I've learned to read love

I've always had strong opinions of how love should be expressed, and looked to friends and partners to act accordingly. To my consternation, others had their own modes of exhibiting care.

Far too often, I overlooked their unique expressions, intent on expecting them to do things my way. This left me feeling unloved. Over the years, however, I've become more literate in reading individuals' love signs; it has helped to take the bumps out of my relationships.

During college, I had a very quiet boyfriend. What I remember most about visiting his parents is the loud tick of the grandfather clock in the dining room as we silently ate our meal. With so little conversation I was quick to assess his family as cold.

When my boyfriend and I got into his car to drive home, his father suddenly appeared with a spray bottle and rag. Carefully, he began to wash his son's windshield. I could feel his caring through the glass.

"Wow, your father really loves you," I said to my boyfriend, who gave his father a sweet smile.

I learned another lesson about love a few years later when I began to earn a steady paycheck. My father, not someone to gush emotion, often called me early in the morning.

"Buy Xerox. It's a good share price," he might say abruptly when I answered the phone. No pleasant greeting or inquiry about my life, just a financial directive.

His brusque manner offended me and we often quarreled. One day, I thought about my father's business acumen and success, and I realized that his concern for my financial security lay behind his terse morning calls. He was showing his love in a most unorthodox way, but showing it nonetheless.

The next time he called and told me to buy a stock, I thanked him.

When my social style has conflicted with that of friends, I've often felt my stomach tighten in disappointment. For instance, I return phone calls promptly and regularly check in with friends. I expect the same from them. I read punctuality as love. After all, my parents were always on time, and to this day my brother shows up well before the listed start time of any engagement.

"Fashionably late" is not in my family's vocabulary.

I had one friend who rarely called, responding to my messages with short e-mails. I rushed to judgment: "She isn't a good friend!" I thought.

My resentment grew as the holidays approached. Then she came to a gathering I hosted and handed me a present. Opening it I found a beautiful wine- colored silk negligee. She and I had window-shopped the previous month and I'd seen - and fallen in love with - this nightgown.

"I went and got it for you the next day," she told me. My jaw dropped at her thoughtfulness, and at how I'd cast her as uncaring. Clearly, I needed to revisit my expectations of friends.

More recently, I dated a man who gave few compliments, something he acknowledged he had difficulty doing. I longed for traditional love signs from him - flowers, cards, or candy. I didn't get them. One night at his house, he set the table for our dinner.

"I'll put you facing the room," he said, laying my plate.

My heart softened at his words. I'd commented weeks previously that I hate to eat facing a wall; I like to look out at something during a meal. Remembering this, he made sure my dinner that subsequent night would be pleasant for me: a sign of love.

This one I read just fine.

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