I remember the moment I first heard the words “I love you” from someone other than a family member. Chris and I were sitting in his car, in the same campus parking lot where we had met a few months before. After kissing me goodnight, he spoke those magical words, “I love you, Janet.” Immediately, I tensed up inside, though I wouldn’t have been able to name why. The nice girl in me couldn’t just let his words hang there, unreciprocated. But I also loathed inauthenticity, and in that moment, I didn’t know. Looking for a way to get out of the situation with myself intact, I said something like, “I think I might possibly love you too.”
There was so much I didn’t yet know about love. There was so much I didn’t even know about myself, much less know how it would feel to be in an intimate relationship marked by reciprocity and mutuality. I so wanted to know, so longed to believe it could be true that I could both love and be loved. Something about those words felt so very vulnerable, and I was well acquainted with vulnerable. Painful experiences in my family, and with peers had taught me that protection against vulnerability was the wisest course of action, unless there was a sufficiently high degree of certainty I wouldn’t end up feeling like a fool. (If you’ve guessed that that degree of certainty was rarely met, you would be correct.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about this knowing since hearing Richard Rohr talk about “center to center knowing.” It is the movement from seeing to recognizing, which involves the mirroring of our internal world with that of another. He talked about the scene with Mary Magdalene in the garden, after Jesus’ death. In her grief, she doesn’t recognize Jesus, mistaking him for the gardener. Until Jesus lovingly speaks her name, “Mary.” At that moment, she is known, and she knows.
In their book A General Theory of Love, the authors explore love through the lens of neurobiology, examining the connections our brains make from infancy on that affect our ability to love and be loved, and this critical element of knowing. “Loving is mutuality; loving is synchronous attunement and modulation. As such, adult love depends critically upon knowing the other.” (Lewis, Amini, Lannon, 2001, p.207)
Mutuality, attunement, and modulation. I now know why Chris’ words left me feeling so vulnerable – not many people in my life up until then had provided this kind of knowing. I had experienced moments of it: enough to know how much I craved it, not enough to know I could trust it. I spoke the words back to him not long after, figuring I could follow his lead, and learn more about this new feeling as I went.
I also remember the moment I knew that I knew. It was about a month before our wedding, and Chris and I were walking in our neighborhood. I could sense something was up, tension filled the space between us. Chris finally blurted, “I don’t know if we should get married.” I stopped walking and turned to look at him. Placing my hands on his face, locking eyes with him, I felt a sense of calm, in spite of his words. And somehow, my brain and my body connected deeply with my knower – I trusted that my love was real and deep – and I spoke those three words back to him, reminding him that he was known as well. I wonder if something in him recognized and resonated with that deeper, truer knowing, allowing him to settle.
I learned a valuable lesson about love that day – it is not a product of certainty, and it definitely requires vulnerability.
Being committed to honesty, I will tell you that my body held onto the memory of that feeling when he voiced his doubt, recalling it effortlessly when I had my own doubts about his love for me. It has taken intentional work, and 30+ years of mutuality, attunement, and modulation to create new neural pathways that bypass that old, treacherous groove. As I’ve built a bigger reservoir of love experiences with Chris, my kids and dear friends, my brain is more attuned to recognize love and its familiar knowing. I am deeply grateful that the words “I love you” still feel vulnerable, but in the very best way – a way that honors the knowing gaze between two humans with all their unique stories about love.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris, and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.
Janet, Your words about the parking lot experience and avoiding vulnerability speak of my own experience. It took me a while to differentiate “love” from manipulation, and my young heart was hurt more than once. I am still learning to lean into vulnerability and to love freely. Thank you for sharing.