Q: My girlfriend and I love each other, but we feel we’re becoming numb to hearing it from each other. We’ve been together three years, so I assume that time is what’s put a damper on the “three little words.” I suggested that when we are about to say “I love you,” we come up with something more personal and meaningful. This, sadly, was difficult and lasted about a day. Now we’re back to expressing affection the rote way. Yes, we could have a bigger problem, but beneath this is a bigger worry — that the relationship will get old, too.
— Same-Old, Same-Old
A: The pressure to be original in love can be pretty trying. Imagine Shakespeare tentatively mumbling to a woman “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and hearing back, “Ugh, Will…for the third time this week?”
Likewise, the first time you heard “I love you” from your girlfriend, you probably thought, “Wow, she loves me! Hot damn!” But once a relationship gets going, sometimes “I love you!” wells up from the bottom of the heart and sometimes from the need to say something a little more feel-good than “Gotta get you off the phone so I can clean up this cat vomit.” Sometimes, one partner is needy and says it constantly so they can hear it back constantly. (If not for somebody being there in their life to respond, they’d be standing for days on end yelling it into the Grand Canyon.)
So, yes, it’s probably time for a little rationing of “I love you” if it’s become shorthand for everything short of “pass the salt.” But there’s actually research by Dr. Sara Algoe and others showing that expressions of appreciation seem to keep a relationship alive, keeping partners from taking each other for granted and feeling taken for granted. This doesn’t necessarily require blithering on in detail about your partner’s great qualities, especially not when you both know what you’re really saying with a laughing “I love you!” is “You are simply the greatest for coming over and resting your boobs on my head while I’m stuck writing these boring reports.”
Of course, one of the best ways to make “I love you” more meaningful is by showing it — ideally, at least once a day — just by thinking about what would make each other happier and less stressed and doing it. This could involve small kindnesses like getting up to refill your girlfriend’s drink when you’re eating dinner or somewhat bigger (and ickier) kindnesses like telling her to stay put while you clean up after her puking cat. Any guy can go through the romantic motions — say “I love you” on Valentine’s Day with $50 worth of chocolate truffles and a suspiciously funerary flower arrangement — but it takes a truly loving guy to say it on a random Tuesday with a rag full of cat vomit.
Q: Is there a nice way to tell your girlfriend that you really don’t like what she wears to come hang out with your friends? My girlfriend can look so cute in certain outfits, but whenever we’re seeing my friends, it seems she dresses more conservatively, and often, she really looks kind of frumpy. I’m not looking for her to look like a stripper. I just want her to look as good as she does when she’s out with her friends or we’re out together.
— Holding Back
A: A woman can go a little too far in trying to avoid crossing the border from sexy to slutty — all the way over to “sturdy Amish woman about to churn butter.” Chances are, your girlfriend thinks she’s protecting you — keeping you from looking bad in the eyes of your friends or from worrying that she’s covertly shopping for your replacement. Unfortunately, women don’t always understand the workings of competition between men. Basically, it’s good to get the girl. It’s even better if your guy friends and any passing male strangers hate you a little for it.
To get your girlfriend to dress a little more “Mad Men” than Ma from “Little House on the Prairie,” pose a question to her with a compliment folded in: “Hey, can I ask you something? You dress so cute when it’s just us hanging out. It seems like you feel the need to dress more conservatively when we’re out with my friends.” Explain that she really doesn’t have to do that, and add, “I just want everyone to see how gorgeous you are.” The compliment will rise to the top, and she should get the message: You aren’t asking her to to wear something that will have drunks trying to slip dollar bills in her bra, just something more in keeping with a night likelier to end in a game of poker than a plague of prairie locusts.
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