My wife is very upset with me because I don’t say the words “I love you.” Of course I love her very much, and I demonstrate that fact many ways on a daily basis. But apparently none of that counts when I don’t actually say the words. The problem is that I can’t say the words. It’s like my vocal cords freeze or something and it just won’t come out, no matter how much she’s pleading or crying. To be honest, it’s starting to really anger me that she’s treating me like the jerk and refusing to accept other forms of affection until I do things her way. Am I being unreasonable here? I’m not lying when I say that I physically can’t choke out the phrase “I love you.” My own father never said it either, not that I’m blaming him, but I’m just saying that this ability doesn’t seem to run in my family.
This problem is more common than your wife realizes, and it affects both men and women. The physical paralysis you experience is due to your subconscious mind intentionally overriding your body’s normal functions to prevent you from speaking that very loaded phrase. The reason some minds hit the mute button on this particular phrase has to do with stress management. Typically in these cases, it’s not just “I love you” that feels impossible to say, but also words and phrases that involve you trying to describe your strongest feelings. Usually it is the more positive emotions (like affection) that get silenced in these cases, while negative feelings (such as anger) are easier to articulate.
Every human feels that certain sentiments are more stressful to communicate than others. The stress ranking that your own mind will assign to a topic depends on many different factors. Life experiences often play a big role here, especially when certain kinds of experiences cause our minds to decide that it is dangerous to say certain things out loud. Trauma driven muteness is a very real and awkward problem in which the subconscious will suddenly shutdown a person’s ability to speak at all once the mind feels threatened by certain circumstances. In these cases, complete muteness can remain until those circumstances change and the mind stops feeling so threatened.
Now in your case, the more likely issue is that your subconscious finds it extremely exhausting to try to verbalize certain feelings due to how intense those feelings are. There is a very real principle that talking gets easier with practice. This means that the longer you go avoiding certain subjects, the more psychologically exhausting the whole idea of discussing those subjects feels. If you grew up in a home in which family members were banned from verbalizing their affection for one another, then you end up with no practice in talking about a subject which is very intense for all humans. Keeping all of those strong feelings stuffed down for many years creates a kind of “log jam” effect. The larger that jam becomes, the more daunting the task of untangling it seems.
Now suppose you were a lumberjack who was tasked with untangling a real life snarl of large tree trunks that are supposed to be floating down a river to your company’s processing mill.
Not only does this look like a daunting problem to fix, it’s also dangerous. If you are standing in the wrong place when this mess breaks loose, you will end up getting pummeled by major lumber. To a mind that has a large backlog of unexpressed, intense emotional sentiments, it feels equally dangerous to start trying to yank one of those sentiments out of place by saying a phrase like “I love you.” Your mind is basically concerned that one wrong tug could cause the whole backlog to suddenly come lose. Such rushes of suppressed emotions can be very overwhelming to subconscious minds and massively interfere with their abilities to function. Since you can’t function well without your subconscious mind in decent working order, your mind is actually trying to protect itself and you by blocking you from saying certain phrases out loud.
Now all of that is happening on your side of things. But what about your wife? Females are more “verbally wired” than men, and this means they have a very real need to receive verbal communication from their spouses. But then there’s that classic male rebuttal of “I married you didn’t I? If anything changes about how I feel, I’ll let you know.” The reason this “I’ll only speak when the status changes” proposal doesn’t work at all for women is that women are very dialed into the fact that the status of a relationship can change at any time. Not only are women naturally wired with an internal “radar” that can detect subtle changes in mood, they also feel these subtle changes are very significant. In the world of women, it’s subtle changes that often signify the end of important relationships. The best friend who has decided to dump you won’t typically come right and out and say “It’s over.” Instead, female relationship partners often engage in a more vicious game of subtly icing each other until the rejected party decodes the sudden changes in behavior and figures out what’s happening. Because women are used to dealing with such complex social behaviors, they expect their husbands to operate like other women do, and that makes it feel legitimate to your wife to panic if she feels that you’re suddenly “pushing her away” by refusing to verbally declare your love for her.
In the world of women, females constantly monitor each other’s feelings about each other. They do this automatically, without having to consciously think about it. To women, tone of voice, choice of words, body language, eye contact, and facial expression all provide important feedback about how their relationship partners feel about them right now. And to women, right now is far more important than some historical average. This is why the whole “I married you, didn’t I?” argument doesn’t hold any weight with women. Referring to historical events simply doesn’t feel relevant to what is happening right now. Sure you wanted her back then. But what if you’ve fallen out of love with her since? This is a very real concern for women, and they need frequent reassurances from their husbands to remain confident about their status in their marriages. Again, the frequency thing is a carryover from how women work with each other. In female relationships, there are constant reminders being given about where everyone stands with everyone else. A sudden silence on this front often indicates serious rejection, and this is why women are so quick to become distressed and insecure if their husbands go too long without giving them any assurances about their good standings. What all of this means is that your wife can’t just ignore your bad mood once she detects it. Instead, she’ll instinctively start fretting about what’s causing it and try to fix it. Women are wired to nurture, and unless some kind of psychological distress interferes with their natural wiring, they will be instinctively monitoring you 24/7 and feeling a need to react to any changes in your emotional aura.
Now to a woman who is already designed to be sensitive to any mild irritation that she senses in you, it is extremely distressing for you to flat out refuse to give her verbal affirmation that she is desperate to hear. Because women are so verbally wired, verbal affirmation is usually the quickest way to calm them down when they are getting worked up over nothing. For example, you have a bad day at the office so you come home in an irritable mood. All you want to do is sit on the couch and zone out with the television so you can forget about your stupid day. But as soon as your wife detects that you’re not in a happy place, she’ll want to fix you. Her natural instinct will be to try to prod you to talk about what’s bothering you because that is what she would want you to do for her if she was the one feeling upset. But when men are irritated, their instinct is to try to use their fabulous compartmentalization skills to shove that irritation aside, so the last thing they want to do is focus more on what’s irritating them. Men generally don’t understand the value of talking about things until they get coerced into talking by the women they care about. At the same time, women often don’t understand the value of not analyzing everything to death until they get introduced to this idea by their men. This is one of those areas in which both genders can really help each other learn new ways of dealing with things.
So now we have you sitting on your couch in a bad mood that is just growing worse as your wife “nags” you with the same basic question over and over that she keeps wording a bit differently. She wants you to reach into your internal well of feelings and start giving her detailed descriptions of exactly what happened in your day, how you felt, etc., etc.. You just want her to stop hassling you and give you some peace. But the more you refuse to talk, and the darker your mood grows, the more agitated your wife feels and the more desperate she becomes to prove her love for you by helping you feel better. When you finally snap at her to leave you alone, she hears that not as a request for you to solve your problem your own way, but as a rejection of her and all of the love and loyalty she’s trying to give you. So naturally she is crushed and likely flees the room on the verge of tears, and that creates a new mess for you to clean up. A far better tactic in this situation would be to realize that your wife is verbally wired and say something like, “I’m just annoyed by work stuff, and I’ll feel better if I can just zone out with the TV a bit. I appreciate your concern. You’re the best wife ever. Do you think I can just have some time to myself now?” That part where you verbally affirm your wife is the critical piece. By verbally affirming her, you make her feel that her that all of the good things she was trying to offer to you were noticed and appreciated. This causes her nurturing crisis to end, and she’ll be able to give you the space you want. Now if you have your zone time and you don’t emerge from it in a better mood, you’ll likely have to give your wife another bit of assurance that you’ve still got things under control and that you are still aware of the fact that she’s loyally standing by, eager to assist.
Women are wired to help, and it is vital to them that their loved ones understand this. When you don’t want your wife’s help, she’ll still need you to say something to acknowledge that her help was being offered. Otherwise she can drive herself crazy trying to come up with some way to remind you that you have her as a resource.
So given how much women need words, what’s the solution when the particular words that she needs are ones that you can’t say due to your own internal dilemmas? Here is where you’ll want to take advantage of the fact that while women do need words, they aren’t usually sticklers about those words being spoken out loud. In fact, written words are often considered to be even more powerful, as they take time and effort to create. But in a situation like yours, it’s vital that your words be from you, and not some pre-printed sentiment on a card. Once insecurities like your wife is feeling are already in place, the sweetest card in the world can come across like an insincere cop out, and she’s likely to fear you “just grabbed one” instead of giving her a card that accurately reflects how you feel about her.
Now maybe you’re not a poetic guy and the whole idea of putting pen to paper makes you groan. Before you panic, realize that simply writing “I love you very much” on a sticky note would likely get you major points with your wife. Volume isn’t what matters here (although volume is always appreciated). Sincerity is the key, and if she sees the words she’s desperate to hear scratched out in your own handwriting, she’s going to feel a lot better.
Now since this issue has already developed into a major mess for you and your wife, I’d recommend taking the time to write her a letter (or email, if you’d rather) that explains that you really do find it physically impossible to say “I love you.” You should include that bit about your father being the same way, because his role modeling undoubtedly played a big role here and it will give your wife some much needed context for why you have this problem. But don’t just make the letter a defense of your struggle. Make sure you include several lines about how much you really do value your wife. Often the old “sandwich format” works well here, where you say affirming things, then explain the problem, then end with more affirming things.
As ludicrous as it seems to you, your wife has likely developed some rather strong doubts about how much you care about her, and again, this is due to the fact that women are used to dealing with relationships that are in a constant state of flux. Since your wife can’t read your mind and see how you really feel about her, she is stuck trying to guess how you feel while being heavily biased by her own life experiences and personal fears. To fix this, you really need to spell things out for her in writing.
Now often the subjects that are hard for us to talk about also feel difficult to write about so a letter like this can feel like a draining undertaking. Remember it doesn’t have to be acres long. Also work on it when you’re safely alone, such as sitting in your car somewhere with your wife unable to interrupt what you’re doing. Working out notes like this by yourself allows you to deal with any turbulent emotions privately. You can then present the letter to her (or email it) when you’re feeling more stable.
You should expect an emotional response to this kind of thing, because emotions flow very readily for women, especially when it comes to talking about their bonds to their loved ones. But an emotional response would be a score here, and likely paired with some happy tears of relief. As it’s often intimidating for men to face a weeping wife, be ready to respond with hugs and cuddles. Physical affection is another very powerful symbol of affirmation to wives, and once a problem has been verbally sorted, it’s usually best to wrap up the moment by giving her some physical affection.
Now since your wife really wants you to feel the way you already feel about her, she will probably be able to swing back from her despair with surprising swiftness once you give her the verbal assurances she needs. You’ll also want to keep this strategy of writing things out in your mental toolbox for future use, as it can really save the day in a lot of situations.
With practice, you’ll likely find that writing about loaded topics to your wife starts making them feel a bit less threatening to talk about. Practice is the key to taking the fear out of scary communication concepts.
This post was written in response to Greg.
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