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'I Love You': How Much Do The Words Matter?

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Courtesy of WBUR
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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars have advice for people in different situations. In the first, a woman writes that she thinks her boyfriend loves her, but he hasn't said it outright. She says she doesn't want to say it first and make him feel forced. Is it possible to express your love for someone without explicitly saying it?

Then they hear from a man wondering about the importance of physical attraction in a relationship, and thinking about how societal standards of beauty may be affecting his perception of his girlfriend.

Dear Sugars,

I've been dating a wonderful man for just over a year. We've been officially a couple for just about six months. We have so much fun when we're together, and he shows me that he cares in so many ways — sneaking quietly into bed so he doesn't wake me, inviting me to his family holidays, lots of kisses and snuggles when we're together, and saying "I miss you" lots when we're apart. We spend all of our free time together, and we've decided to move in together in a few months.

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We talk about everything. He shares his ambitions, his insecurities, and whenever we have a disagreement, we talk it out. He is more open about his feelings than anyone I have ever dated. He's told me that I'm the person he feels closest to. But there is one thing he hasn't shared — his love. While I feel it from him, he hasn't uttered those three little words to me — "I love you."

Each time our relationship has moved to the next level, I have been the proactive one. But on this front, I have held back. I am waiting for him to tell me he loves me before I say it. I'd like to know he loves me before we take the next step of sharing a home together, but I don't feel comfortable asking, "Do you love me?"

If he said yes, I would feel like I had forced it — like he said it because he knew it's what I wanted to hear. So Sugars, what do I do? Can I get him to express his love in words without disbelieving it? How long is too long to wait to hear "I love you"?


I Love Him

Cheryl Strayed: I Love Him, welcome to a long-term relationship. There's the way that you want the other person to be or behave, and then there's the way that they are. You need to negotiate these things. To me, it sounds like your boyfriend loves you, and you love him. He just assigns a very different value to those three words. Maybe, for whatever reason, "I love you" is just not a thing that he has said to people in his life.

Steve Almond: That's such an important point. I come from a family that did not say "I love you," and I had to train myself to say it to people. When others say it, I feel uncomfortable. It's as if there's been a sudden intrusion of intense direct emotion that makes me feel frozen.

Now, I can say it because I know that it's shorthand, I Love Him, for all the things your boyfriend does for you. I imagine that if you explain to him that it's personally meaningful, even if it makes him feel a little uncomfortable, you'll find out what his relationship to that phrase is and whether it's something you should be unsettled by.

Cheryl: The two options I see are either, go ahead and say "I love you," and you'll just have to let go of this archaic, sexist notion that he should be the person who says it first. Or, you say, "I need to talk to you about something. I love you, and I am perplexed that you haven't said you love me. I've been waiting for you to say it, and I don't know why it's important to me that you say it first, but it is."

Maybe your view on this is rooted in the feeling that you are the proactive one and the one who compels emotional growth in your relationship at each juncture. That's something really important for you two to unpack, and I think this "I love you" conversation could be a great portal into that deeper relationship.

Dear Sugars,

I've been with my girlfriend for about a year now, and I've never felt such a strong connection to someone. She and I have more in common than I've ever shared with a partner, and our relationship has progressed very quickly.

The only problem is, when we first met, I didn't feel as much of a physical attraction to her as I thought I should, but I decided that my attraction to her on all other levels was deep enough to overcome that. I thought that our physical chemistry would grow in time, but unfortunately, it hasn't.

I feel terrible and shallow for even writing this down, and I can't imagine how I could ever explain this to her without hurting her deeply. I've even felt some of my male friends imply (or say outright) that they thought I could "do better."

My question for you is: Am I doing the right thing in pursuing a relationship with this wonderful person and ignoring what I perceive to be totally invented standards of beauty? Or is physical chemistry the first and most important part of a real relationship?


Struggling with Standards

Cheryl: Struggling with Standards, I think that you are up against two things that you have conflated into one. There is your physical attraction to your girlfriend and the physical and sexual chemistry you have with her, and then there's the invented standards of beauty. Those are two different things.

The person that you are attracted to and have chemistry with is not necessarily someone who fits into standards and conventions of beauty. So the first thing to think about is, do you have a powerful physical bond with this woman, or are you hung up? Is the thing that's inhibiting you from having this bond the idea of what women "should" look like? And if that's the case, the great news about that is that it can be revised. You can say, screw the standards. I love sleeping with her, I love this relationship.

Now if, on the other hand, it is a chemistry issue rather than a beauty standards issue, I think that you're right to ask this question. If you don't have a basic, real attraction to your romantic partner, I think that you need to rethink the relationship and maybe break up or become friends. I will say, if you decide to end this relationship, I really don't think that you should say to your girlfriend that it's because she's not physically attractive enough for you. That's a subjective opinion, and it's one that will hurt her for a long time and probably affect her for many relationships.

Steve: The pattern in my life has been, when I get involved with somebody, as I find out more about who they are and all the hidden beautiful things within them, they become more attractive to me. What's unsettling here is that, for whatever reason, after a year, she hasn't become more attractive to you.

Being steeped in this youth and beauty-worshipping culture mixes up our internal lives. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could separate out how much is chemistry and how much is an external standard? The problem is, we've internalized these things, and they become false sacred texts inside us. That is something you should question yourself about.

At the bottom of it, you cannot fake chemistry. A year isn't a short amount of time to figure out whether the underlying chemistry is there. But if it's not, it's not. Don't waste her time or yours trying to fake it, because that's its own kind of humiliation.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more from people doubting love in relationships.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email and it may be answered on a future episode.

You can also listen to Dear Sugar Radio on iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app.

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