Growing up I never said "I love you" and meant it.
I have always been stingy with love. Perhaps it is because my mother was the only constant presence in my early life (my father was away 10 months of the year until I was 5 and we moved 4 times in my first 5 years, never within a thousand miles of the rest of my family) or perhaps just because she was awesome, but I loved my mom and everyone else was just someone whose company I enjoyed or didn't. I never questioned whether my mother loved me and always knew that I loved her, but neither of us ever said the words. She just isn't that kind of mom. (This is true to this day. When I left Los Angeles for Boston and college, she started saying "hat, coat, and mittens" at the end of every conversation. At first it meant literally, "make sure you wear a hat, coat, and mittens when you go out into that freezing Boston weather" but she still says it to me at the end of every conversation, even in the summer and with me in New Orleans, so I'm pretty sure it means "I love you." But it's as sentimental as we get.)
My father said "I love you" all the time. Mostly when I had achieved things, which tended to make me think that what he loved was my accomplishments more than any innate essence of me. But he did say it at other times, when he was in a good mood and often in tandem with an affirmation that I was his "best bud." It felt, like every one of his emotional responses to me, like something completely arbitrary and dependent on his own unpredictable moods and needs rather than to me qua me. It felt like a burden. Him loving me was tied to him having his entire identity invested in me; he said he loved me when he felt good about himself or when he felt good about my performance re-enacting him. It seemed like if he had loved me a little less, I could have joined Girl Scouts and taken naps and read fiction books. It was a burden because every time he said it, there was an aching absence where I was supposed to say "I love you too" in response. And I have never been a good liar (or rather, I have never felt comfortable lying. I think I am reasonably decent at it when I do). I always knew there was something lacking in me, that children with far worse parents loved them unconditionally and would give anything to hear those parents praise them or express their love. But I wanted less praise, and less love, and I resented these forced displays of filial devotion. My desire not to lie conflicted with my desire not to hurt anyone's feelings or cause conflict. He would push the issue; if I didn't respond, he would ask point-blank "Do you love me?"and at that point I'd usually compromise by nodding or saying "yeah." But I maintained by integrity, and a certain passive-aggressive rebellion, by never saying "I love you."
And then I got a dog. And suddenly love was immediate, easy, uncomplicated, absolute, and unconditional. Perhaps I loved my dog with all the pent-up love that I had never felt inclined to give to family or friends; at one point a therapist suggested that there was some displacement going on. But I don't know, I think if you took an MRI of my brain when I saw my dog (or worse, when I didn't see my dog and missed him terribly) and another when I saw any other member of my family, things would light up in entirely different hemispheres. Dog love is easy because you never have to worry about reciprocity. Your dog loves you. Your dog shows you his love every time you come home, every time you feed him, every time you get the leash, and he would do it whether you loved him or not, whether you treated him well or poorly. Also, a dog is totally indifferent to the words "I love you" (unlike "walk" or "leash"), and Sancha and Sola doubly so, as they both went deaf. Dogs are like Jews rather than Christians--it's about practice, not faith. My dogs have shown their love in slightly different ways; MacBeth loved everyone and as a puppy had been known to escape from the front door and join the neighbors in their house, as happy to be a part of their family as ours, but the promiscuity of his affections in no way tempered their genuineness. Sola had been abused and had to be taught to love, she was the least demonstrative of my dogs but if she loved anyone, it was me, and I confess (back to that "dark side of love" post I keep promising) that I valued this love even more, since it was singly bestowed upon me. Sancha was somewhere in between. But I loved them all and could say I love you as much or as little as I pleased-- I don't think I said "I love you" very much, but I never once doubted that I did.
(Anecdotal interlude: the last words I said to Sancha before she fell were "I love you." I only know this because I was leaving her with her petsitter and as I walked to my car I said "I love you" and the petsitter, who must be well-conditioned by his wife, started to respond reflexively "I love y..." and then he caught himself and we laughed and I said "Not you, Jason. I mean I like you a lot but I meant Sancha." Knowing this makes me happy.)
Many only children grow up longing for siblings, but I never did. I only babysat occasionally, and I didn't enjoy it. I much preferred earning $ explaining algebra to my peers to playing wallaby for hours (this was the preferred pastime of my only regular babysittee). So it was to my great surprise when a fellow graduate student had a child and simultaneously had her marriage fall apart, and of all our friends, I was the one who feel deeply, unconditionally, inexplicably in love with her daughter (soon my goddaughter). I said I love you to her all the time although the reasons changed over time. At first, it was a simple outpouring of how much I loved her, I loved her so much that it built up pressure in my brain and the only way to relieve that pressure was to say it. Later, when she was old enough to understand what I was saying, I said it because I wanted her to hear it over and over and over and know that it was true, and that she was the loveliest thing not just in my world but in the world. She loved me and was not shy about showing it, but this was icing on the cake. I never expected her to say anything back or would have been hurt it she didn't. I knew that when she was older it would become burdensome or embarrassing to say, and there would be times she did not love me at all, and that was fine with me. Parents and godparents have an obligation to love without expecting love in return. But it never felt like an obligation. It just was, like a mathematical fact.
With human partners on the other hand, I never got over the insecurity of not being loved/loving equally. Romantic relationships, unlike relationships with dogs or children, don't start from a point of love, which means someone has to say it first. I never wanted to be the one to say it too early and not hear it returned. I never wanted to say it and feel like I was asking to hear it in return. If I said it and heard it in return, I never knew whether it had been offered freely or out of a sense of obligation. I never knew how long it lasted, how long one should go before it was acceptable to request re-affirmation. And often I didn't know if I did love the person; I didn't want to exaggerate affections that might have been crushes, or diminishing. I spent the last 6 months of my last serious relationship trying to get out of it, and every "I love you" felt like it might be held against me at the end as deliberate misrepresentation. And above and beyond all of these considerations, the words just didn't come easily to me. It didn't occur to me to say them and when I tried to, they knotted up in my mouth. I felt about saying "I love you" the way most white people feel about saying the N-word, if those white people felt equally uncomfortable saying "the N word."
And now. I truly love someone. I have a new feeling, not so much the pressure-valve need to say it but a sense that there is no other way to express what I feel. Or that there are other ways but they would require lengthy explanations and it would be like saying "I perceive a ray of light on the visible spectrum between 620 and 680 nanometers" when I could just say "that is red." It feels like we invented terms like "red" and "love" for precisely this experience and that's why I should use them.
The anxiety about reciprocity is still there. I wonder how long you have to be with someone before you don't fear that anything you do or say could cause the loss of their love. Or worse, that one day they'll just wake up in a slightly more lucid frame of mind and their love will be gone. But I feel like I have, for the first time in my life with a human being, got the saying side of the equation down. Baby steps. Puppy steps.