Why Saying ‘I Love You’ Can Be a Challenge

Georgetown, Washington DC, 2019

I work with clients who struggle with not being able to say I love you to their partners, friends, family members, and even their children. Many are in my office because this has been impacting their relationships.

“There is no decision without loss,” writes psychologist Dr. Stan Tatkin. In my own work with couples, families, and individuals, I have written that telling someone you love them without needing a particular response from them is key. You do it just because it’s true. You’re making a statement about yourself and your feelings, and that has been shown to have benefits purely in terms of identity, self-worth, and emotional health.

Some reasons why people struggle to say the L word:

Fear of Rejection
Of course, one of the strongest fears that keeps us from saying we love someone is the fear of being rejected or even abandoned. When we open up to another, we take away a layer of self-protection, and that allows us to be more easily hurt.

Missing Role Models
Many people haven’t seen tenderness expressed between partners, parents, families, and close friends. They could have grown up in a family where saying those three words was not part of the family culture or have a friend group that does not engage in verbal affection.

Vulnerability
Saying those words can bring up a lot of fear that comes from a place of feeling too exposed or vulnerable. For people who have a hard time letting their guard down, “I love you” might be daunting.

Feelings of unworthiness
Giving and receiving love is ideally reciprocal. However, many individuals who suffer from depression, low self-esteem, or a history of interpersonal loss may feel unworthy of being loved.

Transactional relationships
Saying I love you can be used as currency to keep the relationship in presumed equilibrium. This is a frequent one that I hear from couples who state that when they express their love they do not receive the same verbal response. Often, this leads to a sense of feeling unloved when that may not actually be the case at all.

Communication differences
Autism spectrum disorder and language-based disorders, including aphasia and dyspraxia, can alter the way that people communicate and express their feelings. For example, individuals on the spectrum, may have a lot of difficulty getting out the words “I love you,” labeling their own feelings, and recognizing emotions in others.

Mental health issues
Someone who has trauma or an anxiety disorder may have a lot of difficulty expressing their true feelings. Read more about the fear of expressed emotions here, What Is Affect Phobia?

Verbal Acknowledgement
Some people use a substitute phrase to fill in the space after being told “I love you.” It may be “Me, too,” or “Back ‘atcha,” or “You know.” This can make some people feel less vulnerable or obligated to say I love you back.

Actions as Love Language
Others might use actions to demonstrate their love. For many folks, scraping frost off the car on a cold morning, walking the dog so a roommate or partner can sleep in, cooking a special meal, and other thoughtful gestures can demonstrate love without saying the words.

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