What’s the difference between Ich habe dich lieb and Ich liebe dich?

Both are defined as “I love you” in many dictionaries, as I’ve checked.

  • 10
    I've heard Germans say "there's a difference but hard to explain", I wonder if there really is a difference or it's just their biased opinion.
    – user508
    Aug 30 '11 at 1:05
  • 14
    Interesting you ask that, since I experienced the exact same confusion even though being a native German - over 10 years ago, a girl I loved said "Ich hab dich lieb" to me and meant "Ich mag dich sehr gern", but I understood it as "Ich liebe dich". The good part of it is, that today she's my wife, so no harm done. ;-) Feb 29 '12 at 7:19
  • Not quite sure about this but what range of emotions and commitment does "you are (near and) dear to me" cover?
    – VolkerK
    Jan 23 '13 at 10:21
  • The spelling is "Ich hab dich lieb. A variant is "Ich hab dich gern", a Bavarian variant is "I mo di (Ich mag dich)". All these variants mean the same as "Ich liebe dich", but they have a more colloquial and regional value and don't sound as official as "Ich liebe dich".
    – rogermue
    Sep 17 '14 at 15:22
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    Oh, there is a very very big difference, you can not imagine :) If you don't want to say I love you you may use ich habe dich lieb. If you say 'ich habe dich lieb` to your wife, in worst case, it can be understood something like: It is not easy but I can endure you
    – user19546
    Dec 21 '15 at 19:47

17 Answers 17


“Ich liebe dich” is stronger and more profound than “Ich habe dich lieb”. The difference is hard, if not impossible, to translate to English, or only with some extra language acrobatics; but in German, there is indeed a difference.

“Ich habe dich lieb” is commonly used among somewhat close and beloved family members, such as towards aunts/uncles/nieces/nephews, grandparents/grandchildren, parents/children etc., or as a more light-hearted, not quite as “binding” declaration of love for the significant other. Saying it to mere friends or acquaintances would be inappropriate usually.

(Edit: It can be used outside the family circle, among friends in a very affectionate way, but only towards someone who knows exactly how you mean it, unless you want to risk misunderstandings.)

“Ich liebe dich” is reserved for the significant other such as boy/girlfriend, wife/husband, or your closest family such as parents/children. It is the unambiguous declaration of love.

  • 10
    You're welcome. No citations, just my understanding as a native speaker.
    – Hackworth
    Aug 30 '11 at 7:04
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    If you were completely right, why would people write HDL ("hab dich lieb") in text messages to their significant other? Or is someone who uses (god beware!) acronyms in text messages not serious? ;) Note that I'm not saying that Hackworth isn't right, it's still a +1 answer for me. It's just that the difference isn't as strict as this answer suggests. Aug 30 '11 at 7:52
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    By my experience, teenage girls use "hdl", "hdgdl" (= "hab dich ganz doll lieb") and "hdal" (= "hab dich auch lieb") extremely often in text messages or chats, but almost never in spoken language. Males would only use it towards their girlfriends, not towards each other (even for close friends). That also is just my experience as a native speaker.
    – cemper93
    Sep 2 '11 at 23:40
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    Good answer. Short addendum: Ich hab dich lieb shouts out friendzoned! to me ;)
    – Jan
    Mar 17 '15 at 23:52
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    FWIW, as a native speaker, I have never witnessed a child telling their parent "Ich liebe Dich". In my experience, that is strictly reserved for romance. Nov 17 '15 at 18:21

As far as I know, in English you have these gradations, ordered from weak to strong (I’m a German native speaker, so I’m not absolutely sure if there are more):

I like you.
I love you.

In German you can say it these ways (again ordered from weak to strong):

Ich mag dich.
Ich hab dich gern.
Ich hab dich lieb.
Ich liebe dich.

I would translate the first three as “I like you”. Only “Ich liebe dich” is “I love you”.

If you are creative, you will find even more shades (in both languages).

  • 1
    This is another question, but I've noticed you've written "hab" instead of "habe" here, and I've already seen the phrase "ich hab dich Lieb" written somewhere. So, why hab (is it a simple contraction)?
    – martina
    Jun 27 '13 at 20:59
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    @martina hab is just lazy German. To be completely grammatically correct you would still say habe. It's like saying gonna instead of going to in English -- it's just a lazy way to say something and it's widely accepted but not actually grammatically correct.
    – Hanna
    Aug 12 '13 at 22:23
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    @Hubert in English some might argue that I'm in love with you is even a step above I love you because you could still say I love you to friends, but you'd never say I'm in love with you to a friend.
    – Hanna
    Aug 12 '13 at 22:24
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    @Johannes: And for completeness' sake, in a way, it's the other way round in German with these two expressions. Sep 30 '15 at 8:07
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    @martina There is now a question here which answers your question: german.stackexchange.com/questions/37207/…
    – glenneroo
    Jun 16 '17 at 17:33

Ich hab dich lieb = agape (the love for a child, non-sexual love for someone)

Ich liebe dich = eros (desire, lust, sexual love)


“Ich habe Dich lieb” is commonly used as a sign of strong feeling of friendship, of being prepared to go the extra mile to make the other person happy, to care for him/her and not to wish anything ill. Even close relatives would nearly never say “Ich liebe Dich”, but “Ich habe Dich lieb” (EDIT: with the noteable exception of children and their parents). The phrase gets more common when the age difference becomes bigger. Caring is a strong motive of that phrase.

“Ich liebe Dich” on the other hand suggests a closeness and desire including (but not restricted to) sexual meanings. That’s one reason why relatives often shy away from that phrase. If you say “Ich liebe Dich” you usually imply you want to move together with that person and share rooms (and more) with him/her. It is a much stronger phrase with the emphasis on being and staying together.

  • 1
    Note that capitalising dich was correct only in pre-1996 orthography. Nowadays, it is only sometimes used to display respect, similar to capitalising Sie, but it is no longer considered correct by spelling rules.
    – Jan
    Sep 30 '15 at 9:14
  • 3
    share rooms (and more) perhaps even... food?!?
    – ANeves
    Oct 18 '15 at 3:03

Ich habe dich lieb is something a little girl would say to her mommy.

Ich liebe dich is the ultimate expression of emotion a person can make towards another and is used sparingly, as it easily comes across as pointlessly melodramatic. A little girl would only use that towards her mother if she had watched too many cheezy, badly translated Hollywood rom coms.

Also, in German, no-one would ever say something like I love you, but I’m not in love with you as they do so often in Hollywood movies (errrmm, or so I heard …); in German, I love you is the ultimate, nothing will ever top that.


I have never used “Ich liebe dich” with anybody but my significant other. Maybe it’s more common in other parts of Germany, but “Ich hab dich lieb” can be used for both family and spouse.

Additionally, you’ll find “Ich liebe dich” in real literature, but “Ich hab dich lieb” seems more casual and novel style to me.

  • It's not really novel style nor casual. It goes back to Luther who translated the Bible Jesaja 43.4: ...und ich habe dich lieb.
    – Takkat
    Sep 2 '11 at 20:38
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    Takkat, it might have been like that at Luther's time, but nowadays and in spoken language you will clearly hear "Ich hab' dich lieb" more often than "Ich liebe dich"
    – Kage
    Sep 5 '11 at 20:22
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    This may be true for spoken German but may be not in writing if we trust this Google ngram
    – Takkat
    Sep 6 '11 at 6:29
  • You are entitled to your own opinion, but if "Ich hab' dich lieb; mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt; und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt" (Der Erlkönig) doesn't sound strange to you. Or think of replacing all instances of "Ich liebe dich" with "Ich hab' dich lieb" in works of Goethe and Schiller...
    – Kage
    Sep 8 '11 at 21:23
  • @Takkat: The Google Ngram is really shocking, I didn't expect something like that.
    – user508
    Nov 27 '11 at 13:00

Ich habe dich lieb sounds like it can be translated to I hold you (very) dear, or You are (very) dear to me. It expresses deep affection/endearment, something that you don’t feel for everybody.

Ich liebe dich. can easily contain romantic meaning, and is probably most likely used in such contexts.

Disclaimer: I’m learning German still, but my maternal language, Romanian, seems to have many unexpected semantic similarities with German (they’re also the source of an uncanny feeling while learning it). But that’s the subjective opinion of a beginner.

  • 1
    Absolutely. Having lived in England for 4 years, I'd also translate "Ich habe dich lieb" to "I hold you dear", usually without sexual context.
    – Turion
    Dec 24 '15 at 9:35

From my experience, “Ich liebe dich” does translate as “I love you”, and is typically used between intimates, e.g.: “I love you, Darling.” It is used more sparingly than the American/English counterpart. It is also used less seriously in friendships, cravings, and advertising, e.g.: “I love you, luscious chocolate.”

“Ich hab dich lieb” translates as “I have love for you” (awkward phrasing), but would be roughly the equivalent of “I cherish/care for/am glad I am related to you.” It has two principle uses: between family members, e.g., “I love you, Grampa”, and as a precursor to “Ich liebe dich”, e.g.: “I really like you, Sweetheart.” My daughter uses this phrase as a closing in many of her emails back home.

  • Ich hab dich lieb doesn't translate to I have love for you (literally), but actually to I have you dear. Lieb as an adjective (no ending -e, lowercase!) doesn't mean love (noun), but dear (adjective). Furthermore, dich is accusative and usually can't mean for you (that's dative dir). The expression I have love for you doesn't exist as a phrase, but would hypothetically have to read *Ich habe dir Liebe. Jul 20 '20 at 17:35

The reason that the google ngram shows a higher usage of "ich liebe dich" vs. "i hab(e) dich lieb" is because there are so many translation books that teach non-natives to say "ich liebe dich". It's overly commonly taught. I have never once seen a translation book teach "ich hab(e) dich lieb" (but they should). This heavily skews the results. This is why "results" do nothing to combat native speakers experience.


Interesting debate. If anyone ever saw the movie die Ehe von Maria Braun, there was this same confusion during her trial. When asked about her feelings for her husband, she said “Ich liebe ihn”. But when asked her feelings about an American sergeant she had been having an affair with, she said, “Ich habe ihn lieb”. Since it was a trial being conducted by Americans in postwar Germany, the judge was completely confused about the relationships because the interpreter translated both phrases as “I love him”.


Although this question has been answered well enough, I’d like to add a little story, which is exactly about the topic:

Some 14 years ago, a girl which I was very interested in, wrote me Ich hab dich lieb! in a text message. I interpreted that as the confession, that she loves me and I wrote back some happy answer, which resulted in confusion, since she only wanted to express, that she likes me very much, but was not intending to say Ich lieb dich!.

So you see, not only non-Germans have trouble in understanding the difference … at least, it turned out well, since she is my wife now for many years!


As already mentioned Ich habe dich lieb is a not so strong version of love. It’s meaning is most of the time the same as Ich liebe dich but put into a non-sexual/non-relationship context, like the feelings you have for your sister/brother.

But I’ve also seen it used very easily/watered down between teenagers (especially while communicating via text messages, (especially the shortened hdl, hab dich lieb)) to imply a simple friendship.

The best translation/explanation in English I can think of is “I like you [very much] and I care for you”. Though, that one might be off, too, because I’m not a native English speaker.

  • 1
    "I love you" in English has two meanings, one sexual, and one deep caring. I use this phrase with my significant other, as well as with my parents, siblings and close extended family. "I like you [very much]" and "I care for you" might be weaker (or more awkward?) versions of "I [sexually] love you". This might be a case of many-to-one translations, rather than 1-to-1.
    – diN0bot
    Dec 28 '11 at 4:38

"Ich liebe dich" = I love you
"Ich hab dich lieb" = I like you very much
I always say "Hab dich lieb" to my friends or family because if you say "Ich liebe dich" to your best friend when he is a boy he would misunderstand you if you just want to say that you like him a lot.


Unless you are German and understand its subtle usages, a simple translation isn’t going to work here! There is formal/informal, there are extra pronouns, there are many differences from German to English. It is not straightforward. A dictionary or translation page isn’t going to teach you the subtleties of the language. To those on this page that are making it all black and white … sorry German doesn’t work that way. There are even differences in usage from High German to Low German … (North and South) the different dialects place emphasis on words and combinations differently. It is not simply a literal translation …

Ich liebe dich (I love you) is not something someone there says flippantly, it’s not spoken on a day to day basis in public, like it’s thrown around in the states … period.

It’s similar to the English not hugging in public — or at all in some cases … it’s a behavior thing, rather than a language thing. And it’s taken seriously.

I was born there … learned German first and then learned English.


“Ich habe dich lieb” means “I have (some) love for you.”

“Ich liebe dich” means “I love you (a lot).”

The second is stronger than the first.


I would say the phrase: Ich hab dich lieb, is more timely defined to the moment when said, while: ich liebe dich shows the deep and permanent feeling. In English I would use: I love you and you are lovely, as a reference. Something like that.


English doesn't share this concept linguistically, but philosophically it's easy: Big L versus little l. "Ich liebe dich" is ONLY for lovers. "Ich habe dich lieb" is the love you share with family.
If you use this say ("Ich liebe dich") on your mother, you'd be insinuating you want to make love to your mother.

  • 4
    So children who say "Ich liebe dich" to their parents, want to make love to them? I don't think so...
    – Baz
    Oct 21 '13 at 10:56
  • @Baz Never heard a child say that to their parent. Nov 17 '15 at 18:11
  • @hiergiltdiestfu Doesn't mean it's not used in this context. The accepted (and highest voted) answer suggests the same btw.
    – Baz
    Nov 17 '15 at 18:16