Even though there are plenty of websites devoted to explaining the difference between te amo and te quiero (both meaning "I love you" in English), learning how to use these expressions remains a difficult task for many English speakers. Why is that?
For starters, these phrases deal with perhaps one of the most complicated feelings human beings can ever experience. All things considered, you could say that a language that offers only two verbs to express this feeling is, in fact, very limited! And if you believe Spanish is just complicating things by using both amar and querer, consider that there are at least 11 words for love in Arabic! Is it really that surprising, considering the many ways, modes, and interpretations of love that there are out there?
So, generally speaking, the difference between te amo and te quiero is that the first one is more serious in nature, while the second one is more casual. You have also probably heard or read that te amo is romantic in nature and te quiero is not, but this is not really accurate. The phrase te quiero is used all the time to express romantic love, and is even perhaps more common than saying te amo.
What is the difference, then? Well, there is an added solemnity to saying te amo that is somewhat equivalent to the act of kneeling to propose marriage: some people may see it as too theatrical, affected, and old-fashioned, while others may see it as the ultimate proof of how deep and committed the declaration of love is. For many, using te amo as a declaration of romantic love is very telenovela-like, but for others, it's just the right way to do it. Our new series Los Años Maravillosos comically illustrates this duality of perspectives:
I love you.
-Yo también te amo.
-I love you too.
-¿Cómo podían amarse?
-How could they love each other?
¡Se habían conocido a la puerta del colegio hacía cinco minutos!
They had met at the school door five minutes ago!
Captions 45-48, Los Años Maravillosos - Capítulo 1Play Caption
Te amo is also used very often to express romantic love in songs and poetry:
Te amo dormida, te amo en silencio
I love you asleep, I love you in silencePlay Caption
On the other hand, te quiero is a more relaxed way to express either romantic love or affection to family, friends, pets, etc.
Confesarte que te quiero,
To confess to you that I love you,
que te adoro, que eres todo para mí
that I adore you, that you're everything to me
Caption 3, Andy Andy - Maldito AmorPlay Caption
Te quiero mucho (I love you so much) is something you can and must say to your kids, your partner, your family, and yourself on a regular basis:
Y en este momento, ¿sabes lo que yo quiero hacer?
And at this moment, do you know what I want to do?
Pasar mis días con mi abuelito. -¡Qué maravilla!
To spend my days with my grandpa. -How wonderful!
-Te quiero mucho.
I love you a lot.
Captions 29-31, Yago - 4 El secretoPlay Caption
But when can't you say te quiero? Well, here's an interesting tidbit. Spanish speakers have long used the distinction between te amo and te quiero* to test the commitment of their lovers. So learn this: If your lover says to you te quiero, you can answer yo también te quiero. (Of course, you also have the option to turn up the tables and solemnly answer yo te amo, if you are up for it.) But if your lover says to you te amo, be careful! She or he probably means serious business. You either answer with a reciprocal te amo, or answer with te quiero (which will likely be interpreted as, "Whoa! I want to go slower").
In Spanish, when someone says te amo to profess romantic love, there's always this conscious choice of putting more emphasis, adding more commitment, giving more importance to the expression. It could come out of true emotion, of course, but it could also be a calculated move to manipulate someone. If you are familiar with the plot of Yago Pasión Morena, you know which is which in the following situation:
Yo también, mi amor. -Te amo.
Me too, my love. -I love you.
Yo también te amo, te reamo.
I also love you, I love you so much.
Captions 3-4, Yago - 6 MentirasPlay Caption
So you definitely don't want to be saying te amo lightly to declare romantic love. However, different contexts mean different rules. For example, since expressing your love to your dad is definitely not in the context of romantic love, maybe you can use te quiero on a regular basis and use te amo, papá on his 70th birthday.
Moreover, in some situations, using the verb amar is more natural than using querer. This is especially true when you are talking about your love for inanimate or abstract things, like nature, a musical genre, etc. Why? Well, because the verb querer literally means "to want," while amar is exclusively used to express affection. Strictly speaking, you can also use querer, though it would sound a little odd (it would sound a bit as if you are professing romantic love for an object or an abstract thing). Anyway, if you decide to use querer to express your affection to something other than an animate being, make sure to always use the preposition a (for) plus an article (el, la, los, las, etc.) or a possessive adjective (mi, su, tu, etc). Study the difference between the following examples and their translations. The first option is the most natural and common, the second one is possible but uncommon, and the third one means something totally different:
Voy de vacaciones al campo porque amo a la naturaleza / quiero a la naturaleza / quiero la naturaleza.
I'm going on a vacation to the countryside because I love nature / I love nature / I want nature.
Gertrudis realmente ama a la literatura / quiere a la literatura / quiere literatura.
Gertrudis really loves literature / loves literature / wants literature.
Los niños aman a su hogar / quieren a su hogar / quieren su hogar.
The kids love their home / love their home / want their home.
Amo al jamón ibérico / Quiero al jamón ibérico / quiero jamón ibérico.
I love Iberian ham / I love Iberian ham / I want Iberian ham.
Finally, there is another instance is which you must use amar instead of querer: when you want to express love that is strictly spiritual in nature. So you say amar a dios (to love God), amar al prójimo (to love one’s neighbor), amara la creación (to love God's creation), etc. Again, it's possible to use querer in such contexts as well, but it's not customary and it would sound odd. Here's a nice example:
Yo te amo, no te mato
I love you, I don't kill you
Captions 19-20, Aterciopelados - Hijos del TigrePlay Caption
*For advanced learners, here’s a very famous song that refers to the difference between amar and querer out of spite for an unrequited love.