I had never told my father the Three Words until the moment I placed a stuffed polar bear alongside him in his casket. That was almost two decades ago, but even today I find myself burying the Three Words under mumbles mouthed at my brother when I visit him and my two baby nephews.
The Three Words seem to make time stand still, for a brief moment, whenever men say them to one another outside of a romantic or sexual relationship. They are said platonically, but with the most sincere passion. Yet, throughout the chapters of my life there have been many men I never said the words to, and wish I had.
The words can feel like a caged animal pacing back and forth for years until finally allowed to escape its cage within our chest.
The Three Words: “I love you.”
Why is it so hard for men to say ‘I love you?’
When a larger-than-life figure like Kobe Bryant — a man who cast a shadow almost seven feet tall — died in a helicopter crash, it especially impacted his former teammate, Shaquille O’Neal. We saw O’Neal struggle through tears as he recounted the many loved ones he had lost in recent years (including his sister). Yet, it was Bryant’s death that woke him up to the importance of telling the men in his life what they mean to him.
Anyone can struggle with showing appreciation, but why does it take a moment of tragedy for many men to show up emotionally in their own lives, and in the lives of the men they love?
It starts in young adulthood. Referring to Niobe Way’s 20 years of research, Andrew Reiner writes that “many boys, especially early and middle adolescents, develop deep, meaningful friendships, easily rivaling girls in their emotional honesty and intimacy. But we socialize this vulnerability out of them (once they reach ages 15 or 16).”
A day comes where young men stop forming nurturing bonds and begin to connect by trying to “break” one another. We do this to one another by teasing, bullying or “busting balls,” which can cause more harm than show affection. Actions and deeds between friends speak volumes, but the words left unsaid can echo for a lifetime.
Physically, society gives men an incomplete vocabulary. It often means keeping each other literally at arm’s length. Men barely hug enough, long enough. When we do greet each other, it’s with empty rituals like smashing clenched fists together, exchanging quick nods, or even a “bro hug” lacking intimacy.
Men have been coded to believe that vulnerability means “weakness” and we should only expose a hole in our emotional armour for romantic connection or sexual gain. Like a choke-chain, that programming pulls us back when we find ourselves entering moments of vulnerability between men. This inability to express ourselves to other men can leave some men feeling emotionally stranded, even among friends.
We want, need and crave deep connection as men and young men, whether we are 16 or 60, but social isolation among men is a growing concern. Our need for belonging can leave some men susceptible to radicalized movements of hate that prey on those of us in troubled emotional states, but there are also the risks for our mental and physical health both now and as we get older, including cognitive decline, depression and heart disease, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Heartfelt and sincere words spoken help to build bridges of connection between us. This means breaking the barriers that hold us from developing a fluency in emotions to say what you want to say, especially “I love you.”
It takes daily practice
Some women take the day before Valentine’s Day to celebrate the close friendships in their daily life. They call it “Galentine’s Day.” Years ago, I submitted to men the case for “Malentine’s Day” as a day to begin learning ways to proclaim, cultivate and nourish our male friendships through moments of vulnerability.
We should say “I love you” when we mean to, need to and want to. And, yes, it takes intention and practice to break out of our social conditioning. Re-awakening these kinds of muscles takes time, but we can spot one another as men as surely as we do at the gym.
Men can re-learn new rituals and practices to normalize showing love. This isn’t a conversation about what is wrong with us as men, so much as focusing on how we can get closer to filling the void inside us.
Each day, I invite you to:
Take time to check in with yourself and what you are feeling. Tune into what your needs are, and what you might want to share or discuss with other men.
Check in with a male friend, ask “how do you feel today?” and genuinely listen. Put the same conscious effort that you put into work or romantic relationships into nurturing your friendship.
Talk about what you both need to open up to one another. Discuss building a stronger mutual trust, so you’d feel more confident about having deeper conversations. Chances are they’ve been wanting to have this talk as well.
Start with words, then work up to deeds and actions to express love. How about a real hug instead of a bro hug? How about telling your buddy you need to talk? How about not changing topics when your buddy opens up? Invite each other to sit in your vulnerability; true strength is in speaking the quivering words you want to say openly.
Say the words!
Years ago, I entered a very challenging period in my life. I am fortunate to have many incredible women in my life who work both professionally, and in their interpersonal interactions, around areas of growth, healing and change. I reached out to them at first, but caught myself and made a conscious choice: I needed to have these kinds of honest and real conversations with the men in my life. This led to the deepening of our relationships, and being able to say we loved one another.
It’s not enough to just tell other men to be thoughtful, be empathetic, be consensual or be better, we need to model it. That means me, that means you.
So, let the Three Words out. If you love the men in your life, don’t wait to tell them.
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