October 8, 2006

I find it exasperating when someone says "I love you" too soon. I'm not sure I know the right amount of time before saying it, but I definitely know the wrong amount: 24 hours. If you've been dating for less than a day and you hear "I love you," it's doomed. Even a month isn't long enough to have it count. There are people who say "I love you" when what they really mean is: "Bye for now."

Of course it's one thing to say it and another to feel it. My friend Heather feels she has been in love more than three times this year. She falls in love more often than I've been to the gym.

The other night she called to tell me her new boyfriend said "it" out loud. Those three words that are designed to make love official. When in doubt of your feelings, it's instant reassurance.

It got me thinking. Who was the first person to say "I love you"? In the ancient Hebrew of The Song of Songs, there is a lot of love but no "I love you". Then again, Solomon was said to have had 700 wives, so no wonder he got sick of saying it. Maybe the first person to say it was a mother to her child. A Jewish mother. As in "I plan to talk to you every day of your life whether you like it or not. Because I love you."

For those of us who are cautious about saying "I love you," there is the added dilemma of who says it first. In the past, when I've been the first one to say it, I've always regretted it. But once it's out there, it's too late. It's not as though you can say "Just kidding" afterwards. One time I said "I love you" and you know what the response was? "Thank you." How awful is that?

Moreover, once "I love you" is out there, it's a free-for-all. I've been in situations where it's taken up to a year before I'll say it - but once I do, I can't stop. I'll say it a thousand times a day to make up for lost time. "Honey, I'm going to the post office. I love you!"

I'm not sure why we feel so compelled to say it anyway. And why "love" and not some other, less vague emotion? If only "I need you" had the same heart-warming connotations. When someone says "I love you," it's romantic. When someone says "I need you," it's scary. And the more they say it, the less attractive they become.

There is an ancient Egyptian poem where the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten established devotion to Ra, the sun god. But devotion is different. If I had a choice, I'd much rather hear someone say "I am devoted to you" than "I love you," because it sounds so much more committed. Maybe that's why it didn't catch on.

In Homer's Iliad, Paris says to Helen: "Never I loved a woman as I love you now as the sweet desire holds me." This might have been the first time the pronoun "you" was used. But it still doesn't explain why expressing the desire out loud makes it legitimate.

If the first written "I love you" is hard to pin down, the first time it was spoken out loud is impossible to identify. I'm guessing that it happened when a cavewoman was carried over the threshold for the first time as opposed to being dragged by her hair.

I have found that the best time to say "I love you" is right before hanging up the phone. I like to say "Love you" and hang up immediately. That way I avoid the awkward silence - or even worse, "I like you too."