-- Question for John --
I have been dating a man for the last five months. We are both single parents. He is a very affectionate, considerate man. We spend 5 days out of the week together and have been for the last 6 months. The problem is that as loving as he is he won’t verbalize any of his emotions. Never has he ever told me how he feels about me or where he sees this relationship going.
I’m at a point that I need to know. They say actions speak louder than words, and his actions say a lot but I want to hear the words “I love you” before I invest any more time or myself into this relationship.
I have not discussed this with him for two reasons. One… I think or believe that if he truly did “feel” love, he would just say it. I don’t feel that I should have to ask him to say the words. He should just feel it and want, need to say the words. Secondly, I have never had problems verbalizing my emotions but I think because I can see he is uncomfortable expressing his it has made me uncomfortable about expressing mine. Like a vicious circle… me waiting for him to say I love you”… him waiting for me to say it first. I have told myself many times to just say it and get our feelings out in the open but I guess there is some fear now that maybe he doesn’t feel the same way or that he will feel cornered, pressured into saying it if I do so first.
So frustrating to be over 30 and still be playing these juvenille games with each other. I have done everything short of saying “I love you” to see if he will say it. Set up romantic retreats, and every night is the same. I can sense it… but he just won’t say it. Every night before bed I get a kiss and a goodnight and I lay there wondering why he’s not saying it, feeling it.
Just can’t bring myself to say it first. I have been raised to believe that it is up to the man to express this emotion first, and have never had to say it first in previous relationships. Guess I have some issues myself. Fear of rejection.
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-- Answer from John --
Fear is an element in relationships that — one way or another — inhibits the development of deeper, authentic intimacy. Ultimately fear is what closes us down and builds walls. I usually favor taking risks and not letting fear hold you back — that it is better to risk everything and be authentic than it is to disguise who you are because you may be afraid of how it will be received. The mask ultimately suffocates us in love, and I know that you are having real problems here holding back authentic expression.
I have been thinking about your situation for a while, wondering what to advise. Should I tell you to just speak your love to him, no matter how he might respond? Of should I advise you to hold back, because maybe this guy is not going to be comfortable with emotions, and maybe you should be wary of triggering his fear? It’s a hard call, because there is risk involved on either side of the equation. Speak up and he might bolt. Hold back, and you risk feeling more and more upset inside yourself, and that may ultimately lead to some unhappy situation. Either way it’s a risk.
So then I started thinking that there is a third course of action. Not to simply say “I love you, and I need to have you verbalize how you feel.” And not to simply hold back, waiting for him to speak up.
You know, there can be several reasons a guy wouldn’t speak his emotions. Or a girl, for that matter. One has to do with fear directly. For instance, you not speaking your feelings because you fear the potential rejection factor. Maybe that is working on him too? Another has to do with personality type. There is one type who tends very much to stay mental, and preferably abstract, and can be very intellectual, but secretive, and is especially afraid of the emotional realm, good or bad feelings alike leading to discomfort. Then there are other possible factors. Social conditioning along gender lines. Wounds from childhood. Etc. Anyway, it would be interesting to probe deeper and see if he is able to articulate anything around feelings at all. Find out what kind of creature you are involved with here. The nature of the beast, and all that.
That leads me to the third course of action. Rather than making the focus on one specific feeling — i.e. “love” and is he able to say “I love you” — turn your focus on a related, but inherently safer topic. One good example would be to propose to him that you want to explore with him — with no preset ideas — his and your ideas about the topic of:
“The Place of Feelings in Love — The Upsides and the Downsides”
Somehow, find a way to invite him into a discussion on this kind of topic.
Even if he is specifically uncomfortable with directly revealing feelings, if you frame the topic of the discussion right, he should be able to express intellectual opinions about this topic “the place of feelings in relationship” — and in the discussion itself — if you make sure the discussion is inviting and interesting and safe –you may actually go on to achieve many of the following next-step kinds of benefits:
1. You may actually open new doors to communicating on the emotional level with him. The discussion about feelings in general could be a direct springboard into revealing specific feelings and take you to a much more intimate, personal level — without you ever having to force open that door directly. Could a kind of paradoxical zen thing just happen like that? There’s only one way to find out.
2. You may learn important things about him which will help you figure out what kind of relationship you could expect here — regarding your current frustration around the lack of emotional expression — and how some of his ideas about feelings in general reveal more about what your longterm expectations might be. This could be data-mined by the right kinds of questions, like “How have feelings played a part in previous relationships? Has there been any negative effects? Is there anything to learn from that? What would be the ideal approach for you, now?” Answers to these kinds of questions could reveal a rich source of information that may be vital to your ability to make a clear choice about whether this relationship is right for you in the longrun.
3. You may help him to explore and learn that talking about feelings can be safe with you (assuming you approach this discussion in a positive way, rather than bringing along your frustrations. You’ll have to be aware of that, because your fears and frustrations would cause such a discussion to backfire and wipe out any of the potential benefits).
4. You may learn enough to figure out how to take the next step together in setting up safety around discussing feelings. Safety is always an important factor. And possibly he is very afraid (?).
At any rate, to summarize, I encourage you to initiate some kind of frank, authentic dialog with this guy. Carefully think about what you want to make the topic of that dialog. I feel that a topic such as I have suggested above would be your best way to be proactive here — and it might actually lead to some constructive, positive and new results.