Do Men and Women Mean the Same Thing When They Say, 'I Love You'?

02/14/2011 05:13 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Tom Matlack Venture capitalist-turned-writer; founder, The Good Men Project
  • Laura Munson Laura Munson is a New York Times best-selling author and the founder of Haven Writing Retreats


I have to believe that the notion and experience of love is not gender specific, nor culture specific. I wrote a book about what happened when my husband told me he didn't love me anymore and wasn't sure he ever did. In my case, I didn't believe him and chose to give him some room to heal through what I believed was a crisis of self, brought on by sudden career failure. And he did heal -- and we're still together. I am deeply grateful for that. Some marriages are meant to end. I didn't feel that ours was -- and it turned out that he didn't either.

I have heard from people all around the world, married and unmarried, men and women, gay and straight, responding with gratitude for my book's message, which is one of personal responsibility in crisis. One of non-reaction and a commitment to finding the freedom of the moment no matter what's going on in your life and no matter the outcome of the ordeal. In an interview with a reporter from Tel Aviv, I asked, "I wonder how Israelis will respond to this message." She paused and said, "I don't care where you're from or what religion you are or what social group, the words 'I don't love you' are universally ones we fear and dread." I have found that to be true -- so, I have to believe that the reverse of those words is just as inclusive. We long for the words "I love you" whether we are women or men. We long for the fulfillment and intimacy of relationships. But that "I love you," in order to be authentic, has to start with the person who is expressing that emotion. That "I love you" has to begin within. If you don't love yourself, how ever are you to love me?


I'm with you on the ideal of love being universal, across gender lines. But the way we get to that ideal is different, requiring that we overcome gender-specific obstacles. I have no idea if it is genetic or learned, but little girls and little boys grow up with very different conceptions of what romantic love is all about. I grant that there are as many different variations on the theme as there are human beings, but in general women see love as a thing at the center of their existence and men see it as something to be conquered, dealt with, and at worst lied about. Your husband's story, like my own, points to the difficulty guys have just being honest with others and ourselves about our own truth when it comes to love.


When we're young, a guy saying he loves a woman might just mean he wants to sleep with her. My sense, though I only have second-hand reports on this, is that young women generally perceive that, for guys, sex is an expression of love rather than the other way around.

Guys eventually warm to the idea that there might be just one woman out there that will meet all their needs -- but in some ways the word "love" still scares us. I have heard it too many times to count: guys think that if they fall in love, and commit, they are giving up options for other women.

But my view is that it isn't about the sex or about the lack of freedom, it's about the fear of looking ourselves in the mirror and feeling disconnected to the guy staring back at us. Elliott Spitzer or Tiger Woods didn't behave the way they did out of some belief that it was really a good idea to sleep around on their wives and kids. It wasn't out of some inability to commit. It was out of a self-loathing built on fear that they aren't good enough. You can't hate yourself and love someone else.

Some guys never get there. But by the time we reach 46 -- which is where both my wife and I are now -- we have the emotional maturity to see the true and lasting benefits of love and commitment. Guys eventually catch up with the smarter and more mature gender, to see ourselves worthy and capable of giving (and receiving) love without doubt.

Guys like me know we are lucky to cuddle in bed with the perfect woman -- in other words, one who has seen the good, the bad, and the very ugly, and stuck around despite it all. And when we say we are "in love," it is with an equal conviction to that of our female counterparts.


I find it so true and so unfortunate that the words "I love you" are so loaded -- manipulation, transference, co-dependence being some of it. I agree that emotional maturity comes with age and long-term relationships. I always tell my teenage daughter that people are not capable of being equal loving partners until they are much older -- and to focus on her female friendships. I didn't make that choice when I was younger, and spent most of my time with long-term boyfriends. While I don't regret those relationships, I do wish I'd skipped the adolescent drama and focused on nurturing friendships instead. When I said "I love you" back then, it was very different than the "I love you" I utter now to my husband of 20 years. Now that "I love you" is loaded in a different way. It means, "Thank you, I respect you, I believe in you, I believe in us."


Tom Matlack and Laura Munson debate other questions about modern love: