Try an unscientific survey. Ask your male friends how often their fathers said “I love you” when they were growing up. Whatever frequency they report, cut that in half. That’s probably what really happened. Men today know that they were supposed to hear it from their dads. They also know that they didn’t. The real problem is that they don’t know what to make of the consequences.
What are the consequences? What’s the big deal about “I love you?” Everything. When parents say “I love you,” kids learn that they are loveable. To be clear, when I use the word “loveable,” I don’t mean it in a puppy-dog, America’s Sweetheart way. I mean feeling worthy of love by the people who matter to you. Feeling loveable in childhood is the bedrock for healthy friendships, work/life balance, partnerships and parenting behaviors in adulthood. In short all the things that matter in life.
Women need to feel loveable too, so why am I focused on men? Because boys in our culture are simply not seen as loveable in the ways that girls are. They are considered to have behavior problems because they tend to be more physically active. They are dressed less imaginatively so they don’t get noticed as often. They are given less positive feedback by families in general. And on top of all that, the ‘Myth of Masculinity’ in our and many other moderns cultures is grounded in competition and aggression. Love doesn’t thrive in an environment ruled by either of these things.
So if you’re a dad raising a son, why should you bother to push yourself to say these words? What exactly does saying, “I love you” do for their lives as men?
1. Boys can develop a belief that they are attached to someone – firmly – simply because that person loves them. At least one parent – preferably two – has got their back no matter what. Boys learn they can rely on that connection. It is unconditional – they don’t have to do anything to earn it or keep it. Having that unconditional love as a boy means that in adulthood they won’t be as likely to work compulsively to get approval. Men who don’t feel loveable seek approval – think promotions, more money, whatever feels like a “win” – as a proxy for feeling loved. Validation from others feels ever so slightly like love and they need that feeling like they need air, food and water. If they didn’t feel unconditionally loveable as a boy, they think these “wins” are as good as it gets. Boys who feel loveable become men who know that “winning” is not love.
2. Boys can learn that love is a powerful force – one that keeps people choosing each other through good times and bad. Too many men don’t understand what love is. They think that romantic love equates to frequent sex or coldly harmonious cohabitation or praise from their partners. They don’t feel connected by the powerful pull of attachment because – having not felt an unconditional attachment to their dads – they don’t know how to create it. Even if they have partners who reach out again and again with bids for connection they either miss the chance to accept those bids or they outright reject them in favor of other activities or people. An attachment with a partner – or for that matter even a friend – can only stand that neglect so long before it becomes brittle and breaks. Boys who feel a powerful connection to their dads understand deep in their bones the importance of meeting another person’s bids for connection. And they do meet those bids. Making them bonded, emotionally-stable adults, far more capable of resilient relationships with others.
3. Boys can find that long-term, healthy attachment with their partners feels familiar and valuable, not dull. When their partners put out a bid for connection they pick it up most of the time. They even put out bids back. By comparison, men who don’t feel lovable don’t love others very well. They are preoccupied, they take their partners for granted. They stay away too much working or act overly focused on hobbies. They unwittingly communicate that their partners are not lovable either. When men know what it feels like to feel loved, they can spot unconditional love when it’s coming their way and give it back.
4. Boys become men who can receive love, but they can also manage to set their own needs aside to take care of their partners. Men who don’t feel lovable have a hard time stepping up to meet their partner’s needs. They feel overwhelmed hearing about their partner’s upset feelings. They don’t want to listen so they try to solve the problem or criticize the partner. They ignore the partner’s needs out of emotional overwhelm and a fear that they can’t meet those needs.
As if these weren’t enough to damage a partnership, men who don’t feel lovable often seek extra-marital affairs. Approval from a new person is so pure, so unadulterated by the responsibility to take care of that person’s emotional needs. Once in an affair they find themselves swept up in how good it feels to be appreciated. Remember: feeling loved is as important as air, food and water and appreciation from a new object of affection feels life-giving. The only problem is this: they can’t see that person as a human being. That person has one job: to make him feel loved. Once the affair partner starts expressing needs that require some personal sacrifice, the affair isn’t quite as compelling. Then, that person gets left behind too.
5. Boys can learn how to pass love on. Boys become men, who then become fathers, who then teach a whole new crop of men how to live. If you know a little boy with a father in his life, you only have to see how he looks at his dad to know how hungry boys are for love and attention. Too many men are busy struggling through their own upset feelings – feelings they can’t manage because they didn’t have unconditionally loving, reliable attachments to their fathers – to even see the look in their little boy’s eyes. Men who felt attached to their dads manage stressful feelings better, are more available to their sons and find joy in being with their boys. They teach the boys, “I love you,” “I believe in you,” “I can rely on you to do things,” and “I’ve got you no matter how many mistakes you make along the way.”
So, Fathers: if no one said it to you, I am so very sorry for your loss. But you have a chance to heal yourself and break the cycle of male detachment. Start saying, “I love you” to your boy and when you do, expect to feel a little sad. You are entitled to your grief; you deserved more from your own father.