Love depends on how you play your cards.

"ARE THE TWO OF YOU DATING?" is sometimes an impossible question. Whether you are newly met or a longtime couple, terms of endearment can be a source of friction.

What do you call those who are less than blood relations yet more than acquaintances? The correct term matters lest you imply that things are more than they seem — especially if unequal affection means one of you is smitten while the other wants to move with caution.

You want a sufficiently direct phrase to suggest an early stage of courtship and that will warn others hands off. Yet it should be vague enough to save face in case things don't turn out as you hope. "We're getting to know one another" will accomplish this. What this public phrase privately signals is an interest in exploring possibilities without either side announcing (or expecting) a commitment.

Precise terms can just as conveniently signal a lack of attachment. You can introduce someone as "my neighbor," or "an acquaintance" from work, church, or your bridge group as the case may be. As always, traditional ways exist to make your availability tastefully clear to astute listeners.

It's all in the eye of the beholder.

"Boyfriend," "dating," or "seeing each other" typically do announce that there is a shared interest in some degree of intimacy. With a pick-up, your own needs matter more than his. When another's feelings increasingly occupy your imagination, however, you have entered the realm of romance wherein the possibility of "me" becoming "we" takes shape.

The word "date" means different things to different people. Trouble arises when each side fails to communicate its expectations, or when one side over-thinks the situation. For example, projecting a pleasant dinner into a happily-ever-after scenario is serious over-thinking that is bound for disappointment. After getting together a few times you can assume he's interested in something, if only your conversation. Find out by revealing your intentions. Just don't be so vague that he has no idea what you're talking about or so forceful that he feels he's being taken prisoner.

"Beau" means that you're really serious but haven't gotten around to moving in together. Private endearments and diminutive pet names may sound silly but are normal stages in a budding romance. They foster regressive wishes that ultimately help enlarge one's personality.

The usual terms for couples are unsatisfactory. "Partner" sounds like business, "lover" stresses sex, and "significant other" is insulting. Aside from husband and wife, "spouse" and "companion" are both accurate and traditional. A rarely heard term due for resurrection refers to the beloved as one's "other half," though the self-effacing "better half" can't be beat for graciousness.

How do I love thee? Let me count my brain regions.

No term is dearer than "beloved," representing the singular one who tugs at your soul. Aristophanes recounts a myth in which primordial man was round with four hands and feet, and two faces on a single head. Love was unknown because each creature was complete unto itself. After Zeus punished man's excessive pride by cutting him in two, each half yearned for the other. When one half finds its mate, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and intimacy.

The desire to melt in the beloved's arms and become one rather than two is the very expression of this ancient need. This longing for wholeness and its pursuit is what we call love.

In any language ...

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