“How I Knew It Was Love…”

Love doesn't always hit like a tidal wave, it can take time—and reveal itself in subtler ways. Here, five couples explain the little signs that showed them it was the real thing.

by Lisa Cericola

et's face it: As romantic as it may be, couples don't usually just go out on one date and—poof!—realize they're madly in love. A true connection can take time to reveal itself, and when it does, it's often in the smallest and most surprising ways. "We form opinions about people so quickly—about the clothes they wear, whether they're smiling too much or too little," says relationship expert Dr. Jo Anne White, Ph.D., from Temple University. "But when we do that we may be missing out on important aspects of that person. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper." If you're dating someone and are sick of waiting for a 50-foot sign saying "Yes, this one's The One!" try keeping an eye out for some of the tiny things that convinced these five couples they were meant for each other.

"I knew he was The One when he played my song"
My boyfriend was the first man ever to actually ask me which album I wanted to
I know it's his little gift to me—and I love him for it!
listen to on the stereo. It sounds like such a simple gesture, but I've dated so many guys who'd turn off what I was listening to and put something else on, or actually bring their own music to my house! To this day, my guy surprises me by putting on my favorite albums. I'll be cooking or just doing things around the house and suddenly hear something by The Smiths or Tom Waits. Knowing that he actually pays attention to what I like and will listen to music that's not his personal taste means so much to me. I know it's his little gift to me—and I love him for it!
—Michelle Clark, Atlanta, GA; dating her boyfriend since 1998

Love lesson learned: Look for someone who embraces your differences
A date who respects what makes you you — especially when it veers from his or her own tastes — is a true keeper, says White. Why? Because it shows your sweetie truly cares about your happiness, and is open to new viewpoints and experiences. This person's flexibility also means you two won't get embroiled in petty arguments about which movie to rent or where to go on vacation — a major plus given long-term relationships involve tons of compromise. So if this describes your own date, hold on tight.

"I fell hard once I saw him with his kids"
When I found out that the seemingly perfect guy I was dating had two kids, I immediately put on the brakes. I always thought I'd have children someday, but I knew that I wasn't ready to take on such a huge responsibility so suddenly. Would we have to spend every weekend with the kids? If things got serious, would they treat me like their mother? I had so many doubts, but he was such a great guy that I continued seeing him. And, when I finally met his children and saw what a sweet and caring father he is, my heart melted. I realized how lucky I was to have found a person who could be so strong in a challenging situation. What I originally thought of as a red flag turned out to be an amazing perk. Three years later, I feel so lucky to be part of their family.
—Paula Gellert, Orlando, FL; dating her boyfriend since 2002

Love lesson learned: Re-evaluate your deal-breakers
Sometimes, we create our "ideal mate" checklists—but need to learn they're not
At that moment, I knew I had found a seriously sweet guy.
carved in stone. Granted, no one should feel forced to lower his or her standards and settle for someone who's "good enough." However, taking a good look at those standards and making sure they're valid is a great idea—and sometimes all it takes is the right person to change your mind. According to Dr. White, typical red flags like previous marriages, kids, or career troubles (like unemployment) might actually be a plus if a person has learned something positive and grown from the experience. So if you've recently ruled out someone due to some perceived flaw, ask yourself: Does your date's lack of a college degree really outweigh the fact that he or she is kind, loving, and crazy about you?

"I knew she was special when she insisted on hanging out even though I was sick"
A few weeks into dating a really great girl, I came down with a serious case of the flu. We had made plans to see a movie and have dinner that weekend, and I was so disappointed that I had to cancel just when we were starting to get good. But instead of postponing our date, she offered to come over and keep me company. Obviously I didn't want to make her sick, but more than that, I didn't want her to see my beet-red nose and the mountains of wadded-up tissues covering my bed. Despite my protests, she showed up on my doorstep the next day, armed with DVDs and plenty of tissues. Although I could hardly move from my spot on the couch, I ended up having such a great time that I almost forgot how awful I felt. I couldn't believe I'd met someone who was genuinely concerned with how I felt and, even better, that she wanted to be around me even when I wasn't at my best.
—Jonathan Greene, New York, NY; dating his girlfriend since 2004

Love lesson learned: True keepers stick around when the chips are down
Sure, any date will want to hang if you're in a great mood and can show them a good time, but will they appear when you're broke after a recent layoff, hobbling around on crutches, and have little to offer other than some low-key (and somewhat melancholy) company? If so, then this person is worth keeping around for all your ups and downs. "A good partner will never judge you when you're not doing well," says Dr. White. "And even better, they'll put their own needs on hold to help out when things get rough."

"He won me over by making an effort with my best friend"
When I first started dating my husband Louis, my best friend really didn't approve of him. He didn't exactly dig my friend either, but he knew how much she meant to me so he (mostly) kept his opinions to himself. The rift between them really bothered me, so I decided to take a risk and invited her to stay in a cabin with us for a weekend. When she arrived, I went to the kitchen to offer her a drink—and was shocked when, upon opening the fridge, saw it was stocked with six-packs of orange soda, her favorite drink. Louis had smuggled the drinks in our car and filled the fridge when I wasn't looking! She was so flattered that he remembered such a small detail about her and immediately started to warm up to him. Later, when I told him how thoughtful he was, he said, "I didn't do it for her; I did it to show you how much I care." At that moment, I knew I had found a seriously sweet guy.
—Cathy Cassano, Dobbs Ferry, NY; married for 3 years

Love lesson learned: Take note how your date treats your pals
Of course most suitors will go out of their way to charm you, and your family too if they meet them... but your friends? Sorry, they usually fall into the category of things your date has to put up with, period. And that's exactly why partners who strive to connect with your buddies will stand out from the crowd. Dates who do this are genuinely trying to integrate themselves into your life as a whole, so if you spot your date making an effort to charm your cantankerous best bud, consider yourself one lucky dater.

"I melted the day he baked a cake for my family"
When I first met my boyfriend, I had no intention of being anything more than good friends, since he is more conservative than I am. My parents came to visit soon after we started spending time together and although I didn't want to give them the impression that we were an "item," I knew he'd be fun and helpful showing them around the area. What I didn't expect was that he would welcome them to town with a cake! From the metal sheet pan to toothpicks poked in the top (to keep the frosting from sticking to the plastic wrap), it was obvious that he had made it himself and didn't just swing by the bakery on his way over to my apartment. As I watched him chat with my parents as he served them slices, I thought, "Oh no, he really likes me!" But once I got used to the idea and saw how thoughtful he was to my parents that day, I couldn't help but fall for him.
—Paula Wehmeyer, 34, Des Moines, IA; dating her boyfriend since 2002

Love lesson learned: That first family get-together may contain some surprises
It's one thing for an amour to make a good impression on your folks. It's another if he or she goes above and beyond the call of duty (and that includes anything that involves cooking, baking, or making what you can buy definitely counts). And while you might not always follow Mom's or Dad's advice regarding whom you date, their stamp of approval does matter, and can have ripple effects on how you view the relationship. In Paula's case, it was exactly what was needed to send her feelings over the edge.

Lisa Cericola is a writer in the New York City area. She fell in love with her sweetie over a plate of his homemade pasta.
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