How Much Does Saying “I Love You” Matter in a Relationship?

I have an ambivalent relationship with Valentine’s Day. I am a first generation Indian-American, having moved to the U.S. at age 10 with my parents and three younger sisters. We were the only ones with a hyphenated
identity in the small, all white, upstate New York town where we settled. Cultural differences abounded and one became very apparent each February 14th: in my family no one ever uttered the words, I love you. Not parent to child, child to grandmother, or even husband to wife, at least not publicly. There were few outward gestures of affection as well: kissing totally verboten, hugs upon special occasions only, no horse playing. I eventually found my husband, another first generation transplant. His Russian Jewish heritage was very different to mine but he too came from a family that did not express love verbally or affection easily. The annual media buildup to Valentine’s Day with its insidious message of how couples in love should behave simply passed us by. Yet we both agreed that we would consciously and often tell our children that we love them. They are now young adults and every phone call or email ends with the requisite three words.

How much do those words matter? I grew up completely secure in the knowledge that I was loved, wanted and cherished. Without the usual words or gestures I was still surrounded, nay cocooned, in my parents’ love. Where did my certainty spring from? “Actions speak louder than words”, my daughter says airily. But what actions exactly equal love? Here are three things my parents did, which in the moment seemed inconsequential but now with the passage of time show the weave of their love.

I started traveling abroad as a teenager, first back to India and then to increasingly more adventurous locales. My parents insisted on meeting me upon every return. No matter what time (and it was more often past midnight), or my age or how loudly I proclaimed my independence, I would step out of JFK to find both parents waiting for me. Coming home was synonymous with returning to my parents’ welcome. They stopped when I turned 30—not because they finally thought I was mature enough but because I got married and in their minds, became the responsibility of my husband. It was quite a shock then, returning from my first trip after marriage and expecting him to pick me up, to have him say, “Oh come on, just take a cab”. I felt unloved. And, he only had to drive in from Manhattan whereas my parents would make a 200-mile round trip to greet me. How unfair!

Food in an Indian household is a sacred subject. Very little impetus is needed to cook up a feast. My ordinary visits home from college were treated as minor celebrations. After gorging me all weekend, my mother would insist on packing food for me to take back. When she retired and threw herself into cooking with the same zeal with which she had pursued a successful career as an economist and computer programmer, the size of my doggie bag(s) grew alarmingly. My protestations were vehement, aided by the guilty knowledge that much of that food would lie around in my refrigerator for weeks, only to eventually being thrown out. My father put me in my place. “This is the way your mother expresses her love for you. What harm is there in your accepting it?” After 30 years we have finally reached a truce, where I now ask my mother for certain things to take home (spices, crushed ginger, sauce from her homegrown tomatoes) and then use them with the respect they deserve, inhaling my mother’s love at the same time.

That old saw about 90% of life is showing up—my parents live by it. They were by no means “helicopters” and were too busy working to attend every school game or teenage event. What they deemed important were dorm or apartment moves (which add up with four ambitious daughters), graduations (which also add up with 10 grandkids graduating from kindergarten through college), birthdays, births and illnesses. In return we were expected to show up for family gatherings. A business trip or another conflict? A grudging acceptance of the excuse, but better be there the next time.

This Valentine’s Day I will text my kids and several friends, writing I love you or the meaningless but handy xoxo. I will call my parents and end the conversation with plans made for the next time we will see each other. “Ok then, until next weekend”. No mention of the L word, no hint of sentimentality. Just an utter conviction that I am loved and love in return.

This article was first published on Yahoo! Associated Content

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