Dad won’t say, “I love you”

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m in my twenties, and my dad, who has a very scientific mind, doesn’t communicate his feelings. I know he loves me because he has been good to me. But I long to hear him say, “I love you” and am hurt that he never has. Why is this so hard for him?

A: Every once in a while I get an email that brings a tear to my eye—and this is one of them. It’s so sad that in your 20+ years your father has never said, “I love you.” I’m glad, though, that he has found other ways to express his love. The big question is why he finds it so difficult to utter those three magic words? There are a number of possibilities. Let’s take a look at a few.

Although you didn’t say how old your dad is, I’m guessing he grew up in an era when “real” men were tough as nails and unsentimental, and being “soft,” sensitive, emotionally expressive, or in touch with their feminine side (boy, I hate that expression), was decidedly un-masculine. There’s a better-than-average chance that your dad’s own father fit the same mold. I’m sure he was a good provider and a decent man, but like most men of his generation, he was unemotional towards his children. If that’s true, that’s the model your father grew up with. Being a good provider was the definition of “good father.” That’s all that was required and all that was allowed.

The most important thing is that you know your dad loves you (as you say, he’s always been good to you). He just may not know how to verbalize those feelings. Or maybe he subconsciously remembers his upbringing and is embarrassed to express affection so openly. This may sound completely absurd to today’s young dads, but it’s quite common for men of that generation.

It’s also possible that, with his scientific mind, your dad doesn’t actually realize that his lack of emotional expressiveness bothers you. He may be so focused on whatever he’s doing that he’s simply oblivious.

What to do? Start by talking to your dad (or write him a letter if you think that would be easier). Tell him how much it would mean to you to hear him say that he loves you. He may be genuinely surprised when he realizes that, in all those years, he never said the words. Or, if he’s still under the influence of the old mores that kept him from being as affectionate as you wish he would have been (and, I’ll bet, as he would like to have been), he may just mumble a quick “of course I love you, honey,” clear his throat, and revert to his old self.

That brings up another question: when was the last time you told him you love him? He may have been waiting to hear those words too. It doesn’t matter who says it first; what’s important is that you’re both aware of each other’s feelings and acknowledge them to each other. I also highly recommend a wonderful book, “Between Fathers and Daughters: Enriching and Rebuilding Your Adult Relationship,” by Linda Nielsen.

Remember: Part of being an adult is not only living with disappointments, but appreciating what we have. You happen to have a dad who’s not very verbal—but whose love isn’t in doubt—and who shows his feelings in a way that truly matters: through his actions. And actions, as we know, really can speak louder than words.