I’m parked illegally outside Terminal A at Reagan National Airport, waiting for my friend Todd. I’ve become his personal Uber in recent months, and I know from previous pickups how the night will unfold. We’ll drive south on Interstate 95, opening windows and removing our masks. We’ll arrive at his boyhood home in Woodbridge, Va. His mother, who’s dying from cancer, will wave from the storm door, oxygen tube hanging from her nose. She’ll smile, faintly. I’ll wave back, saddened by her frail body, the glasses too large for her face. Then Todd will grab his suitcase from the back seat, and he’ll say it. Those three startling words.
I love you.
I don’t remember the first time he said it, though it should be a milestone moment in our 35-year friendship. 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. That’s just not how guys have historically behaved, and I’m not sure that men — at least men of a certain age — are ready to lose those old, emotional restraints.
In a 2019 survey of 1,005 Americans by GQ magazine, 97 percent acknowledged that expectations for male behavior had changed in the past decade — but fewer than half of male respondents were comfortable with it. Older men cling to ideals of manhood that they learned as kids in the 1950s and ’60s, a Case Western Reserve University study has noted, and our views of masculinity differ by political party, gender and race, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found.
As a 55-year-old man, I’d like to think I straddle the masculine middle ground: just an average guy who drinks beer and likes sports and wants to be a good dude while being cool with, you know, feelings. Recently, though, on one of Todd’s visits, I realized something troubling: In all the years that he’s said “I love you,” I’ve never once said it back. And I need to understand why.
Like love interests in a rom-com, we began as adversaries. In 1986, I was living in the student apartments at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. Todd, my new roomie and the building’s new resident assistant, arrived while I was in class. His first observation: the three half-gallons of vodka on my desk. Todd was a born-again Baptist — he’d been saved six months earlier — and fresh from two years in the Army. As a recent Christian, he later told me, he’d been warned about “living in the world,” which was faith-based code for stay in your Bible bubble and avoid heathens like your vodka-swilling roommate.
When I returned to the apartment, Todd was gone, but I had my own concerns. He’d hung a poster with Jesus phrases in his room, and his shoes were aligned with military precision in a row under his bed. Oh no, I thought. He’s a religious-fanatic neat freak. He’d also left a note in the kitchen, which would enter the lore of our friendship. He thought it was a polite request asking me to create space for him in the cabinets. I read it as a hostile, bullying threat. Who the hell is this guy, I wondered.
But we soon grew comfortable. He discovered that I was merely an average college binge drinker. I realized that he was not a Felix Unger-Jimmy Swaggart hybrid obsessively dusting furniture while speaking in tongues. Like so many men in the mid-’80s, we were geek fans of “Late Night With David Letterman” and bonded over “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Viewer Mail.” We shared a love of Joe Gibbs’s football teams and Mason basketball. We were night owls, Springsteen fans, comedy lovers. Todd’s mom was an office manager with the Southland Corp., and she’d given him a thick pad of coupons for free Big Gulps at 7-Eleven, so we’d drive into Fairfax City at 2 a.m. and load up on silos of Coke. One night we sat for 10 minutes at a four-way stop during a predawn 7-Eleven run. We were so busy talking that we forgot we had stopped.
In some ways, we’re odd-couple friends. I’m quasi-atheist. An introvert. Todd is outgoing, a hugger, someone who shares his feelings. I often feel like a Vulcan — the reserved Mr. Spock to his hold-nothing-back Captain Kirk. And yet, as Todd noted recently, we’re so comfortable with each other that it’s hard to remember when we weren’t.
“When I look back, I mainly remember laughing a lot,” he says. We’re reminiscing on a bench at Jenkins Elementary School in Woodbridge — two old friends with thinning hair and middle-age bellies, though Todd’s brown hair seems free of gray, despite the pressures of a sales job with a Bible software company. It’s a mild November day and his boys, ages 13 and 14, are playing basketball, the rims clanging like gongs as we talk.
We’re close to his childhood home, and I ask about his father. When Todd’s mom, Helen, became pregnant at 19, his birth father revealed that he was engaged. He recommended an abortion. Helen refused. One year later, his mother, suddenly alone, married a gruff Army trombonist named Howard, who adopted Todd. The relationship was rocky. His dad was intimidating, inexpressive, self-centered. When a young Todd saw his father kissing another woman, his dad berated him, accusing him of being a spy.
As an adult, Todd vowed to be his father’s opposite, to share his love for his closest friends and his children. “I tell them I love them all the time,” he says of his boys. “Dozens of times a day, probably.” Dozens? That sounds exhausting to me. Yet by raising emotionally expressive boys, Todd is creating emotionally expressive men, and unlike his father — or me — they’ll share their feelings with friends.
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.”
Even on “Sesame Street,” eternal roommates Bert and Ernie don’t say “I love you.” Bert has sung of his love for pigeons, and Ernie has sung about his love for his toes (and his rubber duck), but they have not, as far as I can find, expressed their love for each other. (The show’s producers could not confirm or deny that either character had ever informed the other of his love.) They sing a song called “But I Like You,” but c’mon. It’s a cop-out.
In the final season of “Seinfeld,” a suddenly sensitive Jerry repeatedly says “I love you” to a highly uncomfortable George. “Oh, please don’t tell me you love me again, Jerry. I can’t handle it,” he says to laughs.
Kramer is more responsive — “I love you too, buddy,” he says — but words like “buddy,” “man” or “dude” are a common guy trick to soften the emotional impact. (Even Todd will frequently say, “I love you, pal.”) The 2009 comedy “I Love You, Man” took this to new cinematic heights. In a wedding scene, the groom, played by Paul Rudd, exchanges eight “I love yous” with his best man, including such gems as “I love you, Bro Montana” and “I love you, Broseph Goebbels.”
A frequent exception to this unwritten law occurs on CNN, where Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon share a near-nightly on-air “I love you.” But the most powerful “I love you” example I’ve found is from my favorite ESPN documentary: “Survive and Advance,” the story of the underdog 1982-83 North Carolina State men’s basketball team. Ten years after winning the NCAA championship, the team’s gregarious philosopher-coach, Jim Valvano, was dying of cancer. He’d been fired in 1990 but returned to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the title before a game at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum. Valvano hugged his former players, one by one, then gave a typically soaring, stirring Valvano speech, sharing what the team had taught him about hope, dreams, resilience and, yes, love.
“We don’t talk about that enough in sports,” he told the crowd. But “if you asked me what was said along the line, as we went down the row ... the word ‘love’ was used. ... As in, ‘Coach, I love you.’ And ... ‘Thurl, I love you.’ And ‘Terry, I love you.’ And ‘Whitt, I love you.’ They taught me what love means.”
Whitt is Hyattsville, Md., native Dereck Whittenburg, a DeMatha Catholic High School grad and MVP of the ’83 title game. “Love” is not a word typically associated with the trash-talking, chest-thumping world of sports, so I contacted Whittenburg to see if we could chat about, well, emotional stuff.
“I don’t think I’ve ever said this to another guy,” I tell him by phone, “but I want to talk about love.” He laughs. But his relationship with Valvano was a love story. When Valvano arrived at N.C. State, his office was always open, he told his players. Whittenburg took him up on it.
“I used to visit him at least once a week, and we talked about politics, we talked about life after basketball,” says Whittenburg, now associate athletic director for community relations and student support at N.C. State (and an executive producer of “Survive and Advance”). “He would share things with me. You’ve got to remember that he was an Italian from the North coming and coaching in the South. That still wasn’t cool. This is 1980. This isn’t far removed from the civil rights movement. So it wasn’t like he was welcomed with open arms. People used to write these nasty letters saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re starting an all-Black starting five.’ And he would read them to me. We’d talk about it. And as we built that relationship, it did turn into love. He wasn’t afraid to say that he loves you.”
The fear of looking soft is a big reason men don’t share their love. But Whittenburg — a tough, accomplished athlete — uses the word “love” over 40 times as we talk. He says he tells his longtime best friend “I love you.” 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. And so Valvano was strong. Whittenburg is strong. And, yes, Todd is strong.
When we feel love toward someone, the brain activates its reward system, research shows, which is rich in oxytocin. We feel good. Perhaps something similar happens when we hear the l-word.
“Hey, Ken,” Whittenburg says before we hang up. “I love you, man.”
We laugh. I know he’s joking. I know we only talked for 30 minutes. I know this “I love you” isn’t real. And yet I’m surprised by how good it feels.
Todd will be in Virginia until his mother dies. She’s struggling to walk and sleeps in a hospital bed in the living room, spending most days dozing in a chair. One evening he sits on my couch, pulls off his Mason cap and rubs his flattened hair. He’s been tired and stressed, he admits. A few days earlier, he wrote his mother’s eulogy and asked her to read it. “She cried, so I guess she approved,” he says.
If there’s an upside to this — and Todd is definitely a silver-lining guy — it’s that we’ve spent more time together. Typically, when he’s back home in Washington state, we talk by phone, and he’s usually multitasking, whether driving to work or wrapping Christmas presents. One night I heard a faint echo and plops of water.
“Where are you?” I finally asked.
“Oh. I’m taking a bath.”
I sighed at the splashes, the plunk of submerging soap. And yet it’s fitting, I suppose, that a man willing to be naked emotionally would talk to another guy while lathering himself in the tub. (“I’m not lathering,” Todd later clarifies. “I’m just lying there. The lathering comes after we talk.”)
Simply by being himself, Todd has forced me to examine my own emotional discomfort. Initially, when he’d say “I love you,” my response was sarcastic. “Hey, that’s nice,” I said early on. “Thanks for making me uncomfortable.”
Todd doesn’t say the l-word to just anyone. Seven male friends make the list. “There’s got to be a level of trust and depth to the relationship,” he says. He would never use the l-word with his friend Jimmy, a fellow coach for their sons’ baseball teams.
“He’s not that kind of guy,” Todd says. “I love him, but it would make him uncomfortable.”
“Well, I’m surprised you thought that I would be comfortable with it,” I say. “I mean, I’m flattered, but I’m not Mr. Expressive.”
“Yeah, but you’re so easygoing that I didn’t think it would bother you.”
Later, without pointing to myself, I ask if he’s disappointed when guys don’t say, “I love you, too.”
Nah, he says. If you’re only saying it to hear it back, you’re not saying it for the right reasons.
On a gray January day, I speak with Andrew Reiner, who teaches a class on masculinity at Towson University outside Baltimore. The phone reception is poor in his home, so he slips on a jacket, braves the 35-degree weather and speaks to me outside.
“That’s very manly of you,” I say.
Reiner is the author of “Better Boys, Better Men,” which explores a “masculinity crisis” in America and outdated models of manhood (he has also written for this magazine on why crying in public should be socially acceptable for men). The two hardest things for guys to say, Reiner believes, are “I love you” and “I need help.”
“So many guys that I interviewed in their 30s, 40s and 50s talked about the paralyzing fear that they felt saying ‘I love you’ to somebody that they did love,” he says. “Their biggest fear was that they were going to be rejected, they would be laughed at, they’d be told they were too needy.”
Some homophobic men may avoid actions that they think will seem gay. Historically, the way to achieve your “man card,” as Reiner puts it, is to reject behaviors that appear feminine. Vulnerability can get your man card revoked. “American culture is hypercompetitive, and that breeds fear and a contempt of vulnerability,” he says.
For many men, that contempt begins as boys. In a study published in the journal Child Development, middle school boys said that talking about their problems is weird, uncomfortable and a waste of time. Meanwhile, an Irish study found that emotionally distressed young men “desperately wanted closer social connections and support from family members and friends,” but “feared being judged as emotionally vulnerable, weak and un-masculine.” 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.
The pandemic, however, could be an emotional game-changer for American men, Reiner believes: “It’s amping up the social and the emotional isolation that a lot of men were already experiencing, and it’s pushing it to extremes.” A November 2020 Washington Post piece on covid-19 and male friendships noted that many men are desperate for interactions, from Zoom poker games to WhatsApp chains, with deep conversations replacing sports talk, and friendships looking “more like those of their wives and girlfriends.” Many men — especially younger men — are re-examining their connections with other guys, Reiner says. As one female D.C. therapist told me, her Gen Z male clients are just as reluctant as older men to be vulnerable, but they understand the benefits. The #MeToo movement has shown them the power of honesty. They’re simply unsure how to proceed, largely because they lack emotionally transparent male role models.
Some young men are making connections through anonymous online men’s support groups, Reiner notes. And once men can say “I love you” and become vulnerable, they often feel liberated, he says.
“Do you say ‘I love you’ to any of your male friends?” I ask him.
He hesitates. He’s said it a few times with an old friend from high school, he says, but they’re not that close anymore. He’s since tried it with another friend, but not consistently.
“I’m capable of having more of that in my life,” he says, “but I don’t.”
Why are these three words so important? Why is saying “I love you” such a big deal? Sometimes I wonder about this — and then I remember the story of Todd’s friend Dale.
Todd and Dale were boyhood friends in Woodbridge. They shared a love of sports, spending hours tossing a baseball and playing electric football in Dale’s room. When Todd entered the Army after high school, Dale studied medicine at Texas A&M. They stayed in touch with periodic calls, but in 2012, as Dale’s marriage was ending, their relationship intensified.
“We started to talk more,” Todd tells me one night on the phone. “He was hurting.”
The couple divorced, but by 2017, Dale had a new girlfriend, Liz, and they visited Todd and his family for a week. On their last night, Dale successfully proposed to Liz. As the couple left for the flight back to Texas, Todd and Dale hugged.
“We hugged hard, and we just kind of held on to each other for a minute,” Todd says. “And we said we loved each other.”
One week later, Todd called Dale to wish him a happy 52nd birthday. The next morning, Todd woke up and saw a text from Liz. She’d sent it at 2 a.m. He called her, and she began crying. Last night, she said, Dale had taken his son to soccer practice. While the coaches ran drills, Dale went for a run on a trail in some adjacent woods. He never returned. Some soccer dads looked for him and found his body among the trees. The heart attack was fatal.
“She said, ‘Todd — Dale’s dead.’ And I kind of went into shock,” he says.
Todd handed the phone to his wife and collapsed on their bed. “It was a combination of sobs and screams,” he recalls.
As he tells the story, I hear him crying softly over the phone. I apologize for raising a painful subject. “No — it’s okay,” he says. “It’s healthy.”
Todd and Dale had said “I love you” since their 20s, and that makes me wonder: Did their emotional openness ease Todd’s grief? Could he find comfort in their refusal to self-censor — their freedom from macho-male regrets?
“Losing him was probably the most devastating thing I’ve ever gone through, and yeah, there was grief, but there was peace,” he says. “Because as hard as that was, nothing was left unsaid. There was no sense of, ‘Man, I wish I’d said this or that.’ ”
I ask Todd about the birthday phone call — if “I love you” were the last words they said to each other. He thinks for a moment. “Yeah,” he says. “You’re right. Those were our last words.”
In February, Todd’s mom dies. He texts the news to me and our friends Andy and John, thanking us for our love and support, expressing his love for us and his appreciation for our long friendship.
We aren’t sure about attending the funeral during a pandemic. “I hope this isn’t a superspreader event,” I tell Andy. But we know we should be there. We sit in a back pew in the funeral home’s chapel, hoping for air circulation from the door. Everyone wears masks, but the man in front of us is sweating, his wet hair sticking to his forehead, and he uses his mask to mop his brow. Another nearby guest begins to cough.
Todd’s stepdaughter reads a poem; his son Brady reads a Bible passage. When Brady is done, he nestles against his dad in the front row. Todd puts his arm around him. Soon he walks to the podium and begins his beautiful eulogy. One line stands out to me: “When we love people,” he declares, “we bring out the best in each other.”
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. By the love he shows for others.
When the service is over, we mill about the funeral home’s sterile, tasteful lobby, attempting unsuccessfully to distance. A masked Todd hugs Andy and John before we leave. I know what’s coming. Say it back, I think. But a red alert blares in my brain. Emotional honesty: Abort! Abort!
He hugs me. He says it. And as always, I’m silent, succumbing to the safety of a man hug, slapping him with hefty thumps on the back.
We’re at Andy’s house in Fairfax City, two days before Todd flies home, for a night of pizza, laughs and beer. During one recent guys’ night, Andy showed some Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts on YouTube. Todd is a mixed martial arts fan — go figure — but I winced at the blood, my gaze dropping from the flat-screen to the fireplace, away from the kicks and swollen eyes. My tolerance for TV violence has diminished with age, yet an aversion to violence feels unmanly, almost like saying “I love you.”
I’m in danger of losing my “man card,” as Reiner put it, but maybe that’s okay. When a grieving Todd said “I love you” at the funeral and I was silent, I didn’t feel like some Ramboesque strongman. I felt ashamed.
Courage, a friend recently told me, means acting in the face of fear. That doesn’t just happen in war zones or UFC rings. It happens in funeral home lobbies. It happens in living rooms. It happens when we defy old patterns and expectations, and expose our vulnerabilities.
I’ve long suppressed my feelings — love, anger, yearning, regret — but something feels different this time. On his recent visits, Todd and I have discussed subjects beyond touchdown passes and movie scenes. Our friendship feels deeper. And, frankly, I’m tired of being a stoic, silent male. I’m tired of fearing things I shouldn’t fear.
Around 9:30 he puts on his coat. It’s about a 30-minute drive back to Woodbridge. He smiles. “I love you,” he says in an overly dramatic voice, since he knows I’m writing about all of this.
We embrace. My words are soft. “I love you, too,” I say. I’m not sure he even hears it, but next time … next time I’ll do better.
Ken Budd’s previous piece for the magazine, about a Kenyan orphanage, appears in the 2020 edition of “The Best American Travel Writing.”
Art direction by Christian Font. Design by Clare Ramirez.