I had just ended an impossible relationship with someone in another city when I met him. He was the opposite of the other man. On our fifth date, he said he was falling in love. Within two months, he had found an appartment for the two of us. "I'm the man for you," he kept saying whenever I got cold feet about the relationship.

We were together a little more than a year. The "I'm in love" of infatuation passed, but "I love you" did not replace it. "You look great," "They all love you," and "What would I do without you?" were the personal but not necessarily loving phrases he uttered when called upon to say something. I took them as valid substitutes for words of love, excusing his aloofness with a scenario in which he felt deeply about me but was simply too inhibited to say so. Somewhere under the words, however, a silence echoed. When he finally said, "I love you, I like you," I knew he might as well have been talking to my cat. He repeated, "I love you, I like you" five times the day before he announced he was leaving. Sometimes, "I love you" doesn't qualify as a love line, no matter how many props surround its utterance.

This story is common to a lot of people because when it comes to words of love, what you hear is not necessarily what he said, or meant, or even thought about saying at some future date.

Stories about how badly someone treated you may make good retelling: friends clench fists and cry, "Can you believe he did that?" and total strangers will offer up their sympathy. But anecdotes about relationships based on empty phrases usually bring the response: "Why didn't you just ask him what he really felt?"

In short, you have only yourself to blame when halfhearted reassurances or phrases keep the love lights burning. You should have known better.

But few of us do. If you've put great effort into a relationship and think you're in love, it's a kick in the ego to realize that your side of the scales is out of balance with your partner's. In such cases, "I feel strongly about you," "I'm in like," and "You're my friendliest friend" -- phrases I've actually heard friends use -- can strike the ear with the force of a romantic gale. They imply positive emotions. Under the right conditions -- candlelight, wine, hands clasped across the table -- such expressions can probably be construed as big steps down the bumpy road to love.

"The new improved string-along phrase is 'I want to get married, have children and mow the lawn, but I'm not quite ready for the commitment,'" says designer Carla Badaracco. "It's an 'If-you've-got-the-time, I've-got-the-beer' approach. Unfortunately, I often fall for it."

It may seem odd that talk of children and dogs has replaced moonlight and roses as a way to set the romantic stage and keep the action moving, but it has. Children and pets imply the possibility your adored one may one day -- with any luck, tomorrow -- settle down with you. Such phrases as, "You'd make a wonderful mother," generally based on your success at raising you parakeet, are music to ears that have too often heard, "Settle down? Maybe when I'm 80. And that'll be when I'm in my grave."

Or "after the election." After all, Washington as a political capital offers more loving excuses based on the needs of the campaign or committee than any place else. Media and political consultant Kathy Garmezy is adamant on this point: "Washington is organized as an avoidance structure." Tying things up in committee and passing along the final responsibility for a decision have their match in the way District couples conduct relationships.

"Every time I tried to talk about where we were going," recalls Jean Birrel, formerly employed on the Hill where she met the man she was involved with for several years, "my boyfriend would say, 'Wait till after the election. We'll have time to talk about it then.'" If she really pushed for some expression of his feelings, she was met by an arm across her shoulders and, "Hey, I'm here, aren't I? What more can I do?'"

Birrel admits, "I accepted political work as a valid excuse. His having to 'lock in' the election was real to me -- it was the future that was supposed to be ours."

But after the election, different excuses surfaced. Finally, he came out with "Hey, I'm here..." one time too many, when something more -- "I love you. I want you to marry me" -- was required. From this experience Birrel concluded: One, ask questions and, two, don't date lawyers.

Not getting involved with lawyers is a tall order in this town, where it seems that they outnumber less crafty mortals by about 5 to 1. As a group, they use measured and passionless phrases that fulfill the letter of the law but lack its spirit. A friend of mine calls this the "narrow interpretation style of romance," where words are carefully hedged, and implication is everything.

Attorney Steve Seligman insists that some nonlawyers are so good at this that even a lawyer can't see through it. He didn't. "She kept talking about wanting kids. I kept saying I wasn't ready to settle down. But because she said that, I figured she was serious -- she'd be there when I made up my mind." Unfortunately, when Seligman decided that he could handle a relationship and children, he found that she couldn't -- at least, not with him. "She wanted the kids, all right, but not me."

His beloved forgot to throw in that salient point, confident that her partner would never get his act together to move their relationship from its comfortable plateau. Some people call this "not quite telling the whole truth"; others would term it a "sin of omission." No matter what its name, it's definitely a way to string love along without putting yourself on the line.

"I'm exploring," "I want to have grandchildren," "I'm confused..." -- these are the words we use to hold each other's hearts these days. In all my conversations on this subject, "I love you" was never mentioned as an example of words of love to be used in a serious relationship short of marriage.

In fact, those who have been on the receiving end of rash and passionate "I love you's" generally have walked away sadder but wiser. Ironically, it seems the people incapable of making commitments are those who most often fling the words around.

"How about, 'I'm more ambivalent about you than I've ever been about anyone?'" jokes public interest lawyer Dan Guttman, when asked for his version of words of love. Unfortunately, "I'm confused" -- that cliche of relationships going nowhere -- also applies to relationships that could have a future, making unraveling the real message of the words a task fit for Freud. After all, what's wrong with saying you're confused when you really are?

It takes a suspicious mind or more guts than most of us have to forge beyond ambiguities such as, "I just can't deal with it now," or, "I've never felt this way about anyone before." The classic, "I don't know where it's going -- I just know I can't imagine life without you," is a particular favorite of mine, being one I've heard before the demise of several relationships where imagination eventually triumphed.

Writer and editor Clarissa Wittenberg, pondering the twists in her past relationships, singles out a favorite male statement, "I married the wrong woman." This is a handy line, whether or not the swain is currently married, since it implies that the woman he's with is the right one.

Can it be that all these substitutes for a declaration of "I love you" are merely one long goodbye? Since a large portion of professional Washington, ebbing and flowing with the political tide, is both transient and overly affected by a sense of destiny, anything touching on the future can be heard as the offer to share it. But when push comes to shove, too often the stream of consciousness and the future is abstract. "There'll be a time for us..." is replaced by "I'm just not ready." Wittenberg comments ruefully, "They seem to need time off from commitments to win Nobel Prizes or Pulitzers or Academy Awards."

Nor is silence golden -- when it gives no consent. In a relationship between two people, one tight-lipped and one expert at avoiding confrontation, words of love are replaced by projection -- a force so powerful that it can turn aloofness or the slightest off-the-mark comment into evidence of deep commitment. Those who operate in this way depend on the belief that truly deep emotions go without saying.

But there are those who have good reason to keep their mouth shut. President Calvin ("Silent Cal") Coolidge once observed, "I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm," and many of Washington's would-be lovers take his advice. "In love, if not in politics, like most men I don't go out and meet trouble," affirms historian Leo Ribuffo, who, having recently finished a book, is now considering a "normally active social life." "Trouble" is what happens when a simple phrase -- like "I loved seeing you" -- gets blown out of proportion.

When I was in college, I was fond of saying I would follow a man anywhere who would give me artichoke hearts. One morning, I awoke to find two cans of the finest variety outside my door. I knew who had put them there -- a friend articulate about everything but his emotions. To my everlasting chagrin, I told him in front of friends that, even with two cans, I couldn't follow him anywhere. He blushed, left the room and probably never gave another artichoke heart away. Maybe he took up the practice of feeding women lines instead. These are the mistakes you make in callow youth.

I know better now. Someone who says, "Gee, you're kind of okay," may not knock my socks off with loving phrases. But those underwhelming words can be complemented by suitable gestures -- roses and proposals on bended knee. Like many who have lent their ears to phrases so polished they shone -- only to find too late that the phrases were transparent -- I have reformed.

Au revoir to "You're the cat's meow." From now on, you'll have to show me the cat.