When "I Love You" Isn't Enough

Love, Heartbreak

Love is not words, it's behavior. It's about how our partner treats us.


We usually think of love in three different ways in the context of our intimate relationships: words, feelings and actions. 

The differences in the manifestations of these three concepts cause a lot of confusion and often misery in our lives. How often have you heard a friend describe her difficult and troublesome relationship by saying, "but I know he loves me!" When we have partners who treat us poorly, perhaps even abusively, it is not uncommon for these same people to insist, "but I do love you!" When we talk of ending difficult relationships we are often persuaded to stay by our partner's insistence on how much they love us and their promises to change. Even in physically abusive relationships the remorse and tearful claims of love have a tendency to encourage us to stay put when that may not really be in our best interest.

It is the third concept, actions, that is actually the most critical for a relationship to be rewarding for both people and to enable the relationship to flourish. As I often repeat to my own clients, "love is behavior, not words."


It is always easy, especially in the early stages of a relationship to confuse sex with love. When someone is strongly attracted to us they want to be with us all the time, they want to make love frequently and they tend to be demonstrative and affectionate. Nothing feels more loving. Sex and affection are certainly important components of healthy couple relationships; necessary, but not sufficient. This is lustful love and while it feels wonderful, it rarely endures with great intensity, and sex alone will not make a relationship work. What is critically important is how our partner treats us. Are they kind? Are they respectful? Are they considerate? Are they caring towards us when we are distressed or ill? Are they supportive in words and actions when we experience difficulty in our own lives? No one needs to be wonderful all the time, but the general trend must be in a positive direction the majority of the time. Love needs to be mostly about how the other person acts, how they treat us.

Everyone has bad days when they are less available to their loved ones because of serious problems in their own lives. This does not mean that being stressed or unhappy is an excuse to be chronically unpleasant or thoughtless to our partner. It's easy to slip in to a state of mind where we think, "Her boss is terrible, of course she's in a bad mood and tends to be harsh with me," or "He had such a hard childhood, he can't trust people and that's why he neglects me," or "She's upset about that weight she gained from being ill, it keeps her in a bad mood." It can be so easy to get in to the habit of making excuses for our partners, to forgive chronic mistreatment. We may lose sight of our right to be treated with respect and compassion.


A related problem is when someone has difficulty telling us, "I love you." In those situations, we may look at how we are treated and if it's wonderful, we may try to live without those words. If things are going well in a relationship we may pass this over and think, "He's not good at expressing his feelings," or "I know she really loves me, she just can't say it." These are signs to proceed with caution! It isn't necessary, especially in long term relationships to always be saying, "I love you" to each other, but when it's rare or missing in the early stages there is cause for concern. Do you really want to be with someone who has that much trouble expressing their feelings? This problem does not tend to become less difficult with time.


No matter how much someone feels like they love us, that love is really of little value if is not associated with caring, considerate and loving behavior the majority of the time. I have worked with many couples over the years where there was physical or emotional abuse. The abusive partner, if they truly love the other person, will not just say, "but I love you so much, I'm so sorry!". You should see them doing everything they possibly can to control the behavior that hurts you emotionally or physically. Are they in therapy? Have they become sober? Have they gone to their medical doctor to make sure there is nothing physical contributing to their loss of control? Have they considered medication to control their depression or hostility? Those are the behaviors that matter. Except in the cases of serious or repetitive physical abuse, no one needs to give up on a relationship easily, but ask yourself: Is my partner doing everything—and I mean everything—to bring their hurtful behavior under control. Are they greatly distressed at the unhappiness they cause you, enough that they spring in to action to correct it?

Hearing the words "I love you" feel wonderful. Without loving behavior, though, those words will never bring happiness.

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