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Home » The Vine

The Vine: October 31, 2012

Submitted by on October 31, 2012 – 10:22 AM29 Comments

I have an awkward friendship question. I have a friend, who I've known since elementary school. We are fairly close, talk on the phone regularly, etc., and she is one of my only friends who has remained in touch since we were young.

However, she is unfortunately quite a downer. She has low self-esteem, is always unhappy about her life (for years and years, not just recently), doesn't have a good relationship with her family members, has one of those voices that always has that sad, complaining edge to it… Now, even though I don't particularly enjoy talking to her, she has been a very supportive, caring friend when I needed it in the past, and she has a genuinely big heart. So, I want to stay friends with her.

The awkward thing is, she sometimes says, "I love you" during phone conversations. We don't see each other in person very often due to distance, so phone is our main type of contact. I don't know why this bothers me so much, because, yes, of course I love her like a dear old friend who is almost like a family member, but I just feel so awkward when she says it, and feel compelled to say it back even though I don't want to (but why? it's not like it's not true), and then stiltedly say "I love you, too" and try to jump off the phone.

I realize that the dread of her saying "I love you" has made me reluctant to even initiate phone calls, and during conversations I'm always worried she's going to say it, and sometimes try to get off the phone before she has a chance to say it. Which I realize is ridiculous.

What should I do? I want to just get over all these weird feelings I have over the "I love yous," but not quite sure what to say to myself to do that. Also, maybe before getting over it I want a little validation from an outside source that it's okay that I'm weirded out, but still need to get over it. Thanks!

A big fan of The Vine

Dear Fan,

Nice sig! Thank you. But I'd have given you your validation anyway: yes, it's okay to feel weirded out by the I-love-yous, and yes, you need to get over it.

The problem with those three little words is that not everyone uses them in the same ways. Some reserve it for spouses and blood relatives; others express it freely to everyone, from new boyfriends to strangers with whom they've just bonded over a shared distaste for a "classic" movie. Most of us exist somewhere along the spectrum, and none of the points is "wrong," but when two people at different points are trying to communicate using it, it can get awkward.

So: accept that this is true. Acknowledge that you and your friend have different I-love-you styles. Then take a look at why it might make you uncomfortable. Is it because you just don't say it to "mere" friends? Is it because you sometimes find your conversations more a chore than a meeting of the minds, and to respond with an I-love-you feels like lying? Do you get the sense that her ILY means in love? (I don't get that vibe here, but when people get ooked by an ILY, sometimes the inferred "…That Way" is why.)

If you do think that's the case, it's probably time to take a deep breath and bring that up. If it's not, figure out why it does make you feel weird, tell yourself it's okay to feel that way, and then try to breathe through the pain. I suppose you could address it with her anyway, but I think it's going to cause more agita than that's worth, for both of you. You might relieve the agita you're already feeling by role-playing it for yourself a few times beforehand — if you've rehearsed, it might not stick out so much in the moment.

And remember…[takes Fan's hand]…the Nation loves you. [gentle beaming]

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29 Comments »

  • B says:

    Ugh, I hate saying "I love you" to pretty much anyone besides my husband and dog. (And they don't hear it a whole lot either.) It's just a thing with me and I figure other people can deal with it the same way they deal with my awkward hugs. I can't recall anyone bringing it up with me, but if they did, I'd just say "seriously, it's me, not you." Or say that it's not my love language. :)

  • Whitney says:

    One of my best guy friends, with whom I have never had anything but a sibling equivalent relationship, has for years signed off his emails to me (and to most of his close friends) with "xoxo." Which took on a bit of a different tone for me when I started dating my current boyfriend and we began using "xoxo" as a text message/gchat shorthand for "I love you." But I know the difference in intent so I just chuckle to myself whenever I see it and move on.

    I'm wondering if part of the problem is also you're tired of her constant unhappiness and the "I love you" makes you feel like she really NEEDS you to complain to, and here you are wishing she'd just stop calling if that's all she's going to do. Guilt can be a powerful and difficult emotion to handle.

  • SarahS says:

    I have been anti-ILY forever. I have no idea why, but I haaate saying it, EVEN to family.

    I love my family fiercely. I just hate saying I Love You out loud. Maybe it's intimacy issues? I don't have as much problem saying it to my husband, but to family and friends? I almost never say it–only when they say it first.

    Lucky for me, I am from New England, Land of Buried Feelings. And none of my family ever says it all that much either.

    When I hear my friends on the phone with their brothers and sisters and they sign off by saying it, I cringe inside. Like ew, who says ILY to their sister?

    Yes. I am disturbed.

  • Smash says:

    Fan, is it possible that it bugs you because you find it manipulative? I have a similar situation with a very old friend who is generally a decent and big-hearted person, but holy mother of God, is she insecure and constantly seeking validation. When I talk to her, I find myself cringing in anticipation of the "I look fat today"s and the "I love you"s, because on some level, I feel like she does it just to be hear in response, "No, you look amazing; no, YOU'RE such a wonderful friend, blah blah blah."

  • Sasha says:

    Oh, how I can relate – I too have the long-term downer friend who ends our phone calls with declarations of love and support and I dread the conversations.

    I dread the content of the calls, though, and the "Oh, I love you so much!" at the end is sort of the terrible cherry on top. My friend is the type to respond to a simple 'how are you?' with a a litany of problems that can go on for ages without pause and the conversations are exhausting. I feel like I'm not allowed to talk about anything that's going well for me because it will lead to another torrent of things that are NOT going right for her, and then I feel guilty, like I'm a bad friend for not somehow being equally miserable.

    As Sars has frequently said, some friendships have a shelf life – I know my relationship with Downer Friend needs to end, but I'm too wimpy to pull the trigger – is that maybe what's going on with you? She's a friend from long ago and the only one you still have, but you basically said in your letter that you're only staying friends with her because you feel obligated to do so. Maybe you tell yourself that it's the "I love yous" that bother you when it's really the whole conversation/friendship?

    I could be way off base (or projecting!), but it may be something else to think about. Good luck!

  • Maria says:

    It sounds like she is more invested in the friendship than you are, and that's always uncomfortable. I didn't detect any issue that you think she has an unrequited same-sex attraction, another thing that could be uncomfortable for you.

    I have some friends from 30+ years ago who are becoming very in to saying ILY a lot. I feel like it's been brough on by aging, losses in life, and just the feeling that time is running out. I try to look at it from their perspective of needing to give it, and I want to be accepting of it even if I'm not always feeling as appreciative of it. I wonder if this is a way you can re-frame the problem.

    Possibly it could be as simple as giving yourself permission not to reciprocate the ILYs, and say something else appreciative instead. I'm so glad you're in my life! We've had some great times, haven't we?! You're the best! Awww, back atcha!

    You get the picture. Reflect the caring back, but in your own way. I also recommend trying to get together sometimes, just because. I think that will help you a lot.

  • snarkalupagus says:

    A gently beaming view…I say it, often…but only if I mean it. And the definition and phrasing changes depending on who I'm talking to; as Sars pointed out, everyone has different styles, and my style depends on who I'm talking to. Among my circle of closest friends, it's generally how I say goodbye, right as I hang up the phone or close the car door or whatnot. I don't care whether I hear it back–it's how I feel at the moment when I've enjoyed spending time with someone I do love. My immediate family and I have a special way of saying it that evolved over years and through weathering crises together, and the same with some close friends. As the mirror image to B and the other commenters, it's just me, and they can deal with it as part of the package.

    As for the "…That Way," that one is way harder to choke out, which is kind of amusing to think about for someone who uses the phrase often. But then again, I don't hear swelling music and expect credits to roll every time I call, "Love you!" after a good friend heading down the porch steps to their car. (Snort…nor do I expect them after making The Declaration, but you know what I mean.) I also don't announce it to every gentleman caller. That flavor of the phrsase is at the far "okay, don't be flinging this around" end of the spectrum.

    *grunting noise accompanying effort to get back to Fan's question* To me, it sounds like you're reacting to feeling manipulated into saying it back. You don't have to–that's not what being a supportive friend is about. If you do love this friend in that "I've known you forever and you're important to me" kind of way, there are plenty of ways to respond that don't consist of Those Three Words. "You too, hon," are three that work just fine. She doesn't need to see all eight letters hanging in the air to know that you care. (If she does, that is…a separate Vine letter.) If you don't feel that, then focus on being okay with not feeling that, because it's allowed. Friendship isn't about keeping score on terms of endearment.

  • Yoshi says:

    I have some friends I ILY with, and some I don't; I sometimes feel a little weird about it, but when that happens I often try to make it a more casual 'love you!', which to me feels less constricting.

    I think I've made my peace with it in much the same way I've made my peace with my auntie who always says 'god bless' when we're getting off the phone: I'm an atheist, but I recognise that she's saying it as an expression of love and care, rather than trying to push religion on me. I'm sure it helps that she's not actually that hard-core religious – more the Catholic equivalent of 'spiritual' than seriously churchy – and she's seriously lefty so I don't get my knickers in a bunch over political ramifications; but even with the more religious people in my life, when they say things like 'god bless you' or 'I'll pray for you', I know it's their way of caring and trying to bring good things into my life. It bothered me for a long time, but when I had that realisation a lot of my annoyance and discomfort disappeared.

    I fully understand that it's ooky to feel pressured to ILY, but I think that it comes down to this: if you want to be friends with Ms Downer, this is part of the deal – 'the price of admission', as Dan Savage would say. If the friendship is still important to you, and if you get enough good out of it, then this might be a price you're willing to pay. On the other hand, the friendship may have become too much of a drain – and it sounds like that might well be the case – or this price might just be too steep for you. And both of those are valid. If she's such hard work that you actually dread talking to her, you don't owe her friendship, even if she's been good to you in the past. If this were a recent development, or even just periodic, that would be one thing; but you make it clear that it's been like this for a *long* time, and in that case, it might be time for you to move on, or at least pull back a bit.

  • Natalie says:

    I agree with above posters that it may be an implied manipulation with the constant "I love you" dropped into needy conversations that's really irking you.

    I think it's worth examining whether you want to continue the friendship on this footing, distance yourself a little, or talk about it with your friend. Probably not going to get out without some feelings being hurt no matter what you choose, but it sounds like the friendship may end with a rupture as this rate anyway.

    If you don't decide to confront this issue, may I suggest a quick "oh, you too!" as a conversational placekeeper? For some reason I find saying or hearing a stereotypically sincere "I love you" incredibly squirm-inducing, but "love ya" or "you too" don't have the same effect on me. And if she questions it, at least you have an entre into a Conversation about how I Love You makes you feel uncomfortable.

  • Jennifer M. says:

    I am in the camp with Sarah S and B. It is something that I just don't like saying. I actually find it easier to say a casual "Love ya" to a friend than a serious "I love you" to a dear person in my life. Because I am weird.

    My parents always end calls with "I love you" and I usually just say "Bye" in reply. I feel bad about it because I love my family more than anything but I just didn't like saying it out loud. However, since I moved half way around the world 9 months ago, I make more of an effort to say it since we don't get to spend time together (when I lived in the US I was only 50 miles away) and show them that I love them.

  • Rachel says:

    Is it worth thinking about changing the focus of your conversations? An old school friend and I run a mini telephone-based book club. We take it in turns to pick a book, read it, and then get on the phone and chat about it. It's fun and low pressure and means we have something to talk about other than bitching about our parents' irritating tics as they get older. You could do something similar — books, movies, TV shows, etc.

  • mctwin says:

    You could always use "Ditto", thank you "Ghost"! I say ILY to my best friends, sisters, brothers, Dad, aunts and uncles, niece and nephew, cousins, cats, dogs and some TV shows! I'm also very affectionate. I'd rather say it and show it too much than have someone slip away thinking I didn't care.

  • Anlyn says:

    I came so damn close to saying "I love you" to my manager once. It's how I finish my conversations with my mother and brother, so it's become very habitual. The manager and I had a relaxed, casual conversation about one of my work projects, and as we hung up, I caught myself about to say it. Luckily I choked it back in time. But it did make me stop and think about when I was saying it and to who.

  • attica says:

    I have a brother that has lately started in with the ILYs ending phone conversations. We're not a family that does that, so it's jarring. Knowing him as I do, I'm confident it's an act of manipulation as others have described above. I've handled it with a super-cheery 'Okay, bye!' which works pretty well. The first couple of times were awkward, but just like eating alone in a restaurant, the more I practiced, the less awkward it gets.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    "And remember…[takes Fan's hand]…the Nation loves you. [gentle beaming]"

    Have you heard about Jesus?

    Seriously, I agree that it's the implied manipulation that's turning the awkward dial up to eleven.

    and attica, your post reminded me of David Sedaris's story of his mother being diagnosed with lung cancer, and his saying "I love you" to her at the end of a phone conversation, and her reply of "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that."

    Every family is different. And people are different, and how they like to deploy the "I Love You" balloon differs as well. It's not your responsibility to fix Debbie Downer or her life, and if she's got any insight at all (if, mind you) she's got to be picking up on the fact that your ILY isn't flowing from your tongue. Switching to somthing kind but less fraught will do much more good than harm.

  • Clover says:

    I used to literally never say ILY ever, to anyone, including family. (My mother said it to my sister and me, but we didn't say it back.) We were all very close and clearly did love each other, but we had developed some kind of resistance to saying so out loud. And it became a self-perpetuating thing, because not saying it made the idea of saying it a bigger and bigger deal.

    My mother confessed a few years back that it really hurt her that none of us ever said ILY, and I decided to start saying it to her. Starting pretty much that day, I signed off every phone conversation with my sister, my mother, and my father with ILY. They say it back, and seem to like hearing it.

    I had some initial resistance to crossing that ILY barrier, even with beloved family members. It rankled, initially, that my mother asked me to do it. It made me resentful, and I did feel manipulated in the sense that the "request" really wasn't one that any reasonable person could turn down, so it was really a command dressed up as a request. But then I thought about what it must have cost my mother, who is an exceptionally good mother, to make that kind of ask, and I figured the effort and discomfort each of us had felt around the request were probably a wash.

    On balance, I'm really glad she asked, and I'm glad we all say it and mean it as a matter of course. So yeah, I'm one of those people out walking around with my cell phone signing off with my sister (whom I certainly don't love That Way) with an "I love you."

    I think the advice was good. Give yourself permission to resent feeling manipulated. Give yourself permission to not say it back, if it's really that uncomfortable. But if the pushback you're feeling is purely related to feeling like someone is asking you to say you love them, try to fairly evaluate if it would really be so bad to say it back, especially if you get the impression it would mean a lot to the recipient and wouldn't change the existing dynamic between you in a way you don't want.

  • Sharon says:

    Oh, yeah, this weirds me out. I don't like saying ILY to my parents, my BF of 8+ years, pretty much anyone except the cats, and only then in that "cat mom" voice.

    However, I have a very close friend – the two of us have been through a lot together, including her husband's 6 year battle with cancer and subsequent death. She will often end emails and coversations with ILY and I feel OK in that case – she feels like it's good to never regret NOT letting someone you love know how you feel about them.

    But otherwise, yeah, kinda weird.

  • Georgia says:

    @mctwin: Yes, I thought of Ghost, too.

    @Anlyn: I've almost done that with my manager; I think of it as the adult equivalent of when, as an elementary-schooler, you inevitably call a female teacher "mom" at some point.

  • Big Fan -- original poster says:

    It is so useful to have a Vine letter published — I really appreciate this feedback.

    Just to be clear — I really am interested in staying friends with my childhood friend, and I am fine with putting up with a good deal of pessimism — I truly think the ILY thing is a separate issue that is causing an additional irritant to me, and not an excuse.

    There is no concern about "That Way" here.

    You all have been really helpful. Thanks, Sars and Nation! I really look forward to each and every Vine letter, although these "substantive" ones are more my favorites than the "Ask the Reader" or "Name that book/movie/show/etc."

  • Sam says:

    I always say "I love you" at some point when I talk to my mother or sisters. It's usually said during goodbyes. That's just how it's always been. We said it as kids, our grandparents said it to us. My oldest sister is married to a New Yorker (we're Texans) and he's commented on that before; apparently no one in his family really says ILY. Ever. I've never even thought about it. I'd rather say it too much than not enough.

    Perhaps what's bothering the OP is how self-centered her friend seems to be during these conversations. My grandfather would always brag about how capable I am but he also never let me do things for myself when he was around. So when he'd praise me to other people I'd get annoyed. It's hard to explain. It's also possible that on some level you feel that she's seeking some kind of emotional validation? Some people tend to hang a lot on that particular hook. My family has always been so free with the ILYs because to us it's just stating a fact, we're not making declarations. Do you think she's saying it because she wants someone to say it back? I only ask because you mentioned she doesn't have a good relationship with her own family so maybe she's trying to get from her relationship with you that she's not getting from them.

    Or perhaps the OP just doesn't say ILY to anyone she's not related to/in love with so it's awkward to say it to a friend.

    I would just not say it back and wouldn't focus on it. If it's genuinely just an expression of love on her part and not A Statement then you don't have to answer in kind. If you feel obligated to say something back just say something else that shows you care like "I miss you" "I hope XXX works out."

  • kellyu says:

    I use "I love you" all the time. I use it at the end of phone calls with my Mum, my Dad, my husband, my sister. I'll occasionally say it automatically at the end of a phone call, and I remember once saying to my workmate who had called me while I was on leave. She needed advice on how to find something (I'm the librarian) that of course, no one needs when I'm at work, but the second I'm on leave? Bingo.

    Anyway; for context we were at a motorsport event, and my husband runs the command radio communication system: "…so don't stress, no one could have worked that out either. You're doing fine andsorrygottogoJeremyiscurrentlysprintingtowardstheambulanceguysloveyoubye!"

  • Natalie says:

    I am personally convinced that we just need more words for "love" in English. I think it's the Greeks that have 3 words for it? We need at least 3. Because how I feel about my husband vs. my family vs. Friday Night Lights vs. my best friend vs. tacos vs. when all the stoplights are green on my commute vs. my sorority sister (I believe that sororities' secret purpose in society is to say ILY enough times that the words become entirely meaningless)? Not the same.

  • Emily says:

    I don't know — I don't see why this needs to be interpreted as Fan's friend trying to manipulate her. This friend is someone who struggles a lot — with her self-esteem, with her moods, etc, with her life. Fan is a friend who has known and supported Friend for many years, and their friendship is probably a bright spot in Friend's life. That suggests to me that the ILY is a sincere expression of gratitude for the friendship at the end of a conversation, rather than a manipulation.

  • Dukebdc says:

    I feel about "I love yous" from people the same way I feel about lip-kissing among relatives: for some people it's just the way they were raised, and the way to relate to someone they deeply care about. For me? I keep my ILYs to my husband, dog, and occasionally my mother, because she has recently started saying it at the end of phone calls, and it seems to give her a boost to hear it in return. And lip-kissing is reserved for my husband only. I'll admit I got a little grossed out by a picture a college friend posted of her lip-kissing her toddler. Just not my way, but makes sense to a lot of other people. (Though my thoughts may be clouded by those SNL skits of the overly affectionate family..urp).

  • We were never a big ILY family when I was growing up, but it seems like we end every phone call that way now. I think a lot of it is the passage of time, and especially with my parents being in their seventies we all have the realization that time is precious, life is short, and we don't get as many opportunities as we think to say these things, etc. On the balance, I like it. But I can definitely understand how it might bug, especially when it seems like there's a real sense of need/expectation behind it.

  • Liza says:

    Eeeeeew LIP-KISSING relatives. Ew. There is way too much hugging, kissing, and hyperbolic affection among people who aren't close enough to be doing it. Hugging seems to have become the norm (in fact, wasn't there some TV personality who inspired this? I'll have to check up on it) even between people who just met, and it always makes me feel awkward. I'll take a good handshake any day (plus, it tells you more about the person).

    As far as ILY goes, I'm the same way. I can pretty easily say it to my boyfriend, but I have trouble saying it to anyone else, for reasons I can't explain. My mom ends every conversation with it, and has always been overtly affectionate, so sometimes I feel bad that I literally CAN'T say it back. Not because I don't…I'm just not good at saying it, especially in ordinary, non-dramatic situations.

    I always think ILY loses its power if you say it too often. I usually only say it if I have a particular feeling at a particular moment. As an extreme example, my grandmother is dying of cancer, so I said it to her when I saw her last. That doesn't mean I only say it when someone is dying, but every phone conversation with my mother? They just become words, like "'bye," or "see ya later."

  • Amy says:

    I have dealt with something similar in my family only it involves kissing on the lips v. kissing on the cheek. I don't kiss my family on the lips, only the cheek, if at all (I'm more of a hugger). Some of my family do. A cousin once teased me about it, saying, "Your sister does it." And I said, "I'm not my sister." Everyone has different levels of comfort, whether it involves I LOVE YOU, hugging, kissing, etc. In that regard, I wouldn't feel bad for not saying it to your friend because you clearly have different levels. However, I'd try to figure out WHY it bothers you.

  • Niki says:

    I had two stages of response to this email. The first was to think about I feel about ILY. In conversation, I limit it to my immediate family and my partner, although sometimes my best friend and I will hang up with a breezy "love you, sweetie!" but it's not a regular thing. With my husband and parents, I have always signed off all phone calls or in-person leave-takings with "love you!" As some of the Nation have mentioned, this has ended up leading to awkward moments with bosses.

    After a few moments, however, I realized that there is one version of ILY that feels icky. There have been a couple of times in my relationship with my husband where he's gone through low a period which manifests in his being mopey and needy and clingy. At those times, I dreaded his plaintive "I love you," which would be dropped into conversation at really odd places. I felt like I was required to say ILY back (because I do love him, and it'd feel bad to him if I didn't say it back, since I said it all the time…right?), and I hated it. The last time he did this, I actually found a time to bring it up(not in that same conversation) and tell him that it was making me uncomfortable. It's been a while, but I think I basically said something like, "I love you very much, and I am happy telling you, but you are saying it all the time and I start to feel pressured to say it back to you, and it's starting to feel like a duty instead of an expression of love." Or something like that. I think I used the conversation to set the expectation that he could say ILY as much as he wanted/needed, but I needed to be able to not respond in kind; in effect, I would say it as much as *I* wanted/needed.

    So, if your conversations with your friend are at all like mine with my husband, it may be the odd timing (mid-conversation)and a feeling like you're being put on the spot, which is all the worse because you are already in the middle of feeling uncomfortable with the conversation (which doesn't in any way mean you don't love your friend or want to give her support and continue to maintain the relationship), making it all the harder to want to say ILY. I suppose this means that I'm throwing my weight to the "it's manipulative" crowd, though I'd like to be very clear that emotional manipulation doesn't have to be (and usually isn't) a conscious act. Particularly when someone has low self-esteem and doesn't know how to ask what s/he needs. After all, we all know how to act in ways that get us what we need; some of us have learned to ask for it, while others have learned that certain phrases or affects will achieve those ends.

  • misspiggy says:

    Definitely agree with the very wise comments here. I tend to say 'Lots of love!' when signing off on conversations like that, because it feels less icky and less like a caving-in to emotional blackmail. I also say 'Lots of love!' to dear friends who could do with a bit of validation or cheering up, but to whom I'm way too embarrassed to say 'I love you'.

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