Aug. 29, 2001 at 12:56 PM ET
"I can sleep with her, marry her, take care of her, but love—that's something else," said Tony, a married man in his late 40s. "Guys don't like to talk about love. They don't know what to say. Of course guys feel love. But they express it differently."
Why don't most men just come out and tell us the way they feel? In my years spent as a therapist, I've learned that love can make men feel vulnerable, childlike and unable to do what's expected of them, especially those who believe they're functioning in a dog-eat-dog world. Still men do love, and different types of men express their love differently. In fact, love means different things to a man, at different times in his life. This means that a woman needs to be alert to who her man is and what love means to him. If you're frustrated with waiting to hear those three magic words, take a look at what your man may already be saying—in other ways:
1. Simply saying "I Love You"
Actually, saying these three words is a huge step for some men. That's because it means a lot more than simply expressing a feeling. For some it feels like a life commitment, for others it is fraught with danger.
"When I say I love you," said Steve, "I feel like I'm taking my life in my hands and giving it to her. It's scary. I've got to really trust her and know she won't throw my love away in order to actually say the words to her." In this case, the fear of rejection comes up strongly. Rejection is enormously painful for most men, and saying "I love you" can be an invitation to be hurt. Most men must feel very secure in the relationship and in the woman's feelings for him before he'll dare say those words.
For others, saying "I love you" means, "I'm offering a commitment. I'm going to be here to do things for you." For many men, love is expressed through action, so these words are a promise of what is to follow. Simply by saying these words they feel they are agreeing to be there, to give to her and support her. If they don't do it, they'll feel like a heel.
When some men say "I love you," it means "I'm not leaving" or "I'll always be faithful." This can be very scary for some men. They feel the words themselves are a promise, and if the promise is broken, they will suffer as well. Men don't want to break their promises to you. Most want to be able to follow through and give you what they want. In the end, they just want you to feel good about them—and to feel good about themselves as well.
2. Offering Tokens of Affection
There are many different kinds of gifts a man can give. The obvious ones include those wrapped in packages, candy, flowers and special notes. But there are others that a woman may or may not be aware of. For example, for some men, giving their time to you is a gift. When they spend more time with you, and less with family and friends, this is their way of saying that they love you. They are choosing to be with you.
Some other men choose other gifts. Whether your partner stands up for you during a difficult time, goes with you to visit your family, does little jobs for you, attends important functions with you, puts you first in his thoughts or plans trips, dates or outings, the message is the same. He loves you. If this sounds like your man, keep in mind he, like many men, may not be comfortable with expressing his feelings directly, so these behaviors are indicators that he cares a great deal. The trick to understanding a guy like this lies in realizing two things: These actions are being generated out of love, and he expects you to know that.
3. PDA—Physical Displays of Affection
Affection can mean anything from handholding to lovemaking. In fact, some men can most easily express their feelings during lovemaking. That's because after being intimate they feel as though they've loved you, and often feel loved as well. The physical contact breaks down barriers and provides a feeling of closeness that cannot be so easily be obtained in another manner for them.
This can be a complex area, because sex can mean so many different things to different individuals. Most women need affection and foreplay as well as the sex because this is what makes them feel loved. Some women even require hearing words of love spoken during this time as well. So when a man is open, giving and affectionate with a woman on an ongoing basis, it is often his way of expressing love. For him, love means meeting her needs and having his needs met as well.
Still other men use sexuality to avoid or cover up areas in the relationship that might be difficult. They feel that if the sex is good, everything else will fall into place. Usually, when the sex is reluctant, or not happening, it is an indicator that something is missing emotionally, or that conflict exists in the relationship. Sex is a sensitive barometer to what's going on in all aspects of one's life.
4. Introducing You to His Family
Another way of saying "I love you" is taking you home to meet the family and close, meaningful friends. This is often an indicator that the man has deeper feelings for you. Not only does it say that that he's proud of you, but he wants to connect you with the people who mean the most to him. He wants you to care about them, and for them to care about you as well. This is a sure sign that intimacy and love are increasing for him, and that you are becoming a significant part of his life. Some women complain a great deal about not having met the family and being kept separate and apart. When this goes on for too long in a relationship, it can be a sign that the depth of his feelings for you, and his involvement, are lacking.
Some men compartmentalize relationships. They have someone for dating, someone for sex, someone else for the kind of love that leads to marriage. By being aware of the people in his life that he introduces you to and includes you with, you can get a good idea of how he operates in this area. Does he want you in all parts of his life, or is this a limited relationship? Love, in the deepest sense, includes sharing all parts of ourselves with another.
It is helpful to keep a little journal of your relationship. So many acts and expressions of love go unnoticed and unfelt, because we simply get used to them or become too busy to stop and take note—or to stop and say thank-you. Take a few minutes each evening to note what you received that day, and also what you gave. Write it down. Be specific. List everything, like phone calls, kind words, a surprise visit, etc. You'll be amazed when you look back and realize all the ways your partner is giving to you. Plus, it'll help you find new ways to give back to him.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.