It has been 10 months and he still won't say "I love you"

We're both 20 years old, and I'm starting to wonder how my boyfriend feels.

By Cary Tennis
June 4, 2007 2:20PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I am madly in love with my boyfriend. We are both 20 years old and have been dating for almost 10 months. I knew I was in love with him five months ago and told him so, but he was not in love and has not said I love you back to me yet.

This hurts me very much and leaves me feeling insecure about a relationship that is wonderful in every other aspect. How important are these three words?

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I was raised in a family that says I love you every time we hang up the phone. I am also an acting major and am incredibly in touch with my emotions and am taught how to express myself in my classes. My boyfriend is very athletic and has never said I love you to any previous girlfriend.

I have discussed this many times and have cried my eyes out over this in front of him. He just cannot say it and I'm not sure what I should do. His family is warm and loving, so I do not understand why he seems so afraid.

Need to Hear Those Words

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Dear Need to Hear,

I would be curious to know what "I love you" means to him. Does it mean "I want to marry you?" Does it mean "You're the only one I love"? Or "You're the only one I will sleep with"?

If it simply means, "I want to continue to be your boyfriend," and he won't say it, then maybe he does not want to continue to be your boyfriend. If that is what it means, then it's time to break up with him.

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If it just means, "I feel a strong and enduring sexual attraction to you," he could probably say that truthfully. But if it means that, then why do your family members always say it to one another? It can't mean that. Maybe it means, "I feel utterly out of my head when I smell your hair." But again, that's not what your mom means when she says it to you.

Maybe it means, "I feel a strong and enduring emotional commitment to you, such that I would run into a burning building to carry you out, and I would climb down a cliff to rescue you from a ledge, and I would bring you soup if you were sick." Does it mean that? Maybe you should ask him if he would carry you out of a burning building, or rescue you off the ledge of a cliff.

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Those three words could mean other things as well. If he loved you, for instance, he wouldn't do X, Y or Z, right? If he really loved you he wouldn't ditch you at a truck stop in Utah for a hooker. He wouldn't sleep with your best friend while you were passed out from beer bongs in the next room. He wouldn't sleep with your mother, your sister or your best friend. If he loved you he wouldn't make jokes about you behind your back or tell you you're fat.

If he loved you he wouldn't do a whole host of things to hurt you because he would have an emotional investment in your well-being such that hurting you would hurt him. He would have empathy, compassion and a sense of his future emotional state, i.e., if I sleep with your sister you will be hurt and so I will be hurt and so I won't do it. Those are some of the other things that saying "I love you" would indicate, right?

So no wonder you feel insecure. Perhaps by his refusal he is saying that he feels no enduring responsibility or commitment to you.

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But consider this also. If he were willing to say "I love you" and say it often, it might also indicate something dark and treacherous: that he knows the power of romantic speech, of the capacity of words to excite feelings, to reassure, to cradle and caress, to kindle warmth where there is no actual warmth or enduring intent. You might be glad that if he actually does feel no enduring commitment to you, at least he's not using those words to give you a false sense of security, only to break up with you later.

He being an athlete and you being an actress, you might both be more comfortable acting out your feelings than speaking them. Since you have not actually been trapped in a burning building or on a narrow ledge, however, you haven't been able to observe what he would do. So asking him these questions in concrete terms implies a little role-playing.

So maybe you need to spell this all out for him and find out what's really going on. Snuggle up close to him, squeeze his athletic bicep and ask him if he would run into a burning building to carry you out. Yes? Ask him if he would rappel down a cliff in a rainstorm at night to hook you up in a rope harness and haul you back to safety. Yes?

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Ask him if he would sleep with your sister.

Yes?

If he says yes, he's not really listening.

If he says, "Only if she wanted it, too," he's already given it too much thought.

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