Relationship Dilemma: He Hasn't Said 'I Love You.' Should I Leave?

Jenna Birch
Contributing Writer
(Illustration: Getty Images)

There are certain milestones you wait for in every relationship. First kiss, becoming exclusive, meeting the parents… But what happens if you just skip past one? A big one?

A reader recently wrote in, because her boyfriend of 18 months has seemingly dodged one of those key relationship landmarks: “We haven’t said ‘I love you’ to each other,” she says. “Or rather, I’ve said it a few times, and he has not been able to say the same. Any time I ask him why not, he says he’s not sure what love means… He calls me everyday, takes time out of his weekend to have a date night with me, and I feel like I am loved. I wish this wasn’t so important to me, but I’ve considered breaking up with him because he can’t seem to say it.”

In relationships, we place certain expectations on people based on what we perceive should be happening. Your sister is engaged within 18 months, and you’re suddenly self-conscious that you’re three years into your relationship without a ring. Or your best friend hears, “I love you” after two months — and you think you should hear it, too.

In reality, everyone brings their own baggage to the relationship. Everyone has their own insecurities and needs. And everyone is trying to merge two timelines onto one.

In talking to couples, almost all of them have some relationship idiosyncrasy. Something did not go “as expected.” One couple broke up, for instance, and got back together five years later. Another couple communicated only by email letters for months, and never by text or call. And yes… even another couple had our reader’s very problem. Susan (as we’ll call her) and her now-husband took years and years to get together. Despite that long-standing friendship and foundation of trust, Susan’s boyfriend still couldn’t seem to say, “I love you” to his future wife.

This brings me to my first piece of advice for our reader, directly from Susan’s experience — among other strategies to try if you’re not hearing those three little words.

Maybe your significant other has never said the words “I love you” before. Susan remembers feeling apprehension before saying those three words for the first time herself; in fact, her first boyfriend explained what “I love you” meant to him. “I explained how being ‘in love’ is different than the love you might feel for your family or friends,” she told me. “How you feel excited when you’re with the person, and how you feel that absence not together. How you start to miss them.” Slowly but surely, Susan’s boyfriend started expressing those feelings. He would say that he missed her — and eventually, that he loved her. It just took numerous thoughtful, patient discussions.

Like Susan did, if your partner is having trouble with “I love you,” try defining romantic love with your partner. Tell him what that word means to you, why it’s important, and why you like to hear it consistently. Love is a very abstract thing, and some people are more concrete in nature; they have a hard time deciding if their feelings are what others might call, “love.” Start by telling him a few moments you’ve felt love most deeply, what you were doing, and how you suddenly saw the person in a new, fresh or important light. He might have a better sense of how he feels if he can suddenly visualize real-life examples.

Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages introduced a very important concept to those in relationships: Every partner gives and receives love in their own unique way. If you’re a “words of affirmation” person, you’re going to want to hear that your partner loves you on a daily basis. But if you’re dating an “acts of service” person, that person might be consistently showing their love instead of voicing it — putting gas in your car, fixing your TV — but it’s totally lost on you. It’s not your love language!

See if you can gauge your partner’s language, pick up on ways he may already be showing love (outside of the verbal). Better yet, my simple advice? Read the book, and then talk about what you got out of it. Figure out what your partner’s love languages are — and make sure, jointly, you put forth effort to communicate love in the way your partner needs to receive it. Sure, you can start noticing your partner’s love language in action… but you also want someone who makes an effort to let you know just how much they care in ~your~ language. Clearly express what you need in a relationship to feel happy and secure, and see if he does it over time. That’s love.

This last tip goes for every single relationship milestone. Centuries ago, Shakespeare wrote that “expectation is the root of all heartache.” He wasn’t wrong. You think your significant other should have been proposed now, or taken you to meet his parents. Or you assume if he was truly interested, he would set up that next date. Or said, “I love you.” But who told you that it should have happened?

If you need to hit a milestone to feel safe and cared for, then hey. I get it. Bring it up, or cut the person loose who can’t provide. But if you simply need to check that box because you think society, your parents, your best friend, your great aunt or a perfect stranger would tell you that it should be checked by now, then my advice would be to relax for a bit.

The people who typically end up in great modern relationships are those who have the ability let go of others’ expectations for them — which simply don’t matter. They silence the peanut gallery. They read their partner on an intuitive level, and think: Is he sincere? Is he putting forth effort? Do I feel cared for? Does the relationship seem to have momentum, even if slow?

If all questions are “yes” answers, you feel respected and comfortable with the person, then why not just sit back and let the adventure unfold?

Our reader said that she felt loved by her boyfriend; it just hadn’t been crystallized with the words she would have expected to hear. That’s huge. So, instead of breaking up with him, I’d slowly work with him on the concepts, what love means, and then reassess.

Ultimately, you get to decide if the relationship is working for you. I want you to keep that agency at the forefront of your mind, and remove toxic partners from your mind. But keep in mind: No one will operate in life, or in love, exactly the way you do.

Jenna Birch is a journalist, dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Friday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to jen.birch@sbcglobal.net with YAHOO QUESTION in the subject line.

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