Advice: He won't say 'I love you'

Couple on the wall

Couple on the wall (October 16, 2013)

I've been dating this guy for more than six months now, and I am definitely in love. However, I have a hard time saying it to him since he hasn't said it to me yet. I have muttered it to him when we are drunk, but all he says back is "I care about you a lot." Should I be concerned that he hasn't said those three precious words to me yet?—Confused

The first time the words “I love you” were ever directed at me was in high school. My boyfriend and I were sitting in the bed of his pickup not long after I had gotten out of the hospital for minor surgery. He said it and smiled in the carefree way I associate with children and golden retrievers, and I being 16 and panicky, responded with: “Really? Why?” and turned his sweet declaration of love into an interrogation because I wasn’t ready for all that I thought the words meant.

In the ensuing years, saying “I love you” hasn’t gotten much easier. I have struggled and avoided and waited until the other person said it first, to evade the awkwardness and vulnerability that comes from those lopsided confessions and I-care-about-you-a-lot’s. But this never works in the long run. Not really. And this isn’t to say you should or should not be concerned. There are 100,000 ways to embody love, of which “those three precious words” are just one. And we place tremendous power in those words, which some feel causes undue pressure and stress and obligations. Some feel that withholding the word “love” from those we care about will shield them from all the crap we’ve tethered to it, even though, of course, it won’t.

So my advice to you is two-fold. First, I want you to come clean and tell your boyfriend how you feel in the cold, sober light of day. Don’t be shrewd with your love. Be audacious. Be fearless. Then I want you to talk about what that love means to you, and him. Tell him your concerns and fears and invite him to parse the loadedness of the word with you. You get to define the terms of your relationship, regardless of whether “love” is ever uttered. One person’s “I love you” is another person’s “These doughnuts are incredible,” after all. What matters is not the word, but the feeling that inspires it.

Second, I want you to remember that love is not just a word--it’s an action. Does he give without any need of reciprocity? Does he buy you peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s unprompted? Does he DVR your favorite shows and know how you take your coffee? Is he silly and serious and sweet and familiar and heart-true? Does he take your hand and release a thousand balloons in your chest? Is he desireful and nourishing and electric?

My guess is you already have your answer.

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