What We Mean When We Say ‘I Love You’

In the last of a five-part series on love and relationships, Tom Matlack and author Laura Munson debate the question: Do men and women mean the same thing when they say ‘I love you’?

MUNSON: I have to believe that the notion and experience of love are not gender-specific, nor are they culture-specific. I wrote a book about what happened when my husband told me he didn’t love me anymore and wasn’t sure he ever did. I didn’t believe him and chose to give him room to work through and heal from what I believed was a crisis of self brought on by sudden career failure. And he did heal—and we’re still together. I am deeply grateful for that. Some marriages are meant to end. I didn’t feel that ours was—and it turned out that he didn’t either.

I have heard from people around the world, married and unmarried, men and women, gay and straight, responding with gratitude for my book’s message, which is one of personal responsibility in crisis—one of non-reaction and a commitment to finding the freedom of the moment, no matter what’s going on in your life and no matter the outcome of the ordeal. In an interview with a reporter from Tel Aviv, I asked, “I wonder how Israelis will respond to this message.” She paused and said, “I don’t care where you’re from or what religion you are or what social group, the words ‘I don’t love you’ are universally ones we fear and dread.”

I have found that to be true, so I believe that the reverse of those words is just as universal. We long for the words “I love you,” whether we are women or men. We long for the fulfillment and intimacy of relationships. But that “I love you,” in order to be authentic, has to start with the person who is expressing that emotion. That “I love you” has to begin within. If you don’t love yourself, however are you to love me?

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MATLACK: I’m with you on the ideal of love being universal, across gender lines. But the way we get to that ideal is different, requiring that we overcome gender-specific obstacles. I have no idea if it is genetic or learned, but little girls and little boys grow up with very different conceptions of what romantic love is all about. I grant that there are as many different variations on the theme as there are human beings, but in general, women see love as a thing at the center of their existence and men see it as something to be conquered, dealt with, and at worst lied about. Your husband’s story, like my own, points to the difficulty guys have just being honest with others and ourselves when it comes to love.

When we’re young, a guy saying he loves a woman might just mean he wants to sleep with her. My sense, though I only have secondhand reports on this, is that young women generally perceive that, for guys, sex is an expression of love—rather than the other way around.

Guys eventually warm to the idea that there might be just one woman out there that will meet all their needs—but the word love still scares us. I have heard it too many times to count: guys think that if they fall in love and commit, they are giving up options for other women.

But it isn’t about the sex or about the lack of freedom, it’s about the fear of looking ourselves in the mirror and feeling disconnected to the guy staring back at us. I don’t think guys cheat because they think it’s a good idea to sleep around on their wives and kids. Inability to commit isn’t the cause of infidelity; it’s a product of fear and self-loathing. As you suggest, you can’t hate yourself and love someone else.

Some guys never get there. But by the time we reach 46—which is where both my wife and I are now—we have the emotional maturity to see the true and lasting benefits of love and commitment. Guys eventually catch up with the smarter and more mature gender, to see ourselves worthy and capable of giving (and receiving) love without doubt.

Guys like me know we are lucky to cuddle in bed with the perfect woman—in other words, one who has seen the good, the bad, and the very ugly, and stuck around despite it all. And when we say we are “in love,” it is with an equal conviction to that of our female counterparts.

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MUNSON: I find it so true and so unfortunate that the words I love you are so loaded—manipulation, transference, co-dependence being some of it. I agree that emotional maturity comes with age and long-term relationships. I always tell my teenage daughter that people are not capable of being equal loving partners until they are much older—and to focus on her female friendships. I didn’t make that choice when I was younger, and spent most of my time with longterm boyfriends. While I don’t regret those relationships, I do wish I’d skipped the adolescent drama and focused on nurturing friendships instead. When I said I love you back then, it was very different than the I love you I offer now to my husband of 20 years. That I love you is loaded in a different way. It means Thank you, I respect you, I believe in you, I believe in us.

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Tom Matlack and Laura Munson debate other questions about modern love:

Why do young women and older men get along so well?

Are stay-at-home dads macho?

How important is physical appearance to longterm fidelity?

What’s more important to a good marriage—great sex or fighting fair?

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Laura A. Munson, author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, wrote one of the most widely read and talked about New York Times Modern Love columns ever: “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” She lives with her family in Montana. You can visit her website and find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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—Photo by Koinos Zoi Photography/Flickr

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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. David Wise says:

    “Guys like me know we are lucky to cuddle in bed with the perfect woman.” Really? Hee, hee

  2. Female Feedback says:

    I liked this article and I agree that boys too often are not taught to love themselves in a healthy way. Boys’ emotional lives and needs for connection when they are dependent infants, toddlers, gradeschoolers all the way up to age 23 or 24 when their brains are grown and they are getting economic autonomy, are shamed out of them, sometimes by the label that this is “gay.” How are you supposed to love yourself when you don’t even know who you are. As sex therapist Jack Morin says in “The Erotic Mind” it is this lack of self-knowledge that creates the “fragile male ego” that many women complain about.

    But this fragility is unnecessary. We can do much better by our sons, recognizing how they need connection, validation and emotional protection from both their parents all the way through their infancy and childhood. Then they don’t have “to eventually catch up with the smarter and more mature gender, to see [them]selves worthy and capable of giving (and receiving) love without doubt.” They’ll have it all along and can use it more readily with wives and children.

    I also wanted to mention the difference between real love and sentimental love. I think of Valentine’s Day as often being about sentimental love and I hate it. I’m no surprised many men hate it too. Real love is instead about really knowing your partner and letting your partner know you. This is very peaceful and very relaxing and, according to sex therapist David Schnarch, actually makes sex much better as well.

    • I second every word of that comment, FF. Awesome comment.

    • This!

      Children know what they are taught. If boys grow up not knowing what love means, it’s because they didn’t learn it at home. Solution: teach boys love. Teach them snuggling, and good touching, and how to say “I love you” when you mean it.

    • Being a mom to a son who is 13, I found he was my most sensitive child of my three children, and they are girls. I have always connected to my son because of his sensitivity. You could say I’m tuned in. When he is feeling disconnected from his feelings, and words cannot be expressed, his music is his flow. His feelings spill out through his music, amazing creativity!

      Sometimes there are no words, and there are outlets that are there for the flow. I don’t stifle it, I bask in it. I am here either way. Unfortunately, society does have a warped view of boys in many ways as it does girls, and I think there truly is a difference in each learn and think and grow.

      As I watch him grow into teen-hood, I know he will be a great and worthy man as he is a son because of his sensitivity, creativity, altruism and intellect. Look out world!

  3. “Guys eventually catch up with the smarter and more mature gender, to see ourselves worthy and capable of giving (and receiving) love without doubt.”

    Hey. No sucking up. I have a 26 year old friend who knows plenty of women in their 40s (and I mean KNOWS) who still act like they’re in college with the way they flirt and pick up men. And although I hate gender stereotypes, the only way I can think to describe this is these women act like young men in college fraternities. And my 26 year old friend claims he goes after these older women because they just don’t care anymore, they’ve gotten rid of the idea of romantic love.

  4. Sorry, Matlack, but infidelity, like crime is a product of a surfeit of self-esteem, not a dearth of it.

    • Female Feedback says:

      Some people use the term “self-esteem” pretty loosely and, you’re right, that arrogance, grandiosity, dominance, superficial high self-regard can sometimes get the label “self-esteem.” The traits actually go along with an inner shame, though.

      I think the more correct use of the term is when one knows one’s own thoughts, feelings, motivations, etc. and respects them but does not act on them when they are not in one’s self-interest. Infidelity has a lot of costs along with its benefits; the arrogant, grandiose person would not consider the costs, whereas the healthy self-esteem person would. Also, the arrogant, grandiose person with inner shame might feel he does not deserve love, intimacy, etc. and his fear/shame around some of his own feelings would make it difficult for him to accomplish emotional intimacy and thus to make a commitment to a wife or children.

      • I’m inclined to think it’s self-esteem exactly as Branden describes it. Ayn Rand would be proud.

        • Female Feedback says:

          Ayn Rand doesn’t believe in feelings or relationships or love at all, no?

          • It’s been awhile since I gritted my teeth and got through “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” for a second time. And as to your question, I can only say—-I’m not sure.

      • I have seen this in the lives of friends and relatives. As a person gains real esteem for themselves, they shed the arrogance and grandiosity that hid their poor estimation of themselves.

  5. I was in touch with my emotions in grade school. Then, when puberty hit, it was the schools that taught me what the changes inside meant. It was the schools, and not a mature father-figure, that taught me that some hairy spots and the random erection meant i was becoming a man, and “this” is what I should/could do with it.

    Now i find myself trying to tap into that 11 year old, because I can’t find my emotions anymore. Do I have to make it to 46 until reaching the emotional maturity of a tween and actually having the vocabulary this time around to know what I’m feeling?

    I may not have had the emotional maturity to have fully understood what “I love you” meant in my early twenties, but I did know that it meant I would never let that woman go, and i haven’t, and i never will.

    • Female Feedback says:

      Do I have to make it to 46 until reaching the emotional maturity of a tween and actually having the vocabulary this time around to know what I’m feeling?

      You can recover your emotional life and articulate it, and you don’t have to wait to be 46. I’m a female but I grew up in a very emotionally repressive home and have had to do this myself. I’ve done years of therapy, which is very helpful but also expensive if you don’t have insurance that covers it. Terry Real’s books “I Don’t Want To Talk About It,” “How Do I Get Through To You” and “The New Rules of Marriage” are all about recovering emotional lives, with a particular focus on men.

      I think support groups can always help. I always think of Edward Norton at the beginning of “Fight Club” going around to the support groups to try to cry so he can sleep. The parallel for this in women is trying to get access to anger so you can sleep. Not that I would advocate going to support groups for diseases that you don’t have like Norton does. :)

  6. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    I’m not sure men are naturally as monogamous as women (or even if women are close to the ideal of monogamy.) I think one can “commit” and still be attracted, even act on it, even if deeply in love with a partner. One should avoid this of course, but I don’t think there is a “safe zone” that one reaches through committment.

    Sometimes I feel that this site (which is wonderful) wrongly pathologizes fairly normal aspects of human nature.

  7. wellokaythen says:

    I realize these have to be short writing pieces, but I think there are some pat explanations of infidelity here. It can be from low self-esteem and grandiosity and total disregard for the consequences but those aren’t the only explanations. I don’t believe that it’s impossible for a healthy, well-adjusted person to be unfaithful. I don’t believe that if only everyone really, truly thought about the consequences of infidelity there would be no extramarital affairs. The explanation for infidelity could also include issues in the relationship, not just failings inside one person. Not all fear in one’s life is unfounded, for one thing.

  8. I can see that this story is recycled from 2011, but it might be interesting to know that Laura Munson is now divorced from her then-husband.

  9. I thought this could have been more useful. I liked Munson’s musings, but not Matlack’s “Guys do this” and “Guys think that” gender-stereotype stuff. Really, do people really think there is a “guy” boilerplate that acts and thinks a certain way? There is a cultural image of a “guy” but how many actual men live that completely? And those who do, aren’t they basically emotionally stunted followers who learn how to live from Maxim magazine?

    I’ve had issues with the words “i love you” lately, when saying them to women. I can hear “i love you” as an expression of deep caring, and that is how i mean it most of the time. But then i get feedback that it means otherwise to some people some of the time. And that frustrates me a lot.

    Why can’t i use the words “i love you” to mean that i really care deeply about you? Why can’t i say “i love you” without you thinking that i am going to spend the rest of my life with you and that i want wild, passionate sex with you tonight? It’s only some people who give me the advice not to use the words “i love you” and other people who say it themselves to me, and mean it as an expression of human love, without requirements or strings attached.

    A couple of people who seem to be unable to hear “i love you” as anything other than “i want to marry you” i have changed to using the phrase “i care for you” but it seems wooden and hollow to me. Doesn’t everyone need to be able to adjust how they hear things based on common usage and particular people’s meanings? Like if there is a kid in your life who calls you “dude” and maybe you bristle at it the first time but find out he’s a good caring kid, then maybe you won’t hear it so harshly the next time. We adjust. We are linguistic creatures. We learn from context.

    Articles like this one seem to forget that, and make us humans into cookie cutter “guys” and “ladies” and shiesse like that. Not Munson, but Matlock’s generalizations. I know we grow up gendered, with cultural definitions, and also there is some sociobiology at work, hormones and developmental things, but we’re conscious beings. I’m from Earth, not Mars, and so are women i love. Let’s get back to Earth. Come on.

  10. Love can be a minefield. You meet someone, and you need to unpack their history and psychology to understand what love means to them, specifically in your relationship with them. I feel the need to be careful with women i may consider being involved with, and also careful with myself. I have been hurt so badly in the past by women who have judged me by their assumptions and not by my actions, and who have been psychologically predisposed to see me as a monster because something triggered their past associations with men who have mistreated them to an extreme, sometimes parents who have sexually and physically abused them, sometimes men in their earlier relationships who have treated them very badly. And i mean psychological injuries to the level of trauma and dissociation, which then swings upon me and brands me as a monster for some length of time, until they snap out of that again.

    I can be too naive and too trusting. At least i have been in my past. That has led me to think that i could say things in words and have them hold. Sometimes that’s possible, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you can say that you’re not committed but the other person will want to see otherwise, and will act accordingly, and then get extremely angry and retributive when it comes to pass that you are actually *not* committed in the way that they want. But i call that some combination between irresponsible self-delusion and being an injured and broken child-like person to begin with. Recognizing that level of damage and inability to use words effectively becomes a survival skill, one that i have had to learn at very high personal cost.

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