Someone has to go first. But you don’t have to go large and buy a billboard, says Annalisa Barbieri
I have been in a relationship for nearly 18 months. It has been going great and the way my boyfriend treats me is everything I want from a partner. The only thing is, he hasn’t told me he loves me.
I make up excuses as to why he might not have said it, such as ‘some men can’t say it’. My dad was similar: he never said he loved my mum. Dad said he couldn’t say it (he grew up in a household without much love), and would buy jewellery for my mum to show that he loved her.
I do believe actions speak louder than words: my ex was always telling me he loved me, but never showed it by listening or making the small gestures that matter. My current boyfriend is always doing those “little things”, and I couldn’t feel more loved.
I haven’t said “I love you” to him, either. There have been many times I’ve thought of saying it first, but I get scared: what if he tells me he doesn’t love me? It would hurt a lot, especially as we have made plans for the future. I’m not sure what to do. I feel like it’s eating me up inside.
You are right that actions speak louder than words. And it’s great that you couldn’t feel more loved – that’s more important, I think, than being with someone who says they love you but doesn’t make you feel it.
I consulted psychotherapist John-Paul Davies. He says: “It sounds like you’re feeling the love, but most relationships do fail over a lack of communication. We tend to fill the silence with problems, usually our own dominant fear. The other thing about fear is that it personalises things.”
We all have a dominant fear; it could be fear of being rejected, criticised or overwhelmed by the emotions of others. We tend to apply it to all sorts of situations because, being our dominant fear, it comes to the fore whenever we are afraid, and in the absence of contradictory information. For example, someone who fears rejection may see someone else not replying to their email as that other person not wanting them (dominant fear + making it personal = jumping to the wrong conclusion), instead of them just being busy. The person who fears criticism sees it almost everywhere, unless they’re being praised.
“Then you get fear and imagination,” says Davies, “and that makes us catastrophise. So, here, it doesn’t matter that you’ve had 18 months of what sounds like a good, promising relationship – what you’re focusing on is that he hasn’t said he loves you.” Thus you are imagining the worst scenario: that he doesn’t love you and it’s all going to go wrong – even though you haven’t said it to him, either. Have you thought that maybe that’s the reason he’s not said it – because you’re both frightened of appearing vulnerable?
I wondered if this was less about hearing three words than trusting each other with whatever you have to say. This is terrifically important, because good communication – ergo, your relationship – can’t flourish if you can’t trust the other person with your feelings. You don’t need to agree all the time, but you do need to be able to have conversations that may be tricky and make you vulnerable.
You described your dad’s upbringing and why you felt he couldn’t say “I love you” to your mum. I wondered what that had to do with your situation. Do you worry that you will end up like them? What would that mean to you? Did your dad tell you he loved you?
If hearing “I love you” matters to you, then you need to be in a relationship where, not only are you told you’re loved, but you, too, can say it. Davies suggests: “If you want him to be more communicative in language about love, then you also need to do that yourself, but you will need to overcome your fear.”
I know it feels scary and it’s a risk, and sometimes people are at different stages of a relationship. I remember one friend’s boyfriend told her he loved her after two weeks. She didn’t feel that yet but said: “Thank you, please wait for me to catch up.” (She did.)
Someone has to go first. You don’t have to go large and buy a billboard. Start with talking about how you feel about each other – you can avoid the L word if it makes you feel more confident – and take it from there.
Send your problem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
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