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What It Really Means When We Say 'I Love You'

04/21/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

"Three words, eight letters. Say it and I'm yours," whispers Blair Waldorf (played by Leighton Meester) in the hit TV show Gossip Girl. She's just a teenage girl trying to get the guy of her dreams to utter those magic words, "I love you."

Love is a strong thing, but in today's world it's a term we use rather often and loosely. It's thrown out in corridors, at the ends of teasing jokes, splashed across the Internet on birthdays or late night conversations with just about anyone. It's been so trivialized that it has its own abbreviation, ily. Three words were apparently two too many to express what has become a flippant sentiment.

But, despite all this, love still has a powerful allure. It's something we all chase, whether knowingly or not. Rom-coms have associated true love with grand gestures, like coordinating a flash mob, building a house etc. On the other hand, in shows like Gossip Girl, love is the key to sex, but in today's hookup culture, the two are often unrelated. Which begs the question, what is love? How do we distinguish between the intensity or passion of the word: when does love really mean like and when does it still mean love?

The way I see it, love these days is a gradient, broken up into four main types. There's the most inconsequential, the "I love you" we address to Nutella, other foods and objects in general. Now, if you're anything like me, professing love to food occurs pretty often and pretty seriously but, in the grand scheme of things, it's the the furthest from the love we're shown in the movies and other media. Beyond inanimate objects and pets, I for one like to tell people I love them. But the love I express either jokingly or sincerely to my friends is not the same as the unconditional love amongst my family, which is the kind that you don't have to test and, at least for me, is the kind that you feel sure of even when you're sure of nothing else. However, none of this is the romantic love singles pine for on Valentine's Day. That's being in love. And it's complex. Because sometimes it's fickle and fleeting and sometimes it's forever. But you never know until you give it a whirl.

Maybe that's why we've taken to using love for more than just knee-weakening romance. Because the swoony sensation, when it does occur, is a wild ride. It's full of bumps and twists and turns and surprises (both good and bad). Rather than take that leap, it's so much easier to simply proclaim love for your fluffy dog who can't say anything to the contrary, or to your best friend who'll only laugh and respond in kind or to your mom or dad who echoes you unfailingly with an "I love you too." True love, or even simply an attempt at it, is powerful, and though that's appealing, it can also be scary.

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