While some people have no problem saying “I love you” — whether it’s to a partner, family member, or friend — others do. Take Jessica (whose name has been changed for privacy), for instance. A year into dating her boyfriend, he never uttered the three words. “Through his actions, it seemed like he loved me,” she tells TZR. “But through his words, I didn’t have a clue. Finally, I said it one night — and silence. Thinking maybe he didn’t hear me, I said it again. He muttered ‘I love you’ back so quietly, I barely heard it.”
She didn’t initiate saying it again — and neither did her boyfriend. Months later, in couples therapy, she learned that he’d grown up in a household where it hadn’t been said. “It was a lightbulb moment for me,” Jessica says. “I’d been taking it personally and feeling rejected, but now I realized it was not his fault — he just didn’t know how to say it.”
“Because love is an emotion, it gets stronger when it’s exercised, just like a muscle,” Thomas Edwards, Jr., founder of The Professional Wingman and author of The 1up Effect, tells TZR. “If you haven’t had experience being told ‘I love you,’ chances are, you will have a hard time saying it yourself. I personally grew up in a household where it wasn’t said much, and even though I felt the love, it’s still not the same as it being said out loud. As an adult, I ended up struggling with saying it a lot.”
In fact, when Edwards was dating his wife, he told her, “Don’t expect me to say ‘I love you’ a lot — it’s just not something I say. But when I say it, you’ll know it’s legit.” What he says he didn’t realize at the time was “when we don’t experience love being expressed to us in words throughout our life, we become really protective of the words when we share them with other people. Those who don’t hear it often don’t ever want to be in a position where they say it and it’s not said in return. The feeling of rejection is their worst nightmare.”
Ahead, Edwards and other relationship experts share how to say “I love you” if you’re in a similar situation — you want to say it, but it just doesn’t come naturally to you.
Why Someone May Not Be Saying ‘I Love You’
“It is easier for some folks to say ‘I love you’ because they grew up in an environment where it was the norm, and so it doesn’t feel odd, forced, or scary,” Dr. Donna Oriowo, owner and lead therapist at AnnodRight, tells TZR in an email. “Yet some people don’t say it — or can’t say it — because they don’t feel it. Or they may fear losing a place of standing, like power, in the relationship.” Another possible reason is that people with secure attachment don’t have the same anxiety or fear of rejection when it comes to saying it, Oriowo explains, while those with preoccupied, dismissive, or fearful attachment could.
“For many people, saying those three little words can be very vulnerable,” Andrea Wachter, psychotherapist, author, and Insight Timer teacher, tells TZR in an email. “It may be more than they feel ready to handle at the time. And, sometimes, people may feel it, but are afraid it’s not reciprocated, so it doesn’t feel safe to voice.” Yet another reason may be that the person wants to keep their independence and they feel that stating their love will change that, she explains.
But there are also deeper psychological reasons someone may not say it. “They may have experienced a person saying, ‘I love you,’ but then coupling that expression with an abusive behavior,” Keischa Pruden, therapist and owner of Pruden Counseling Concepts, tells TZR in an email. “That can lead a person to avoid saying it altogether.” Wachter echoes Pruden, adding that some people may have come from a family who professed their love, but had a lot of dysfunction. “This can lead to confusing messages about what true, safe love even means.”
Show Your Love Through Your Actions
“If a person has difficulty saying ‘I love you,’ it does not mean all hope is lost,” says Pruden. “There are more ways to express your love for someone other than verbally. They may give gifts or spend quality time with those they love.” Oriowo agrees and says to watch for other ways the person says they love you (or you, them). “It could be through cooking, buying favorite foods, backrubs and touches, and so on,” she says. “Think of the 5 Love Languages: words of affirmation; quality time; physical touch; acts of service; and receiving gifts.”
How To Get More Comfortable Saying ‘I Love You’
If you want to say “I love you,” but feel blocked, Pruden says it’s important to understand why you’re experiencing difficulty verbalizing your feelings and then addressing the issue. “Therapy is not necessarily needed for this process,” she says. “But if a person’s inability to say ‘I love you’ is causing personal or relational distress, a therapist could certainly help that person address any past issues or trauma. This can then help create a more emotionally healthy environment for them and their relationship(s).”
Edwards suggests practicing saying “I love you,” as well. “The first place to start is to look yourself in the mirror, eye-to-eye, and say it to yourself,” he says. “It’s very likely you are the creation of love that was shared between your parents. When you feel the love you have for yourself, it gets a lot easier to have love for others.” If vulnerability is a struggle, he recommends practicing saying “I love you” in a safe space, like with a trusted friend or therapist.
“I went from rarely saying ‘I love you’ to my partner to not only saying it to her every day, but saying it every day to my family, male friends, and, sometimes, total strangers,” says Edwards. “Like any muscle, your ability to say it will get stronger, but it also requires you to build the emotional muscle of vulnerability, which can be challenging for some.” Oriowo adds that you can practice saying what you love about your partner/the person as a way to practice using the word “love” in association with them. “You can try saying, ‘I love the way you smile’ or ‘I love your laugh,” she says.
Wachter also suggests journaling as an exploratory exercise. “Try writing the words, ‘I love you,’ followed by the name of the person you have been afraid to say it to,” she says. “Then write down any thoughts or feelings that arise. This exercise can also be done out loud if that‘s preferred to writing, but putting pen to paper can often bring up deep and important beliefs and emotions.”
However, she adds that it’s also important not to say it if you don’t feel it and not to push yourself to do what you’re simply not ready to do. “It’s reasonable to get support and/or do some inner exploration if you do feel the love and want to say it, but there’s something blocking you,” she explains. “And, as the old saying goes, it can be challenging to love others if you don’t love yourself, so make sure to check in regularly about how you are treating and speaking to yourself.”
Edwards adds that when he first started hearing “I love you” from other men, whether they were friends or family members, it felt strange. “Yet, at the same time, it was something I needed to hear,” he explains. “It was in those moments that I felt safe and more willing to say it back without feeling completely strange.” Now, it’s a part of his daily conversation with others. “And the best part is, the more love you express — to yourself, family, loved ones, friends, and even strangers — the more your capacity to love increases,” he adds.