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