white and green floral print paper

When You Say ‘I Love You’ But Don’t Hear It Back

I was in the car with someone I once loved. On a drive home from picking up lunch, there was silence I interrupted with a kind observation. Just a few words pertaining to their presence in my life and the amount I cherished it. I remember thinking: these are the moments we forget to take in. To savor. Moments of external peace met by the person who brings you internal peace. As an adult, I think we find out these eclipses don’t happen often. I turned from the window to see a face I thought I’d wake up to every day for the rest of my life. The curly hair. The soft jaw line. With hands on the wheel and eyes towards the dash, they responded with a single syllable:


I’m still a little surprised at my own offense’s weight. As you can imagine, my heart fell to the floor mat. I looked back out the window. The radio wasn’t on. The road wasn’t filled with traffic. The air in that moment just echoed apathy. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, even matter what I said first. The dismissal of it diminished the meaning so quickly that when I think back on it, all I feel is rejection.

I waited. And waited. I sucked the corners of my cheeks. Tire rubber continued to buzz. An “Oh, okay” dispersed from my mouth. The person furrowed their dark brows in stoic confusion. Still watching the road, he asked, “Did you just say it to hear it back?”

And I’ve been punctured by the question ever since that afternoon in July.

What good does it do if we only love those who love us back? Have we come to a point where love is, for the most part, no longer a verb or a noun? Rather, does it live in our lives as more of a tight sphere of self-interest? Something we grip onto so grossly and only toss when we can be sure it will be tossed back at greater than or equal to pace and force?

I’d like to be honest here for a second. And I’d love it if you’d be honest for two. Us humans (here in the West, at least for my experiential argument’s sake) have been conditioned to peer into the concept of romantic love as fully reciprocal. Otherwise, you can’t call it love. You can call it pathetic. Needy. Abusive, even. It’s a tale as old as time: Boy meets girl. Boy chases girl. Girl falls head over heels and they live happily ever after. Together. Equally. Irrevocably.

But is it actually possible in a relationship that two people hold the same barometer of love?

It’s almost been a year since that afternoon. The car ended up parked back at its starting point. Shortly after, so did the relationship. But you know, I don’t think the vehicle or the people in it were made for anything more than the lesson I learned that day: We don’t get to tell people how to love us. No matter how we feel about them, all we are able to own are our thoughts and our feelings. All we really get to do is listen to what they say in return, to hear how they choose to love us. Or how they don’t.

About the author

Jenni Johnson

Contemplative elegist. Precipitating blonde. Canary in coal mine.