He Won't Say "I Love You"

Q: For the past three years, my boyfriend and I have had our ups and downs. Before we got together he was put through the ringer by the mother of his two daughters. He thinks saying "I love you" gives the person a weapon to use against him. He has always made a point of pushing me away. Around the first of the year I had finally gotten to the point where I needed to walk away. I left the state and did not contact him for almost six months. When I did finally call, he was on the road that same night to see me. We had a great weekend and he kept asking me if I planned to come back. I left my answer uncertain, and he left. A week and a half later, he suddenly showed up at my door. He asked me to come home, right then. I said yes, just assuming what I wanted to believe, that he must love me. I know it took a lot for him to come to me and ask me to come back. I have been home for six months now. He takes care of me, takes me out, and acknowledges me as his girlfriend. Things are a thousand times better. He looks at me with love, or at least that's what I think I see, but he still will not say it. I need to know for sure he loves me, but without him saying it, how can I be certain? -- Lisa, 40

Dr. Susan: Ah, words! How much we value them, especially when we don't hear the ones we're longing to hear. It's probably from a lifetime of watching TV and reading stories where the final moment is the long-awaited "I love you." But of course, as we know, something like half of all marriages end in divorce, and I bet nearly all of them were preceded by those three magic words. Worse yet, more than half of all co-habiting couples don't stay together "for keeps," no matter what romantic words were spoken. I get the feeling that you think if your boyfriend says he loves you, that means he's committed to sticking with you through thick and thin. It doesn't work like that! While it's glorious to hear the words, and it's at least equally as wonderful (if not more so) to be asked for one's hand in marriage, nothing really counts in the long run except actions.

Your boyfriend is clearly still dealing with a little leftover baggage from his marriage and isn't about to give you those comforting words lest he somehow lose something he values. Let's call it the "one-up" position. So long as he has something you want and can withhold it (those loving words), he retains some power in the relationship. At least that's how he may see it, based on his past experience. Yet that certainly doesn't mean he doesn't love you every bit as much as you love him. Talk with him about what the words mean to you, and maybe you can find some synonyms that work nearly as well. Will he admit to adoring you, for example? Does he cherish you? Envision a long future growing old with you? Prefer to be with you than with anyone else he can imagine? Under what circumstances might be bail? A discussion like that might help you see things his way, and vice versa.

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