‘I love you’ – those three words are often really hard for a man to say and to hear. Some men excuse themselves by saying, “I am a man of few words”, “Saying it too often, can cheapen it, and when I do say it, I will really mean it.”
Why do men struggle to say those precious three words?
Perhaps it is to do with a sense of awkwardness, it isn’t natural for them. Saying it back to my partner if she utters the words to me, sounds twee and like I don’t mean it. Perhaps it is something to do with self-protection and power. If I say ‘I love you’, I could be giving away too much, almost like she will then know that she haves me. If the words are withheld, I will remain a mystery, she will remain unsure and hence I hold onto some power.
These three simple words are complex and can hold much depth
Yet, the time when women may hear these three words most often is as a precursor to sex, just before sex and during sex, but then not heard again until the next sex moment. This can often leave the other wondering; What is it he loves? Sex? You? The connection? The excitement? The orgasm?
Relationships are often left in the ‘I love you’ limbo – will he say it, how do I respond if she says it, is it easier not to say it. This can keep partners apart and a mystery to each other. With many partners left wondering ‘I have no idea what he is thinking or feeling!’
Yet, men long to be loved, they long to hear these or similar loving words from their fathers, from their mothers, from their friends. When men fail to hear these words, there is a loss, there is an unknowing, an emotional isolation.
‘If we have not been guided on love’s path for most of our lives, we usually do not know how to begin loving, or what we should do and how we should act’ – bell hooks
Not long ago one of my clients said, ‘I don’t know how to love, I don’t know what love is’ He was describing how he was finding being in a relationship confusing, how difficult he found it to love, to care, to show warmth, empathy and be loving. He found it almost uncomfortable to be around love, to be loved, to receive love. This sparked off a similar journey I have had with love. I can recall when in the first year of my marriage (now 22 years ago!) and how uncomfortable I found it. I felt confused, unsure and wondered if I had made a mistake, I flinched when my wife said she loved me and often froze, not knowing what to say back to her. When she embraced me, I felt trapped, a loss of power and a kind of dissociation.
Why is love so difficult for men?
Man up, sit down, chin up, pipe down, socks up, don’t cry, drink up, just lie, “Grow some balls,” he said, “Grow some balls” – Samaritans – Idles
It is not that surprising that men find it difficult to love when we consider the way men have been made. If we tell boys not to show or express their pain, not to cry, be hard, be tough, be cool and be distant. If we teach them to rely on themselves and that they must constantly prove themselves. If we tell them that life is about competition and winning is the only thing that matters, then of course relationships are going to be difficult. Being collaborative, making concessions and thinking of the other will be a challenge. If men have not been taught to care for others or to love others then there is often much catching up to do.
If men don’t know what love is, how do they commit to relationships?
Often men and women will be waiting for ‘the one’, ‘the other half’ or their ‘soulmate’, the ideal fantasy partner that is only made for them. This kind of thinking about love is a romantic delusion and makes love into magic. In similar fashion the ‘falling in love’ refrain is often cited which neatly works for men if they don’t know what love is. To fall in love removes choice and responsibility and again sits in the realm of fantasy. The problem with this concept is off course that it is as easy to fall out of love once that loving feeling is no longer present.
What is love?
Love is not a feeling; it is a matter of will and it takes work. True love is all about work and discipline. Men will often think nothing of working hard in order to be successful in business yet few men will work hard at making relationships work. Relationships, social connections and relational emotional growth often becomes the responsibility of the female. If we want to grow in love, we have to work at it. How often do men sit down with their partner and discuss a relational plan for the year in the same way they may talk about a business plan? Love is risky, it demands vulnerability, change and growth with the risk of being rejected.
‘Love affects more than our thinking and our behaviour toward those we love. It transforms our entire life. Genuine love is a personal revolution. Love takes your ideas, your desires, and your actions and welds them together in one experience and one living reality which is the new you’ Thomas Merton.
Three tips on Learning to love
1. Recognise and work on your self-reliance: Self – reliance is the coping strategy that many men have learnt as a way of managing emotions. Often men have had an emotionally distant relationship with their father and the lesson they learnt from this was to hide vulnerable emotions. This morphs into an avoidant attachment style displaying itself in maintaining control in order to protect oneself from feeling rejection. Become more aware of your self-reliant position when you struggle to ask for help. Listen to yourself as you struggle to share your vulnerable emotions or remove yourself from uncomfortable situations.
2. Love is work - Work at loving – practice saying it, texting and planning regular loving relational activities. Experiment with developing psychological intimacy, talking about your feelings and allowing yourself to be uncomfortable and vulnerable. Seek to develop empathy, active listening, tenderness and warmth
3. Commit to relational growth. Accept the other, encourage and take joy in their growth. Move towards a collaborative and compassionate relationship where you actively invest in the other’s growth. Be prepared to plan for relational growth – it doesn’t just magically happen!
Psychotherapist and author of The Secret Lives of Men