I’m talking here about “I love you” as meaning “I am in love with you.” In that sense those might be the three most powerful words in the English language. For sure they must be as far as relationships between people go. They can be the cause of penultimate bliss or they can completely wreck a perfectly good friendship.
I know. I have experienced both.
What does it mean to be in love with another person? To me, it means there is some combination of attraction and affection. There can be much more of either than the other, but both must be present.
That does tell us that real love can be mostly physical — or ‘chemical’. In such cases it seems less likely that a relationship will endure, as attraction will in general be much less stable than affection will be. I have known couples that lasted forever that started with little more than an intense sexual attraction, but they have definitely been the exception. Still, if to be in love does have to include some amount of affection, over time that can wax as the physical element wanes.
What is more important, I think, is that there can be degrees of being in love with another person. People tend to think of being ‘in love’ as an emotional state that renders people rationally impotent. We think of them as being swept away, incapable of controlling their emotions.
It is as possible, though, to be somewhat in love as it is to like a person somewhat. That is usually what we experience, I think, when affection is greater than attraction. Such a state of being in love can definitely grow in passion, even if it might never have the certain kind of intensity that other kind of relationship can have.
Even so, to hear those words is to assume that their utterer is in an intense emotional state. That will usually be the case. To be the first one to say it will usually mean that person’s feelings are the more intense.
The point is, if someone with whom you are perhaps somewhat in love or for whom you just have a lot of affection says, “I love you,” don’t panic. It could be the turning point in the best relationship you could ever have.