Why can't my boyfriend say, "I love you"?

It's just three little words, but they won't come out of his mouth.

Published April 5, 2005 11:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend of over two years, who I know cares about me deeply, cannot say those three words that I always thought were a necessity. My boyfriend cannot say to me, "I love you." I know he loves me. So why can't he say it?

I know that when he was a teenager, something (many things?) happened in his first relationship that shook his vulnerable, depressive, overly sensitive self and left him unable to enter into another. It's hard for me to understand because I don't know why he hasn't been able to construct a different narrative for himself about events that happened more than 10 years ago. Why can't he tell himself a new story about that relationship, one that allows him to put it in the context of the overly dramatic, unreasonable teenage years?

A lot of people would like to make this into a simplistic case of "he must not really love me as much as he should." But I know differently. I know that we're both word nerds who like the preciseness of language, who share a fascination with the movies, music with thoughtful lyrics, books, theory, photography, art, travel, a certain West Coast city, long conversations, sushi, cooking, coffee and quiet mornings, among other things. We've had many discussions about this "love" thing. And everything he says and does seems to suggest that he holds the feeling those words express. And yet.

My family raised me to say those words, and I grew up to be an extremely passionate person. My family says it a lot. I tell my friends -- my kindred spirits -- that I love them. Because I do. I can't keep the words inside me. And I tell my boyfriend that I love him. But he can't say it in return.

It scares the crap out of me. I feel like I'm building up the beginnings of some strange resentments and fears and insecurities. No one seems to be able to know what to say when I tell them about this. Maybe you'll have a few words for me? I'm a literature major. I live on words. I breathe them, dream them, eat them for breakfast. What should I do?

English Major Seeks Three Little Words

Dear English Major,

Picture it like this: At birth everybody gets a sweater. Our sweaters keep us warm and they're very colorful. But while we're growing up they get snagged on things.

Your boyfriend's sweater got snagged on a girl a long time ago and he can't get it untangled. He'd like to if he could but it's not easy and plus you are growing impatient and your impatience is making him nervous. That's how it is when you're trying to untangle your sweater from a teenage girlfriend. You get nervous because someone is waiting. Sometimes in desperation you just shrug it off and the sweater rips a hole. (You sometimes meet people who claim that no sweater was ever issued to them and hence was never snagged. But go through their closets. You'll always find one, snagged and full of holes.)

Anyway, he's owned up to what happened to his sweater -- it got snagged on a girl. As a result he claims he is unable to pronounce a certain phrase to you. It does seem unlikely, the connection, but there are often connections between sweaters and girls that we are only dimly aware of. Not only girls, but other unexpected things can snag on your sweater -- soccer stadiums, gin bottles and historic events: For instance, the connection between my sweater and the atomic bomb is hard to explain. It has glowed ever since Nagasaki, but no one will believe me; if I try to say "Hiroshima," I always start to sneeze. I'm allergic to wool, but that's not it.

When you suggest that he could have invented a new narrative, you are on the right track. I take it that when you say "narrative," however, you mean "sweater." People will often say "narrative" or "metaphor" when they mean "sweater." It is called, in academic circles, "the mistaking of the sweater."

So here is what you have to do. When faced with an old snag that will not untangle, you have to create a new sweater, or new weave, or new gravity. You will need a phrase to hold it together, something that partakes of an elemental force. How about the phrase "acceptance without reservation"?

The technique for mending is as follows: You say these words to each other as you rub your sweaters together. Watch closely for changes in temperature.

Roughly translated, "acceptance without reservation" means "very big sweater." If you look closely, you see why "very big sweater" is superior. The problem with "I love you" is the subject-verb-object. What is he doing to you, exactly, in loving you? Is it instant or ongoing? Is it an action or a state? What is done to you when you are loved? The action is unclear! It makes a hopeless tangle. No wonder his sweater has holes in it. He can't say it because it wraps him in a knot of yarn, it tangles his feet, he falls down. (Getting to the root of it here, "yarn" being the tale we weave. --Ed.)

"Acceptance without reservation," however, is an open door the size of the sky. There is room for both of you and all your sweaters, no matter how many layers of clothing you have on underneath. Use of this phrase will serve as a temporary fix to your problem. It isn't perfect. But use it until it becomes hopelessly tangled.

As your yarn business expands, you may find that certain certificates are required. Also blood relatives may appear, asking for the other phrase, "I love you." They may not understand "acceptance without reservation." It may trouble them in some deep, unutterable way. So while "acceptance without reservation" is your favorite, keep the other phrase handy for guests. Teach him to say "I love you" in French and Portuguese; this preserves plausible deniability, makes him seem "romantic," and may also encourage European travel.

Whatever you do, remember this: Never put your sweater in mothballs. It's better if it just gets a few holes.

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