I love you in the English language is said to express all types of love in a variety of contexts. In the Italian language, there are two ways to say it depending on romantic, familial, and platonic love.
Yet each person has a certain standard for which phrase is used and how — even if they choose to mutter it from their lips. “Per voler bene ad una persona” means you want well for a person; that you hold their best intentions and happiness in your heart and can be used romantically and with family and friends. Some may argue that “ti voglio bene… I want well for you” is more profound than passionate love. Others believe that “ti amo”…which is the literal translation of “I love you” is said only between lovers or even strictly reserved for the love between parents and their children in an unconditional sense. However, others think that both words can be used interchangeably.
Growing up in an American family in which my parents and grandparents said “I love you,” signified that hearing and saying those three words were the true indicator of being loved and giving it in return. Although followed by so many actions of “love” as well, these three words carried a lot of weight and impact on the verbal language that I was taught and brought up to speak. In Italy, a country where men, women, and children are surrounded by representations of love, passion, and romance, from antiquity through modernity, from what I’ve gathered, “I love you” doesn’t seem to grace the lips with frequency or perhaps at all.
As an American woman learning to love an Italian man, I was determined to understand the different usages of both proclamations in Italian along with learning how to speak and respond to his language of love. It wasn’t until I read the book, The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, did I begin to contemplate how love is expressed in a variety of ways.
Furthermore, this summer while spending time with two Italian couples who have adopted me as their own, kindly shared their most intimate experiences and spoke from the heart. Lucina and Silvio have been married over 50 years and complement each other through an evenly balanced companionship. She is the ultimate caretaker and even in his eighties, he’s her constant stabilizer and source of calm. Lucina asked, “Silvio, have I ever said I love you?” With a gentle smile and a shaking of his head, “No,” he replied. “But do you know that I love you?” “Of course.” Silvio followed up that he too has never shared those words with his wife. It is demonstrated through actions and there is no need to say and hear it.
After some reflection, they both expressed that it was something that perhaps they are unable to say because the words don’t come naturally. Lucina, also quite interested in this topic, decided to ask her close friends about their relationship dynamics. One couple revealed that they too have never told each other “I love you” but rather call each other by nicknames of affection to signify it verbally.
“Marisa, for someone who is so smart and wise beyond your years, how could you have not understood that love is shown in different ways?” Lucina asked. From that point forward, something clicked.
Every Tuesday night I join another couple for dinner, who have been married for almost 50 years. While dining, I enjoy observing their ease together. Ezio appreciates Anna’s talents in the kitchen and listens intently when she speaks while Anna finds great security in Ezio’s never-ending protection and guidance. The couple, explained that perhaps it’s the older generation that is unable to find the words of love, but it’s through their actions that speak volumes. They describe it as being less expansive outwardly, but in the rapport they have created it’s demonstrated daily. Ezio describes “ti amo and ti voglio bene” as having the same value, but it’s something that he has rarely said. “Maybe ti amo is stronger because when it’s true and not false—it expresses more passion, but today, it’s used without substance and without the continuity of action,” he added.
Although they both were in agreement that there are those who say it, they believe that there are many who are simply incapable of uttering those words. Ezio describes his generation as more reserved, but they speak through gestures and everyday acts of service.
The younger generation, he believes, says it more often and many times without giving it true value.
I asked Anna and Ezio what their secret is to a long-lasting and happy union. Ezio replied, “Within a couple, both brains are different — where one thinks in black and the other in white. But there has to come a time when comprise is necessary.” He lovingly looked at Anna with a big smile and finally said, “Ti amo…ti voglio bene.”