I realize that compared to many of your other readers, my problems really aren't that serious. Actually, I have things pretty good, and for the most part I'm not complaining. I'm a 26-year-old woman and I'm dating a man who is nearly 10 years older than I am. This doesn't cause many problems for us and we get along fabulously. All of my other relationships have been tumultuous, filled with angst and pain and mind games and recklessness. For the first time ever, I have found a man I love wholeheartedly, a man with whom I share everything and hope to build a strong future. We have been together for close to a year, and several months ago we moved in with each other. We very rarely disagree or fight over anything.
So here's my problem. He only tells me that he loves me after sex. If I tell him I love him in a nonsexual context, he will always return the sentiment, but he is never the one to say the words first. It is only after we make love that he will say those words to me of his own accord. I feel incredibly frustrated by this because I need that affirmation, that dose of confidence, on a daily basis. Now that the fervor of the novelty of our relationship has worn down we have sex on a less frequent basis. It is still at least once a week, but that means I am hearing those words from him less and less often. I have tried to talk about this on one occasion (communicating problems has never been my strong point), and he seemed oblivious to any problem. Apparently he feels he expresses his love often enough, and though he apologized for making me feel insecure he did nothing differently after our conversation.
On the one hand I feel that our relationship is good and solid. Neither of us are overly sentimental people, so I don't expect us to be mushy about our feelings. But I often find myself questioning whether he really loves me if his only motivation for telling me so is in a sexual context. Cary, can you help me figure this one out? Does my boyfriend just have a hard time expressing his emotions or does it seem he might be holding back for other reasons?
Dear Feeling Unloved,
Rather than try to advise you, whom I do not know well, how to make someone else whom I do not know well do something that he doesn't seem naturally inclined to do, why not see if there is a subtler way of meeting your need for reassurance and a feeling of closeness. (That is what you're really after, isn't it?)
Let's look at this from a couple of different directions, as a problem of cognition and as a problem of emotional transaction. The cognitive question seems to be: Does he love you? If he can provide you an answer that is satisfactory today, does his answer have a 24-hour expiration date on it? Must it be renewed daily? He may feel that, as a factual matter, once he's answered the question it remains answered, much the way two plus two remains four. If you do feel he's only telling you he loves you for that one day, you could ask him for an affidavit that is good for a whole week, or a month. But that would be silly. The point is, I think you are not really looking for a statement to be repeated; it is more likely that what you want is a daily emotional transaction, or experience, some daily demonstration of closeness that reaffirms your security and happiness in the relationship.
It might help, therefore, to broaden your approach to getting what you want, to not limit it to a bald statement of fact but make it experiential, to try to have a moment of closeness every day: Grab a cup of coffee together. Read the mail together. Hold hands and walk around the block. Walk the cat. Find ways in your daily life of being together. He might find it makes more sense to do those things than to make a simple daily declaration.
However, keep in mind that you might have to initiate these activities, at least at first. The fact that he doesn't initiate them doesn't mean he doesn't love you. Frankly, I'm not sure what it means; but I'm suggesting that you just initiate it and don't get caught up in what it means that you're the one initiating it. Just do it. It's quite common for people to have different needs, in different intensities, and different methods of going about getting their needs met. You may be more knowledgeable about yours, and thus better able to express them, but it doesn't mean that he doesn't also have these same needs for closeness and security in some degree, and it's likely that he also will benefit from a variety of pleasant daily intimacies.
As it is, it may be that the only time right now he feels deeply and intimately is in those moments during and right after sex, which is why that's the only time he seems to say "I love you." So by expanding your vocabulary of closeness, you might also lessen the burden on sex as the sole source of intimate experience. And he might find, given the opportunity, that he even says it more often. And who knows, if he's not the loquacious sort, maybe he'll run out of words and say it with diamonds.
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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.