Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
A couple of months ago, I was on the phone with a police officer. I’d called the non-emergency number to report a minor situation, and after I gave him all my details, he said, “Alright ma’am, we’ll call you if we need any more information.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said. “I love you.”
“Umm,” I laughed nervously. “I mean, bye.”
It was not the first time I’ve accidentally told a complete stranger I love them, and it probably won’t be the last. It’s just habit: I say “I love you” a lot. I say it to my friends when we’re hugging good-bye in the parking lots of bars and coffee shops. I group text it to my loved ones whenever I’m on a plane that’s about to take off. I use it to end every phone conversation, however inconsequential, with my parents, aunts, grandparents. My sister and I joke that we say it so often it’s almost like one polysyllabic word: “okloveyoubye.”
I’ve always been this way. I grew up in a house where we said “I love you” every night before bed and every morning before school. As a teenager, I never once left the house without telling my mom I loved her, and even now, when so many of our conversations eventually turn into fights, I still say “I love you” before angrily hanging up on her.
But for the last five years, I have lived with a man who almost never says “I love you.” Our relationship progression has been pretty typical — lots of passion and butterflies in the beginning, giving way imperceptibly over a couple of years to a comfortable, worn-in kind of happiness. We have fights and we have fun, and I say “I love you” every morning before he goes to work, every time I call to ask if he’ll pick up dog food on his way home, and before I go to the gym or run to the store for potatoes. But after almost 2,000 days of sharing a life with this man, I can count on my hands the number of times he’s said it back.
It bothers me. Of course it bothers me. Sometimes I try to ignore it, or joke that I’m dating Han Solo. Other days, when I’m feeling particularly fragile, his silence sends me into a tailspin: Does he love me? Is he in love with me? Is this relationship going anywhere? An “I love you, too!” doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for, especially when we’ve been together for most of my 20s.
It turns out my predicament is a fairly common one. Researchers have found that in heterosexual relationships, men tend to be the first to say “I love you,” but it’s women who profess their love more often. In a 2006 study by the International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 37.7 percent of women said they frequently tell their partner, “I love you,” while only 18.8 percent of men said the same. On the other end of the spectrum, 31.3 percent of men reported that they used the phrase rarely, and 12.5 percent never said it at all; for women, those numbers were 14.8 percent and zero. Psychologists have also long understood that women are more likely than men to self-disclose — meaning talk about their feelings. A number of other studies have reached similar conclusions: In general, women find it easier to express themselves emotionally, whether they’re talking to a spouse or romantic partner, a family member, a friend or even a complete stranger.
It’s also normal to say — and hear — those “magic words” less often over time. In 2014, market-research firm YouGov surveyed more than 2,000 British adults on the subject of love and emotional expression, and found that only 33 percent of couples who’ve been together a decade or more said “I love you” every day. In relationships that have lasted 50 years, daily “I love you” usage dropped to 18 percent.
That doesn’t mean love can’t stand the test of time, says emotions researcher Aaron Ben-Zeév, founder of the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Emotions at the University of Haifa and author of In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims.
“I make the distinction between romantic intensity and romantic profundity,” Ben-Zeév says. As romantic intensity is diminished over time, he explains, profundity grows, and it’s evidenced not by how often your partner says, “I love you,” but the ways in which they show it.
“As people say, ‘Talk is cheap,’” he says. “Words are easy, and often they don’t carry a profound meaning. What is important is whether you feel in his behavior and actions that he loves you. It’s about his attitude toward you, and the activities you do together. Whether he wants to be with you, do things with you, know your values and adopt some of those values.”
When I tell Ben-Zeév about my “I love you” habit, he lets me know, in no uncertain terms, that I’ve been doing it wrong.
“You should say ‘I love you.’ Even though he knows you love him, and you know he loves you, still it is good to say it,” Ben-Zeév says. “But if you say it all the time, it is meaningless. You can’t use it like hello or good-bye. You must be more selective if you want it to mean anything, if you are trying to express the profundity.”
It’s a curious experience to be admonished by a veritable love doctor. I hadn’t considered that I might be contributing to my own frustration. I was so caught up in my boyfriend’s silence after I said “I love you,” that I’d missed all the other ways he was telling me.
So I started paying closer attention, and I began to hear it all the time: After I spent days trying to master homemade tortillas, he showed up with a cast iron press that makes them perfect. When I went camping in Utah with a girlfriend, he packed and repacked my suitcase with two sleeping bags, a thick insulated liner, and a thermal pad. It weighed a million pounds, but he was determined I’d stay warm. On a recent Saturday morning when a combination of congestion and Nyquil made me sleep through the alarm, he woke me up at noon. “Hey, get up,” he said. “I made you coffee and a waffle,” and I heard, “I’ll take care of you because I love you.”
I still say “ I love you” a lot, but I’m trying to be more careful with it, to make sure that it carries weight. And I’m also trying to be less devastated when my boyfriend says, “I know,” or “Thank you,” or nothing at all in response. Instead, I’m filling that space with all the little things he does and says. Most of them are mundane, but when I add them all up, they feel like something profound.