13 January

Please Don’t Say You Love Me

by Jon Katz

A young refugee woman has been helping for some time now – a couple of years, I think. She has had a great deal of trouble and is worthy,  needy, and vulnerable.

I doubt I could have survived what she has been through.

I’ve given her gift cards when she has no money for food, chairs for her dining room table, some clothes in the winter, gifts for her only daughter. She has a tough life, now and in the past.

For the past few months, every time I help her, she writes to me and tells me that she loves me. It always makes me a bit twitchy.

I should say that I definitely have intimacy issues; I know what it means to be loved in the wrong way, and Maria can testify to how guarded I was about getting close to anyone when we met.

This person grew up in a different culture than I did; I suspect people use the term “love” more freely than they do in the world I grew up in.

There is still a wary and guarded part of me.

I know she is grateful and believes in thanking me.

I have never told her I love her back – in some ways, I am very fond of her – but I have never replied by saying “I love you, too,” and I wouldn’t.  It doesn’t feel right for me.

I’m just helping her. That’s very different from romantic love, even though she is brave and loving in her life.

These declarations of love made me uncomfortable. They came too often and were too many.

I am a lot older than she is, and I’ve come to understand how badly older or more powerful men have treated young women. That will not be me.

I need and want to be understood more than to be loved.

I’ve learned a hundred times in the past few years that it is a powerful thing to give people money and help them when they are desperate. They can attach to people who help them in powerful ways. I

t’s my job to be conscious of that.

Giving people money evokes powerful feelings and emotions. Sometimes, I become a savior in their eyes, not just another bumbling human trying to figure things out.

My friend doesn’t owe me a thing for helping her.

She doesn’t have to love me or declare her love; I know she doesn’t mean it romantically.

To me, it is important that the people I help – we help – understand there are no strings attached of any kind.

This is the core of caregiving – help with no strings. Most of the people I help say thank you, only one speaks of love for me.

Maria and I don’t tell each other that we love one another every time we talk.

It’s a special thing to me when I say it when I hear it.

In our culture, we – men especially – have learned, those of us with our eyes and ears open, to be cautious about expressing love to people who are not our willing lovers.

If women have taught me anything, and they have taught me a lot, it is this: when someone is uncomfortable, they need to say so and be clear and honest about how they feel.

It’s hard sometimes, and it might not come quickly or easily. But it needs to come.

I believe this doesn’t need to end or hurt relationships; it can define and preserve them.

The simple truth is that these love messages made me uncomfortable. That’s really all I need to know or all that she needs to know.

Over the past few years, I have learned that being honest is one of the most important things in my life. It is transformative.

But I was apprehensive that I would hurt her feelings, or offend her or scare her away, in which case I couldn’t help her at all.

I have learned that when I make people uncomfortable, I want them to tell me. When people make me uncomfortable, I have learned that I need to tell them, even if it can be hurtful.

So today, when she messaged me once more that she loved me, I asked her to stop. I told her I didn’t need that from her. I told her I come from a different generation and a different place, and it just made me uneasy.

She was shocked and asked me if it bothered me.

I said I guess it did, or I wouldn’t have mentioned it to her. Please don’t tell me that you love me whenever I help you, I asked. It makes me uneasy, it doesn’t feel right.

I needed to say that I sense nothing untoward or inappropriate. Maybe I’m just shy.

I understand that she uses the term to express gratitude and no other reason.

But I know boundaries are important in this work and this world.  I am always aware of them, and I know the consequences of ignoring or trivializing them.

I had mixed feelings about what I did. I think she was startled, even hurt by it at first.  And yes, it was scary.

But I think it was the right thing. I believe if we can learn to be honest about how we feel, then relationships and friendships and the larger world beyond us will be better, safer, healthier, and truly more loving.

After a few minutes, she sent me a smiley emoticon, a sign that she heard me and was okay. I felt an enormous sense of relief. Our messages can be fun.

I will see her in a few days and give her some more help, and if necessary, talk to her about our exchange. I have a hunch it won’t come up again.

To me, honesty is a great part of love and an essential tool for learning how to love.

If I can’t be honest, then there is no love or friendship.

I need to strengthen this part of me. When I am uncomfortable, I need to say so. Real friendships will blossom; bad ones will end.

For me, the big thing is that I am finally, and after many years of hard work, learning to speak my truth, which is never pure or simple.

8 Comments

  1. “Your spirit is leaving you – you are giving up on life” (Orson Katz)
    “You are called to your next adventure” (Orson Katz)
    “I would rather my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze, than it should be stifled by dry-rot” (Jack London)
    “The function of man is to live, not to exist” (Jack London)

  2. Pointing our your discomfort with this young lady’s comments, and gently letting her know that they were not welcomed, and that in our culture such words to a relative stranger could be easily misunderstood/misconstrued, was a gift. Most people, especially when finding their way in an unfamiliar culture, want to behave appropriately and don’t want to offend. Your conversation probably stung in the moment but it was a caring thing to do. Like you I am a ‘dog person’ and have always believed that dogs want to please us and that it’s our job to give very clear direction and boundaries to the dog as to how they need to behave. I feel that people aren’t really any different. 🙂

  3. Dear Jon, I’ve appreciated all of your posts but this one especially hit home….I’m a child that was raised to please so it’s a challenge for me to draw boundaries. You did it so well and so honestly. Thank you for the good example….

  4. My therapist taught me that I could speak my truth, as long as I looked first for a way to say it kindly, and lovingly. She told me my work was to develop my emotional stability so that I wasn’t compelled to allow things to fly out of my mouth (or off of my fingers on to the screen) without regard to how I was saying it. I feel like this is what you do, Jon, the emotional work to be able to speak your truth kindly, and lovingly.

  5. could the young woman simply be expressing the love between parent and child? that would be my first thought, not love between man and woman.

    But, of course if it makes you uncomfortable then you should have let her know and you did so with grace and compassion.

    1. Thanks Susan, I can’t guess her motives, and it isn’t my business really, it worked out well, we’re find and I feel good about it.

  6. Thich Nhat Hanh has written about what a thing it is that the English language uses one word, love, to do the work of many. He says it cheapens this word, using the example of, “I love pizza”.

    He also says that love and understanding inter-are.

  7. I wonder if it the English as the second language problem. Maybe the only word she knows is “love”. Maybe she does not have the vocabulary of “fond, warm feelings, friendly” etc.
    The emojis are good way around this.

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