My Italian wife taught me how to show love

‘All my friends and family are so excited to meet you!’ That was my Italian then-girlfriend, Maggie, a couple of months into our relationship.

I’d agreed to go with her to a childhood friend’s wedding and all I could feel was a wave of panic. How do they know who I am? Why does it sound like I’m already a fixture? Isn’t there some kind of process to this?

It soon became clear that, now I was in this relationship, I was really in the relationship. The Italians do things differently when it comes to showing love, you see.

Meeting relatives and friends involved a barrage of kisses – including scratchy ones from the men. Personal topics were inquired about and opined upon. I was treated instantly like a part of the family, which was great, but as a heterosexual Englishman, it was a far cry from what I was used to.

The stick up the English backside is well documented, but it is not reflective of any lack of care. A quick handshake or – in some cases – a perfunctory hug is more than enough to show my joy at seeing a friend.

Relationships are different, of course, but the same principles apply. Grand romantic gestures tend to be rare, and for me to look someone in the eye and tell them how I felt about them was always deeply uncomfortable. I used to simply hope my affection shone through with my actions rather than my words.

Maggie and I first met at university in London but it wasn’t until a chance encounter at Pisa airport a couple of years later – me travelling, her in her native land – that we got to see each other in a different context and went from classmates to something more.

Though we spent the next few years in London, many of her friends were Italian and I became quickly immersed in la vita all’italiana. I learnt to communicate in Italian, and I got gladly used to eating Italian style: delicious, long meals, prepared simply from scratch and enjoyed convivially with slowly sipped wine.

However, the more time we spent together, the more obvious our different expectations of how to show love became.

Maggie was far more outwardly affectionate. She would have no problem using terrifying words like ‘love’ and telling me, both in person and via text, how happy being together made her.

It’s not that I didn’t feel happy: as an Englishman, I had a filter between my emotions and my words. Pet names felt ungainly on my tongue. My instinct in moments of romantic tension was to break it with a weak joke. I couldn’t escape the sense that wearing your heart on your sleeve veered too close to the ‘public displays of affection’ that we British generally see as egregious.

Understandably, when we moved from a young relationship to something more serious, she expected clearer demonstrations of how I felt.

The absence of unprompted loving declarations came across as an imbalance: if she could say and do these things, why couldn’t I? Surely that meant I loved her less? And when she took the time to express these concerns, I felt uncomfortably pressured to behave in a way that was alien to me.

As we grew together, we started to overcome these issues. Maggie began to recognise the authenticity even in my smallest attempts at tenderness. Cards on special occasions, for example, not typical to Italian culture, were an opportunity to take some time and put into writing how I really felt.

Meanwhile, I became better able to communicate my emotions, understanding the moments when I needed to go beyond my comfort zone to make her feel loved. On our first anniversary as a couple, I brought out my best Italian to post a gushing statement about the impact she’d had on my life and how she’d made me a better person. It helped me to build my confidence.

By the time I was ready to propose, I took her to Byron’s Grotto at Portovenere – the place she’d once told me was the most romantic spot she knew – where I looked her straight in the eye, told her in the most honest way I could that she was the only person I could imagine being with for the rest of my life.

Then, of course, I got down on one knee – much to the chagrin of my mother-in-law, who didn’t get the same gesture from Maggie’s dad!

My experience of true love has been magnified by cultural difference but there’s a universal lesson here.

How you’re raised to interact with others naturally influences how you deal with your partner. We can all be too demanding that others behave according to our expectations but if the love is real, it moves quickly beyond the show-and-tell of first dates and Valentine’s Day.

You learn to see its depth in the squeeze of a hand or the twitch of a half-smile. It’s about the cup of tea made unasked at the end of a rough day, the furtive glances at a party, the tipsy laughter on a bus ride home on Saturday night. It’s yours, and that ownership is more meaningful than any preconceptions you had.

That said, I’d like to think I’ve adopted some of the Italian style in how I show love in our marriage.

I know my loved ones in England care for me, but when you have Italian family and friends, you really know it. When you feel that kind of warmth around you, it makes you want to give it back, too. Maybe as a nation we should try and learn from it. I’m starting to think they’re onto something.

Last week in Love, Or Something Like It: Banning men taught me I am enough

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