When I was a kid, my parents were very persnickety about language. For example, whenever I passionately declared that I “loved” ketchup, one of my parents would be sure to correct me by asking “are you going to marry ketchup?” They were instructing me that the word “love” was reserved for the feelings a person has about a life partner and, therefore, not to be used for something as mundane as ketchup. The problem with my parent’s linguistic fanaticism was that they never did suggest an alternative. “I really like ketchup a lot” just didn’t fully capture my passionate feelings about ketchup.
A lot of straight men have this same problem in romantic relationships as adults.
As a relationship progresses and their feelings mature and develop, they soon run out of words to describe how they feel. Just as when I was a kid, “I really like you a lot,” doesn’t seem quite adequate to describe the feeling someone hopes to have about the person they’ve been sleeping with for nine months. Telling their partner “I love you” might seem like the next logical step, but those words are freighted with a lot of meanings in our culture that make both men and women hesitant to use them.
Because we only have the one word, “love,” to describe such a wide range of feelings, and because, like my parents, we are socialized to equate love with marriage, many straight couples get stuck in a bit of a standoff about who is going to use the word first. Women are socialized to believe that marriage is something that women want and men don’t, so they hesitate to say “I love you” for fear that their partner will hear this as a marriage proposal and run for the hills. Men are similarly socialized to believe that marriage is something that they won’t like and should avoid for as long as possible. Men hesitate to use the words “I love you” for fear of giving the impression that it is only a matter of time before the ring follows.
Feminist theory offers men and women a way out of this bind.
In feminist theory, emotional experience is relational, meaning that emotions like love are not an experience that one person has alone, but are mutual experiences- experiences that are shared between two people.
This approach immediately lets men off the hook. Men don’t have to struggle in isolation, trying on their own to figure out the right word to describe how they feel about their partner. Love is an experience that is shared between two people. Whatever any man is feeling is just his own version of what two people in a relationship both feel. The two of them have to work together to figure out the right words to describe how they feel.
From a relational perspective, it is only through intimate relationships that we become most fully ourselves. Everyone has within them the potential for the full range of emotional experience. We are all capable of feeling everything, but that potential only comes fully alive in relationships. For example, I might think of myself as a person who does not get angry. No matter what the circumstances, I pride myself on never getting angry. However, if my wife announces one day that she’s in love with another man, and is taking the children and moving to Alaska to be with him, I will hopefully discover that I actually do have the capacity to feel anger, just like everyone else does
So it is with love.
Everyone has the capacity to love someone else, we only learn about that capacity in intimate relationships. One of the most wonderful things about love is that it makes you a bigger person, more fully yourself. From this perspective, men don’t have to worry so much about whether or not to say “I love you,” because love is not just a feeling you have about another person, but also a description of how you feel about yourself in a particular relationship. From this perspective, “I love you,” really means, “I love myself when I’m with you,” which should be a lot less threatening for men to say.