image of fairly constant fighting? Or would it be “soft and softer?” There are all kinds of words and phrases that describe relationships. How would you describe yours?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Can You Speak Only Love for 24 Hours?

May 4, 2010
Notice the words we use that open our hearts to others and the words that others use to draw us closer to them.

Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides. — Rita Mae Brown

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. — Rudyard Kipling

Smiley face inside speech bubbleLanguage can create both war and peace. It causes one person to plant a sign in her front yard in favor of a bond issue and her neighbor to support those against the bond. It can send one person to Africa to train poor people to become budding entrepreneurs and another to blow up an airplane.

There is no doubt that words have the power to draw us closer or tear us apart.

When someone uses words that are critical of us or express ideas with which we disagree, we are quick to point out the flaws in their argument or the negative tone in their voice. On the other hand, we are seldom as sensitive to the words we use when we speak, when we twitter about someone with whom we disagree, when we share a story on Facebook, when we feel overworked, and when we have co-workers who get on our nerves.

Might you be ready for a twenty-four hour challenge?

What do you think would happen if, for the next twenty-four hours, you consciously chose to use words that were gentler and more loving? If feeling warmly toward someone with whom you have a great deal of difficulty seems beyond the realm of possibility, what do you think would happen if, for the next twenty-four hours, you consciously chose to use words that would not exacerbate the problem?  And what would happen if you hold a very strong position about some political issue (there is no dearth of possible topics these days) and, for the next twenty-four hours, you refrain from denigrating those who hold opposite positions?

Thinking before you speak, or twitter, or write anything may slow down the speed with which you type the words or allow the words to come out of your mouth; it’s always difficult to speak rapidly when we pay close attention to what we say. But just imagine the effect we would have on the world if all of us spoke with the intention to be less harsh and negative in the words we use, even when we hold firmly to our opinions.

Although the words you use may be few, they can have a huge effect, just as small actions can have a large effect. For example, a trash can in a large zoo was disguised as a lion — with a voice-activating system that had the lion growl “Thank you” when a child threw in a bit of trash. Not only was the area next to the trash can spotless, but you couldn’t find a scrap of paper or candy wrapper in the whole zoo!

Simple words can be just as powerful.

I don’t know if the words I write today will reach a few people or many. However, I am choosing to use words that might inspire you to live with the intention of speaking kindly to everyone you meet today, even those you don’t like. At the same time, I am committed to making certain my own words are joyful and loving.

If we are willing to extend ourselves outside the  groups and tribes in which we feel comfortable (and where it is easy to make loving and encouraging statements), the ripple effect around the globe might bring us all a little closer than we were before today began. [See Who is in Your Tribe?]

Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski, talented husband-and-wife therapists and authors of several books on relationships, wrote in their newsletter a few years ago about “Loving Endearments,” which is well illustrated in the following (reprinted with permission):

“Large, grand gestures are wonderful when you can make them happen. But real, long-lasting, day-to-day love is made up of countless little things. They are the brick and mortar of what two people build together. The grand gestures are like chandeliers, or swimming pools, or expensive silverware and china. They bring elegance and refinement and their own kind of beauty, a beauty that’s hard to miss, but how often will you bring out the fine china, or keep the chandelier lit? And how often will you eat off your regular, daily plates and use the table lamp to give you the light you need?

We emphasize the small things because they are available everyday.

When we drive together, whether we’re on a short or long trip, one of us will reach out and simply take the other’s hand. Often we don’t say anything about it. We just do it. It’s a small moment that affirms and confirms our love for one another . . . and . . . all it takes is the realization of how important such a gesture can be and the willingness to follow through when the impulse arises.

Keep in mind the small endearments. They are the foundation.”

Words are the foundation for war or peace. Let us make ours build peace.

I encourage you to seriously consider these questions today.


  • Am I willing to spend twenty-four hours conscious of the words I use?
  • Am I willing to only use words that will improve relationships at home and in the world at large?
  • What quotations, affirmations, or scripture verses have helped me feel more connected with others and inspired me to lead a kinder, more peaceful life?

I would especially love to have you share your answer to the last question. It would be interesting to know what quotations, affirmations, and scripture verses most encourage people to feel more closely connected with others.