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What makes it so hard to tell your dad “I love you”?

“I have a horrible feeling I might never have literally said the words ‘I love you’ to my dad”

What makes it so hard to tell your dad “I love you”?
16 June 2018

It’s Father’s Day tomorrow, and there’s only one way to celebrate. A piece of card emblazoned with a pint/classic car/black-and-white photo of a man from the 1950s will pass from your hand to your dad’s. “Thanks,” he’ll say. You might think it – it is the ordained day for thinking it, after all – but will you say it? Love you, dad. No. Too weird. Yet if you do genuinely love your father (shout out to anyone who doesn’t, they don’t make a “Number 956,056,222 Dad” mug), why can it be so difficult to say those words? After all, unlike offerings from Hallmark, we’re not Blank Inside. 

“I absolutely love my dad, of course I do – he’s the best fuckin’ dad in the world,” says ShortList’s own Chris, when asked why he doesn’t say Those Three Words to his old man. During a stressful time when he phoned home a lot, Chris says he would sometimes squeeze “I love you” into the end of the call, timed just right over his dad saying “bye”.

“I could feel at ease that at least I’d said it, content with the idea that maybe he’d heard it,” he explains, “and we wouldn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of him having to say it back.”

Although Chris worried at the time about not having “the guts” to tell his dad he loved him, he now feels love can be shown in other ways. He and his dad go salmon fishing in Ireland every year. And they shoot. And have BBQs. “That’s such an incredibly stereotypically ‘alpha man’ thing, isn’t it? But I figure it’s true. And as long as we keep doing stuff like that together, we don’t need to say it.”

You don’t have to tell your dad you love him. It’s not an obligation, or something you should regret for the rest of your life, and there might be a myriad of personal or cultural reasons why those words aren’t for you. But what if you want to tell your dad – and find the words sticking in your throat? A 2014 survey by Wilkinson Sword (scientific!) found that a quarter of children are too embarrassed to tell their dad how they feel. Why, exactly, is it so hard?

“When children are young, parents tend to show little discrimination between sons and daughters in the way they express affection and care,” says Kory Floyd, a Professor of Communication from the University of Arizona, who has written multiple studies on fathers and sons. Floyd explains that when children reach puberty, fathers curtail overt expressions of affection to their sons, but not their daughters, because forms of affection (like hugging and kissing) are perceived as “feminised behaviours”. 

“Many fathers remember their own fathers curtailing their expressions of love around the same developmental point, so they replicate this pattern with their own sons.

“When the sons reach adulthood, therefore, they have a decade or more of a renegotiated relationship with their fathers, one in which love is understood but not expressed.”

The most obvious reason you might find those words difficult, then, is because your dad does. Children learn through imitation, and our parents teach us how to behave and act.  

“I have a horrible feeling I might never have literally said the words ‘I love you’ to my dad,” says ShortList writer Ralph. “As far as I can remember, my dad hasn’t said it to me.

“He might have. I just can’t hear it in my head, because - like most fathers - he is not comfortable expressing affection in a sincere, non-sarcastic or non-ironic way.”

“I think I might be the first man my dad ever hugged as an adult”

While gender stereotypes are starting to shift, it can be difficult to escape the trappings of traditional masculinity (all stoicism and super stiff lips). A designer who creates cards for a major retailer tells me that Mother’s Day cards are historically “pretty” and “sentimental”, while Father’s Day cards are more risqué. No one directs the designers to do this, but they “look at historic successes and failures”, and so “for some it can feel like a risk to move too far away from that, for fear of alienating a ‘traditional’ group of customers”.

But things can change. Lee* is an adult man who has recently started telling his dad he loves him more often, after he stopped in his teens. 

“I think a discomfort came along as I moved towards being a man rather than a boy,” says Lee, explaining that bedtime hugs transformed into high-fives. “Boys are kind of pushed away from non-ironic, non-insulting affection - everything has to be sarcastic or offensive or insincere.” After a difficult year as a family, Lee and his dad started hugging again.

“I think I might be the first man my dad ever hugged as an adult.”

Lee doesn’t always say “I love you”, and on occasion might find “lots of love” easier to get out. The recent birth of his baby also helps, he says, because he will often Skype his dad with his daughter on his lap.

“My daughter and I can sort of collectively say things that might feel slightly awkward otherwise – ‘Look, it’s Grandad! We love Grandad, don’t we?’” Lee explains. 

A father and son are hidden somewhere in this picture

Along with Chris, most of the ShortList team confess to not saying “I love you” to their dads. Section Editor Bobby is the only team member who does tell his dad – and he says it is easier because his dad always said those words to him.

“My dad came from quite an old-fashioned, stiff-upper lip family, so I think he’s always wanted to have a relationship with his sons that isn’t like that,” Bobby says. “As far as I can remember me and my dad have always told each other we loved each other.”

One of his fondest memories of saying “I love you” is when he and his father stayed up drinking whisky until 3AM. 

“I was just coming out of uni and struggling to get a job. He offered to let me stay at home for as long as I wanted as long as I was following my dream, and I remember a very teary hug and a couple of very potent ‘I love you’s then.” 

“Would you prefer it if I said it 50 times a day but then acted like a jerk?”

While many of the men in this piece do wish they could say those words to their dad, all admit that they show love in other ways. 

“For me, everything is about actions, not words,” says Carl*. “I adore showing people that I love them by trying to do things that they’ll love, send them things they’ll enjoy, or giving them help whenever they need it. 

“I’m often told off by my wife for not saying it but I always think ‘well, would you prefer it if I said it 50 times a day but then acted like a total thoughtless jerk?’. For me, the actions of love entirely outweigh verbalising it.” Carl always sorts out tickets for his dad’s favourite bands, sends him things he thinks he’ll like, and tries to see him as often as he can. 

Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, and a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, says many people feel similarly to Carl.  

“Men tend to find it awkward to say ‘I love you’ because there is a general sense among many men that actions are more important, and words are too easy and cheap and therefore meaningless,” she says. “They don’t like the feeling that they’re saying [“I love you”] because they’re expected to.” 

William Tell, objectively bad at telling his son he loved him with actions, not words

As culture changes, it may become easier to say “I love you” to our dads. That might be a great thing for you and your relationship, or it might not. There shouldn’t be a pressure to conform to any ideal that isn’t your own. Salmon fishing, in the end, may always come out top. 

*Names have been changed

(Pics: Getty, Twitter user @g0_f1sh)