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Those Three Little Words Smoothe the Bumps in Road of Romance

October 23, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The 27-year-old hotel manager has been seeing a man exclusively for seven months, a man who has told her he adores her. But she is resisting the overpowering impulse to say the L-word.

"It is protective," she explained, requesting that her name not be used. "I don't want to say it first and run the chance of getting shot down. I would love to tell him now, but for once in my life, I want to hear it first."

Saying "I love you" in the dating world is a semaphore that things have moved from casual to serious and it instantly raises the emotional stakes. But in long-term unions, expressing love verbally has no inherent risk because a commitment is a proclamation of love. But how often, when and why couples offer their "I love yous" varies dramatically. There are strategic "I love yous," (to reassure a self-doubting mate), ritualized "I love yous" (when boarding a plane) and surprise "I love yous" (they come when least expected), to name a few.

Verbalizing one's love in poetry or in the vocabulary of appreciation ("Let me count the ways I love thee" works nicely) externalizes feelings that might be obscured by daily life, said Nathaniel Branden, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist, who notes that happy couples readily express love verbally and physically.

"If we are just sitting there having breakfast or dinner, I will say 'Oh, you know, I just love you so much,' " said 57-year-old Eileen Stassi, who has been married for 37 years to her husband, Sal, 65. "It certainly comes up after lovemaking. The 'I love yous' come up so often for us. But there are a lot of demonstrations of love outside of the verbal expressions."

Life-threatening medical problems in the course of their long marriage have imbued the Stassis' articulations of love with intense feeling. "Sometimes I just reach over in the car and touch her on the knee and say, 'I love you,' " said Sal Stassi. "It is moments when I thank God this person is here. We will be sitting reading for two hours in silence and my wife will look over and see something in my face and say, 'I love you.' Those moments are important because they are spontaneous."

Some "I love yous" help couples stay connected through the harried days of work and the fatiguing nights of baby care. "I say it a lot during the course of the day, especially at the end of a telephone conversation when we are at work," said Jean Duranti, who lives with her husband, Lenny Dorsky, and their 18-month-old son in Burbank. "I will randomly tell Lenny I love him, particularly when I am feeling vulnerable. Or after a rather tense moment with our son."

Saying "I love you" is "almost like a lifeline reminding you of why you are together and going through all this," she added. Duranti's husband agreed. "I like to hear it," said Dorsky, a physicist. "With a young child, where everything is so crazy, it is good to squeeze in those 'I love yous.' It is important to verbalize it. If I could say, 'I worship the ground you walk on' occasionally, it would be good."

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Not all men are as loquacious about love. Herb Goldberg, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, said that men raised with traditional cultural values learn not to reveal vulnerable emotions such as love, fear and need. That is true for Kevin Stout, a co-creative director for a San Diego advertising agency.

"I am not so into it," said Stout, who instead makes elaborate cards for his wife of 12 years, such as one that shows little cupids are shooting arrows through an image of him.

"[I love yous] always happen when I am away on business. But nothing around the house like, 'By the way, I love you.' Writing it is easier than saying it."

Overused "I love yous" lose their emotional punch, said David Marcus, a clinical psychologist at the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre. The most powerful "I love yous" are those attached to selfless acts.

"I have a thing where I make coffee for him every night before I go to bed, so it is perking at 6:30 a.m.," said Monica Stout. "I don't have to do it. And I don't drink it." To which Kevin Stout offered this rejoinder: "Yeah, and I say 'I love you' by drinking it."

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