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Why Is It So Hard to Say "I Love You"?

We take a risk when we express our love directly.

fizkes/Adobe Stock
Source: fizkes/Adobe Stock

I was thinking of a friend of mine recently—not a terribly close friend, but a guy I like talking to when we run into each other. We connect easily and have known each other for a long time, and we seem to understand one another.

As I thought of my friend, I remembered his recent birthday and realized with a bit of alarm that both of us were almost certainly in the second half of our lives. I felt a real pang of sadness as I imagined his leaving this world, and thought to myself, I really like that guy.

And then I thought, No, I love him. It’s true—the feelings I have for him are more than simply “liking” or “caring about” him. And I also realized I would probably never tell him that I felt love for him. Even as I wrote the previous sentence, I chose to say “I felt love for him” rather than simply, “I love him.”

I don’t think I’m alone in this difficulty with baldly expressing my love. Why is it often so hard to speak frankly about loving people outside our family and romantic relationships, and even to tell them, “I love you”? If it’s true, what stops us from saying it?

What Does “Love” Mean?

Of course, it depends on how we define “love.” Unfortunately, our concept of love is often limited by the idea of being “in love” with another person, with butterflies in our stomachs and a compulsive need to be with them. But that hearts-and-roses version of love falls short of what it means to truly love another.

Perhaps the best way to define love is to ask ourselves how we would like to be loved. Robert A. Heinlein said love is “that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” That definition seems to fit many of our close relationships, and I suspect most of us would like to be loved in that way.

M. Scott Peck’s definition in his bestselling book The Road Less Traveled seems to come from the same place: “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing … another’s spiritual growth.” Both of these expressions of love describe an overarching care for another person—wanting the best for them and being willing to do something to make their life better.

Descriptions of love in religious traditions often echo these concepts. When Jesus said to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), for example, he probably didn’t mean to “be in love” with them. Rather, love meant showing genuine care for another person.

Love Is All Around You

These definitions of love seem to apply to more than our family members and romantic partners. I have no doubt that many teachers enact these concepts of love toward their students. Many doctors demonstrate real love for their patients, and patients often have reciprocal feelings and wishes toward their doctors. We don’t want strictly technical support when we’re sick; we want to believe the other person actually cares about us, and that they’ll be happier when we’re happier. One of the most common compliments I read on reviews of doctors is that they “really seemed to care.” Love probably has a lot to do with the so-called “placebo” response—a sugar pill dispensed by a loving hand is not an inert substance.

While it seems taboo to say it, love would seem to be the driving force behind effective psychotherapy, too. As a therapist, and having been in therapy myself, I know that love is often in the room. Most therapists seem drawn to the field at least in part because they genuinely care about others and want to improve their lives. And yet having a personal investment in a client’s recovery might be labeled as therapist “countertransference.” Expressing (non-romantic) love for a client would likely be considered a "boundary crossing," if not an outright ethical violation.

Love isn’t limited to the helping professions, either. Any work can be offered up with love: mopping a floor, preparing food, driving a truck. Love is even expressed between strangers—obvious examples include letting another driver go in front of you, offering a parent your seat on a train so they can sit with their child, yelling to the driver to wait for someone running to catch the bus, even donating a kidney to someone you’ve never met. Why do people extend themselves for others whom they’ll probably never meet again?

I recently discussed these issues with poet Dr. Ross Gay on the Think Act Be podcast. He noted how routinely we look out for one another in public spaces. “In a subway terminal, it’s common practice when someone with a baby carriage gets to the steps, that someone who does not know that person is going to pick up the front of that baby carriage and get on up the stairs with that person.” Similarly, we help people with their heavy luggage, “in that gentle, tender way” that expects nothing in return.

Gay believes we express love for others in these ways because we know we’re the other person at times—if not in the past, then in the future. “You help someone with their heavy luggage because we all need help with our luggage,” he said. “We all need help. We all need to be taken care of and held.” And he has no reservations about calling it what it is: “That is absolutely an expression of love.”

And yet expressing our love is not without risk. “To say you love another person is a kind of extreme vulnerability,” said Gay. “Because if what you love gets hurt or gets taken away, then you, too, are going to be hurt or diminished.” Maybe that’s why I was reluctant to call what I felt for my friend “love”—it hurts more to lose a person we love than someone we “really like.”

Love Is Your Nature

Despite the daily expressions of love we give and receive, there are countless examples of unloving behavior—meanness, abuse, spitefulness, neglect. These experiences can make it easy to overlook instances of love. But when we pay attention, we’ll likely discover a commonplace love that fills the space around us. Gay underscores this point in his Book of Delights:

“In almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking…. This caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always.”

In public spaces, “terrible touch is an aberration,” Gay said. “Sweet touch—helping someone up, letting someone know it’s their turn to go by tapping them on the shoulder or forearm … That is actually the ground of our existence. We mostly do understand how to care for one another. And those little moments of public physical interaction are probably evidence of that.”

Some men may find it harder to demonstrate love because of stereotypes about masculinity. This struggle to express love safely is captured in expressions like, “I love you … man.” I used to believe the myth that “tough guys” don’t have “mushy feelings” like love. But if you know any tough guys—or if you’re one yourself—you know that nothing could be farther from the truth. Some of the toughest people I know have the softest hearts and the fiercest love.

For Gay, no matter who we are, expressing our love is imperative if we want to protect what we care about. “We need to practice noticing and articulating and hollering about what we love,” he said, “because it helps us to preserve those things.”

The complete conversation with Dr. Ross Gay is available here: Attending to the Love That Surrounds Us.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock


Gay, R. (2019). The book of delights. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

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