Real Men Drop L-Bombs

Saying “I Love You” and Other Emotional Blessings of Christianity

David Zahl / 5.28.21

You’ve heard the confession countless times before. “My father never said ‘I love you’ to me growing up.” I heard it from a friend yesterday, while we were running together. He explained, “It wasn’t that he didn’t love me or was cold, just that, like most men of his generation, he expressed his love non-verbally, through provision and presence and maybe the occasional hug.”

My buddy didn’t doubt his father’s affection. But it wasn’t enough. Something about those three words, said out loud.

And so he decided to do the unexpected and start telling his father that he loved him. For instance, as they were saying goodbye after a visit. “At first he would mumble something unintelligible in response, and I could tell how uncomfortable it made him.” After a while, though, the fabled I Love You Return took form on the older man’s lips, and it’s been off to the races ever since.

Our conversation didn’t come out of nowhere. We were discussing Ken Budd’s recent article in the Washington Post Magazine, “Why Can’t More Straight Men Say ‘I Love You’ to Each Other?” Budd explores a few of his own (very touching) friendships before taking us on a tour of male stoicism and vulnerability aversion:

Heterosexual men, unless drunk to the point of slurred speech, rarely express their love for their pals. My oldest buddies are sensitive guys (sort of), and we’re close, but we’re more likely to drop f-bombs than l-bombs, to bust balls rather than hug. Even my dad, whom I loved dearly, never said he loved me, and I never told him […]

Shrek and Donkey never said “I love you.” Neither did Hawkeye and B.J. of “M.A.S.H.” Or Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. The dearth of male role models who say “I love you” doesn’t apply just to our fathers, brothers, uncles and friends. It permeates the entire culture. To my knowledge, none of the memorable male duos in TV and movie history — Han and Luke, Butch and Sundance, Kenan and Kel — have expressed their on-screen love. If they do, it’s a punchline: the silliness of Dr. Evil cooing “I love you” to Mini-Me; Wayne Campbell’s awkward response to a buddy’s “I love you” in “Wayne’s World.”

The fear of looking soft is a big reason men don’t share their love. But… it’s counterintuitive: We think “I love you” projects weakness, but it takes strength, I’m realizing, to be emotionally open in a culture that dissuades it.

The two hardest things for guys to say, [masculinity researcher Andrew] Reiner believes, are “I love you” and “I need help” … American culture is hypercompetitive, and that breeds fear and a contempt of vulnerability,” he says …

Our emotional suppression could even be killing us. When you don’t talk about your feelings, your risk of death from any cause increases by 35 percent, and from cancer by 70 percent, according to a study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

This assessment comes as a surprise to no one. In male-world, until very recently, it’s been acceptable to profess love to the ladies in your life — but only the ladies. When we absolutely can’t avoid expressing love for another guy, we usually add a “bro” or “bud” or “man” at the end to dampen the impact.

Yes, the culture has shifted a bit in this arena in recent years. And I thank God for that. But what I, er, loved about the article had less to do with its thesis than the stories Budd tells, particularly that of his good friend Todd, whose frequent platonic “I love you’s” provided the impetus for writing the article in the first place.

Todd has told me that his “I love you” habit isn’t just a reaction to his father’s tough-guy attitude but a product of his faith. “I was guided by other Christians who were pretty open and expressive and encouraged that,” he says. I’m not religious, but I’ve always admired Todd’s spiritual side. He’s not preachy, judgmental or sanctimonious. He reveals his love of God by living his life with joy. By the cackling laugh that makes me laugh.

We’re so well aware these days of the emotional baggage that can result from a strict religious upbringing that we tend to overlook the emotional blessings. Or undersell them. Well, one of the chief blessings, at least in my own life, has been a level of comfort with the language of “love” (and “need”) that I frankly don’t see in male peers who either didn’t grow up in or haven’t spent time in church.

This is not to suggest that Christianity can’t instill the opposite, i.e., emotional suppression (on steroids!) under the guise of supposed strength. It’s just to acknowledge that being raised in an environment where slogans like “Jesus loves you” are thrown around like candy often produces a vocabulary of the heart that doesn’t shut off when it comes to other males — the kind of professions of love Jesus and Peter engaged in while eating grilled fish together on the side of a lake.

I’m not just talking about Evangelicalism, by the way, which does tend to be more affectively demonstrative than most other expressions of Christianity (hence the Jesus-Is-My-Boyfriend jokes). The liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer I grew up hearing every Sunday follows not just a theological but an emotional progression. From sorrow to remorse to love to gratitude, for example.

A weekly (public) immersion in well articulated feeling is no small thing in a culture that encourages men to cut themselves off from such. #101reasonstogotochurch

The same applies to the “I Need Help” aversion. You have to do cartwheels around the faith to avoid that particular confession. Think about it: What is the Sinner’s Prayer if not a mash-up of the modern male’s two most avoided scripts? That fact alone should give us pause when dismissing the Sinner’s Prayer as trite or cliché.

I see this, by the way, in my own father. His recent birthday was an opportunity to enumerate a few of the gifts he’s given over the years, and emotional fluency — and the courage to employ that fluency in front of strangers — should not go unmentioned. Not just fluency but softness, or at least an arresting degree of comfort with feelings of fear/doubt/powerlessness that other men would consider embarrassing or shameful. That kind of courage may not garner many backslaps around the campfire, but I’d argue that it’s a more profound form than what you find in the boxing ring. It definitely has an impact on a son.

This didn’t come out of thin air. Dad wouldn’t mind me saying that he grew up with a father for whom those three little words were anathema. Our for-lack-of-a-better-word WASP heritage is particularly impoverished/pathetic in this regard. No, it was his faith in a non-reticent and effusive Heavenly Father — not to mention the love of my mother — that provided both the way and the means to connect with his own boys on that level.

Sometimes I marvel at the emotional distance that conversion had to cover. After all, it’s a lot easier to believe in a Heavenly Father who says “I love you” first when you have an earthly father who has. I did, he didn’t. There’s something miraculous about it.

But even if you never heard those words growing up (or can’t relate to intra-male stoicism in the first place!), it’s comforting to know that God isn’t one of those fathers who’s non-verbal signs you have to decipher to know where you stand. Jesus Christ, aka the Word of God, is everything God has to say on the matter of our belovedness. You might even say that God’s “L-bomb” came in the form of a cross: Christ dying for the sins of the whole world, both those who shouted, “Crucify him!” and those whose words — and courage — failed them.

Jesus wasn’t deterred. God, I love that guy.