“I love you” I said as we snuggled on the couch watching movies.
The evening suddenly took on the feel of a family gathering where Jr. drops the F-bomb in front of Grandma.
We had known each other for years before we started dating and few months into our “couple-hood” I had no doubt that what I felt was love. But instead of completing the romantic moment, Neil looked at me and said, “It is going to be a while before I can say that”.
I had no way of knowing that more than 5 years later – and having lived together for most of it – I still would not have heard those words from him.
And, what is even more surprisingly, I am mostly okay with it.
Neil has more than the normal allotment of stereotypical male communication issues. On the other hand, words are really important to me and I am definitely a communicator. I’ve always wondered why in the world he chose me – a writer who finds it easy to voice my feelings and is deeply passionate and outspoken about a million different things when he so clearly is…NOT.
Neil is very reserved and my zest for engaging life to the fullest must push his buttons in addition to our opposing communication styles. But even in that awkward conversation about love, he has never shied away from me. In fact, his whole-hearted commitment to me when I must drive him crazy, is part of how I know he feels the words he finds so difficult to utter.
So, I keep saying “I love you” and he routinely responds: “Why now?”
Even though asking “why now” is probably intimacy avoidance at its finest, it has given me a deeper understanding of my own layers of relationship and connection. I am sure Neil doesn’t intend to come across as an emotional ascetic – maybe he is learning what love is. It seems that I certainly am.
My best guy friend was thrown off when a girl he was dating said she loved him. He called me in a panic: “I don’t know what to do! It is too early! I like her a lot but I don’t know where this is going and it is too much right now”.
“I tell you I love you all the time and I have loved you for years. What is the big deal with this?” I ask.
“It is different.” He answered. But I wondered why? Was he worried that that statement of love was full of expectation? Ownership? Exclusivity? What do we mean when we tell someone “I love you”? What do I mean when I say it to Neil?
“I love you,” I say. We are playing golf, the sun is shining and there is an eagle flying overhead. My score is pretty good for once, the friends we are playing with are laughing and everything is glorious. “Why now?” Neil asks. Because we get to share this moment. We enjoy each other’s company and seek it out instead of finding it tiresome; we have common things to laugh at and do together. In our playtime I get to see us as friends, not just who we are in our relationship.
“I love you”. We are watching the finals on a TV talent show in which the performance has been breathtaking, and I look over to see a tear running down his face. “Why now?” Because he feels for these people, for their hard work, for the heart they put into what they do. He appreciates the beauty, lets himself be moved and doesn’t pretend otherwise. His sensitivity and innocence are why I am with him. I am reminded of what a good man he is.
“I love you.” I am on a hospital gurney getting ready for surgery to remove cancer from my body. Things will never be the same, life is uncertain and I am terrified. “Why now?” he says ever so softly. Because love is all I have to hold onto. I need to hear something in my voice besides fear, and need to know that I part of something more than cancer. Through my love I remind myself of who I am and how much bigger life is than this illness.
“I love you” I say with a sigh. Frustration edges my voice. We are having a disagreement that stems from his inability to communicate and my tendency to make up for it by over doing it. “Why now?” He doesn’t believe me – I can hear it in his voice. I don’t blame him for his doubts, but the truth is that even when I am mad I wouldn’t chose to be anywhere else (or at least not for long!). Either one of can chose to leave, but instead we slog through the tough times together knowing there is more than just this moment. I appreciate his willingness to keep trying and am grateful that we respect for each other too much to demand that our individual position is the only correct one.
We are a society that throws “I love you” around a lot. We say it lightheartedly to people we barely know, toss it around when we are happy, and end conversations with it habitually. I’ve slipped up and said it as I am hanging up the phone when it was clearly inappropriate and not meant. Too many times in the past I have said it without thinking about what it means. Often what I intended by the words was felt as something different to the person hearing it. That doesn’t mean I should say it less – in fact, post-cancer, I probably say it more than I ever have. I just am conscious of what it means to me when I do.
When I pay attention to saying “I love you” to anyone – especially Neil, I come to a deeper understanding of what is going on inside me moment to moment. It challenges me to use language that is more descriptive to build a fuller picture of my feelings and fill in the gaps so that the person I am addressing understands what “I love you” means for me. By doing so, I give them space to experience the intent instead of getting tangled up in the baggage. And more importantly, I am better able to speak from my heart when I know what really resides there.
“Why Now?” may very well be a stalling or diversionary tactic from a man emotionally tied in knots, but through the untangling of my own I have become a better person. As I discover why I love, I am better able to actually DO the emotion of love.
And love is something we all could get better giving AND receiving.