What does “I Love You” Really Mean to a Survivor?

“I love you” are words many of us have heard most of our lives, but what do the words really mean? Who helped to shape our understanding of those words? These are questions I have been asking myself lately as I ponder how sexual abuse influenced my understanding of the meaning of love as a child and even now. One thing healing prayer ministry has taught me is that my beliefs have origins in earlier experiences, and these beliefs may or may not be true.

I do not recall my parents expressing their love to me or to each other verbally, although I always believed they loved me. In fact, I do not remember hearing those words spoken to me before I became a teenager. That is not to say they were never spoken, only that I don’t remember. I was 14 years old when I met my husband, and we professed our love to one another in high school. When our children were born a couple of years after graduation, my definition of love expanded to include sacrificial giving.

In my family of origin, my older brother was the one most likely to verbally express “I love you.” He said it at the end of many telephone calls or before leaving for vacations. He demonstrated it by spending quality time with me as a youngster, by taking me into his confidence as an adult, and by partnering with me to care for our aging parents and alcoholic sister. He even hugged me on his front porch and said “I love you” one last time after I confronted him about the sexual abuse! (I guess that was before he really had time to think about the implication of my words.)  Over the years, such expressions of love made me feel special. He stressed loyalty, which I often equated with love too.  So, for me, “I love you” implied, “I will be loyal to you,” “You can count on me to keep your secrets,” “I will always be here for you,” “We need each other,” and “You are special to me.”

Shortly after I confronted him, our relationship abruptly ended as he scrambled to hide the truth of the abuse from everyone including himself. His actions called “his love” into question. Yet, I continued to define love the same way. After all, these were some of the most concrete experiences of “love” I had known.

Now days when I hear the words, “I love you,” I pause and wonder what is really being said. Sometimes I am not quite sure. Sexual abuse has impacted every facet of my life including my understanding of those three words. Recently, when I asked God to teach me what real love looks like, He reminded me of the Great Commandment in Mark 12:29-31:

The most important one, answered Jesus, is this: :Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.

As I continued to pray, I wondered what love for self looks like when God truly has first place in a heart and life? I sensed the Holy Spirit saying that when God is first, our focus is on Him and His will for our lives. We trust Him to lead and guide us and to show us what is best for us. When we love God foremost, it’s really not about us anymore at all; it’s about trusting Him to meet our needs as we lay down our lives for Him and focus on sharing His Kingdom with others. To love yourself in this context is to entrust yourself completely to God.

In similar fashion, to love one’s neighbor as yourself is not about focusing on the neighbor either! Loving our neighbors is not about building up their self-esteem through flattery or their attachment to us by fostering dependence. You cannot love your neighbor and be focused on yourself, nor can you love your neighbor and be focused on him or her. You can only truly love your neighbor when your highest aim is to encourage an awareness of what God is doing in his or her life.

Wow, that’s very different from what my older brother taught me about love. He professed his loyalty to secure my loyalty.  He told me secrets, so I would confide mine in him. Much of what he called “love” was actually manipulation, but I didn’t realize that at the time. He defined “love” without reference to God as a starting point, and the result was anything but loving.

Loving God, according to the Great Commandment, changes the way I love myself and everyone else around me. It’s an oxymoron: We lose our lives in order to find them in Him. When our focus remains on God, it frees us to love ourselves and others without strings attached.  It keeps us from saying “I love you” for all the wrong reasons.

When someone says “I love you,” what do you hear? When you say “I love you,” what do you really mean? How has your understanding of those three little words changed over time?

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