A few years ago I dated a tall, dark, and handsome man with a witty sense of humor, great taste in music, and excellent benefits. What more could a gal ask for?
One night, during one of our marathon phone sessions, I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t just some unremarkable summer fling to bide my time while Intervention was in reruns. Nope.
I really, really liked this guy. Having recently gotten out of a bad relationship and doubtful that I’d ever give a damn about anyone ever again, I was actually a little intimidated by that epiphany. But more than anything, I was excited.
And just as I pursed my lips to tell him so, Karim* had a revelation of his own.
“I love you,” he said, and in the distance was the unmistakable sound of a record screeching to a halt.
“I love you.” I replayed the previous two seconds just to make sure I’d heard him correctly and to determine if there was any other way to interpret those three words. Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that yes, I had, and no, there wasn’t. Karim had told me he loved me and no amount of neurotic overanalyzing was going to change that.
Karim sat quiet on the other end of the phone and marinated in the dead air I created while I panicked. Crap. I’m supposed to say something now. But what?
Well I could just say, I love you, too. That would be the polite thing to do, right? Because even though I wasn’t in love with him then, I would fall in love with him eventually. Probably… Possibly…Maybe…
But just then the lyrics to Jazmine Sullivan’s hit, “Bust Your Windows” resonated through my brain:
You see you can’t just play with people’s feelings. Tell them you love them and don’t mean it.
I’d love to think that my sophisticated subconscious plucked the song out of obscurity to assist me, that’s just not the case. I’d spent weeks that summer playing the song on repeat, lamenting about my ex-boyfriend; the man who told me he loved me, even though he probably didn’t. What a horrible experience that was.
So I sat there, still silent, thinking of Karim’s inevitably hurt feelings and how awkward my Ford Taurus would look without its windshield.
No, I decided. I just can’t do that to him (or my car). Not saying “I love you” back might hurt him, but telling him I loved him when I really didn’t had the potential of being flat-out devastating in the long run. I had gone through that myself, and just wasn’t willing to do it to anyone else.
So that settled it, I would absolutely not be telling Karim that I loved him. At least not that day anyway. And now that I’d finally figured out what I won’tsay, all I’d have to do is figure out what I will. My response should be something heartfelt and comforting, without sounding patronizing or misleading. That would be perfect.
But unfortunately, with all that unbearable tension, my brain just wasn’t capable of perfect. Appropriate, or ideal, or suitable wasn’t achievable either. But awkward? Now awkward, I could handle.
So finally after what seemed like a cool eternity, I responded to Karim’s apprehensive, “I love you” with a quivering, “You do?”
Ehnt! Wrong answer. In fact it wasn’t an answer at all. All that sorry response did was force Karim to repeat that, yes, he did love me and then offer a bulleted list of the reasons how he knew he loved me and why he loved me. All while I sat on the other line, anxiously anticipating the arrival of the lightning bolt that was coming to strike me dead.
But in all seriousness, “You do?” wasn’t the right answer, but what was? In a relationship, there are few times when a person is as willingly vulnerable as when they take the bold initiative to say “I love you” for the very first time. Anything short of, “I love you too” is bound to be hurtful, not to mention, damaging to the person’s ego. So accepting that you won’t be able to spare the person’s feelings if you want to be honest would be an excellent first step.
The second step? The honesty itself. Just tell the person the truth, whatever the truth maybe. In Karim’s case, I wish I told him how much I liked him and how much I enjoyed his company and conversation. I also would have been clear that I wanted to continue seeing him because I enjoyed being with him and was excited to see what the future had in store for us.
That’s not exactly a Shakespearean sonnet, but it was the honest truth.