Savvy Minds: Ask Dr. V ~ Can’t Say “I Love You”

Dear Dr V,

I’m having a major issue with boyfriend, something I’m afraid could turn into a deal-breaker. He’s very sweet and considerate, physical expression isn’t a problem for him, but he can’t seem to express himself emotionally. This in turn makes it harder for me to be physically intimate with him, because I feel like I’m not getting any indications from him of romantic feelings, and then all of a sudden he’s ready to jump in the sack, and put out when I say I don’t feel like it. This is happening more and more. I’m starting to feel frustrated and angry with him all the time as a result of this stuff, even when it’s not immediately an issue. I haven’t said anything about it to him because I’m afraid of making the situation worse. I really do care for this guy and I really do believe he feels the same way about me. I asked him if he loved me and he said “of course.”  I just wish he would come out and say it without me having to ask. What should we do?


Dear Michelle,

I realize how frustrated you must feel with your boyfriend, but I also hope you can find a way to smile through all of this, because if you think about it, you’re really facing a classic couple’s problem. It makes me think of the cliché joke about the guy who can’t say “I love you,” he can only get as far as “I luh…” before breaking off.  This isn’t to say it’s a minor problem that doesn’t need to be addressed, but it is a common one, so I hope you can take comfort in knowing that you two are not alone in dealing with these issues.

First of all, beyond the two of you, I think it’s important to remember that despite the advances we’ve made as a society regarding gender roles, sexual equality and what not, there still are some very outdated and silly cultural expectations that get placed on men and women. One of which is of course that men should be “strong,” and strong in this case means “show no emotion.” To me, not showing emotion seems incredibly unhealthy, if not dishonest, as human beings are emotional animals. Emotions are almost always the motivating factors behind the actions each of us takes in our lives. To deny we have them is to deny our own humanity. Sadly, it’s always the worst and oldest habits that die hardest, such as these old-fashioned notions of “Boys Don’t Cry (or if they do, they do it like “men” : Alone, silent and undetected in a bathroom for no longer than thirty seconds, after which they will suck up all that pain and stuff it somewhere deep in their gut, to be gotten rid of later in the form of lashing out about something minor and unrelated). So, if your boyfriend came of age in an environment where showing or expressing his feelings was equated with weakness, this could explain in part his reluctance to be more verbally open about how his feelings for you.

I’d also like to mention that I think to a certain degree we are taught by TV shows, movies and sappy romance novels that couples are supposed to have a problem saying “I love you” to each other, just as men are supposed to be terrified of marriage, and women are supposed to be myopically obsessed with getting married and having babies. While these myths of course to have some roots in reality, I don’t think every single couple necessarily has to deal with them. However, if we continuously program ourselves with these ideas of “men can’t say I love you,” “Women are too emotional to be rational” and so on, even if only in the context of fluff entertainment, the ideas can worm their way into our subconscious, so that in effect we cause the issue to arise by looking for it. That’s not to say you aren’t truly upset by the challenges your boyfriend faces in communicating with you on a meaningful, emotional level, but perhaps if you were expecting it from the get go, you may have poured some extra gas on the fire. I don’t say this so that you’ll blame yourself, there’s no wrong no foul in this situation. I only bring it up for you to perhaps examine what other expectations for this relationship, good or bad, might be swimming in your emotional ocean.

Something in your letter I would like to address directly though, is that you aren’t really being completely open with your boyfriend either. You mentioned feeling frustrated with him, but didn’t want to stir the pot any further, as it were. I understand why you would feel like that, but what I hope you can do is use your own feeling of hesitancy in expressing yourself to try and find empathy and understanding for your boyfriend’s own hesitancy in expressing his feelings. I have faith in you when you say that you believe your boyfriend loves you. So perhaps what we are looking at here is doing “I love you” vs. just saying “I love you.” My suggestion is to trust in those feelings until your relationship can evolve into a place where you both feel safe and comfortable enough to express yourselves, without any fear of insecurity.

To expand on that, I’ll recommend that time-tested panacea for nearly all couple’s issues: talk about it. Find a way to bring the topic up in a non-aggressive, emotionally neutral way, this way your boyfriend won’t feel like he’s being attacked or cross-examined right off the bat, and will hopefully be more likely to open up to you. Rather than focusing on what he’s not doing, I would suggest talking about not just your feelings for him and the frustration you feel because you two aren’t communicating, but also try to work your way around to questions regarding why he might feel uncomfortable expressing himself to you. He may have misconceptions about changing expectations on him or the relationship, because to many people, saying The Three Words “ups the ante” as far as expectations of commitment go. I hope you can explain to him this is not the case, and that (at least as far as I can gather from your letter), you are simply looking for emotional validation and affirmation from your partner.

Though this is a problem to be dealt with, I hope you can find the levity and laughter in the issue as well. It is, after all, a good problem to have. Some people can easily say, “I love you,” but they cannot easily love. From the sounds of it, you two truly do carry genuine and caring feelings for each other. I think if you strive for patience, empathy and honesty with each other, the openness will follow organically. Think of it as a plant that is just peeking through the soil, about to sprout. Don’t’ force it, give it time. It’ll show.

With Empathy,

Dr. V

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