Q: Around Valentine’s Day, my beloved boyfriend of a year kept hinting about a big surprise. He’d been talking about moving in with me, and I was expecting a proposal and a ring. I got a fondue pot. I have two children and, apparently, the idea that a man should put a ring on a woman's finger before moving in with her and her kids. He said he’d propose when he was ready. Then, by accident (I think), he left his Amazon.com page open on my computer, showing the tackiest, cheapest ring in the world and a pocketknife for himself (which cost more than the ring). I told him to move in and forget the ring. I bought myself a ring, but that didn’t work. I felt unvalued and ashamed. We fought often, and he ended up moving out. He wants me back, but I don't want to live with him without the stupid ring. We’re both too needy to live apart. Can we salvage this?
A: The man you love did give you a shiny object that you could show off to the girls at the office, even if the admiring remarks you were hoping for weren’t “Look at that thing! It’s twice the size of Miranda’s Crock-Pot!” and “Ooh, is that stainless steel?”
Diamond engagement rings can seem like a completely stupid thing to want. They’re absurdly expensive and hard to tell from lab-created rings available at a fraction of the cost. And what good are they, really? As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller jokes in “The Mating Mind”: “Why should a man give a woman a useless diamond engagement ring, when he could buy her a nice big potato, which she could at least eat?”
Well, the answer is that men can walk away after sex and women may walk away with a bunch of little mouths to drag around and feed, so women evolved to seek reliable signs that a man has access to resources and a willingness to provide them. Any hump ‘em and dump ‘em smooth talker can make promises. The most reliable signs of commitment are those economists call “costly signals,” meaning that they require substantial effort or financial investment and are therefore difficult to fake. Basically, only a guy who’s madly in love with you would be willing to prove it with an object as wildly expensive and useless as a diamond. That’s why buying yourself a ring didn’t work and why you felt “unvalued and ashamed” when your boyfriend got down on one knee, but only so he could plug in a moderately-priced kitchen appliance and propose, “How ‘bout we put stale bread cubes on sticks and dunk ‘em in melted cheese?”
Being too needy to live alone is reason to get a dog or paste a face on your robot vacuum cleaner, not rush into a lifelong commitment. The way to figure this out is by spending time together without living together until he’s ready to commit or you’re ready to throw in the towel. But pick a date to take stock of whether progress is being made so you aren’t hanging on endlessly. As they say in the fondue world, there comes a time when a guy needs to either dip or get off the pot.
Q: I want to break up with my girlfriend, but we are supposed to go to Costa Rica and have already paid for the house we’re renting for the month with her friends. Is it ridiculous to wait till after Costa Rica to break up?
—I Sound Like A Jerk
A: When you put off canceling a relationship to avoid canceling your vacation, even posing for photos can get complicated. You might find yourself trying to put a native person or pre-Columbian artifact between the two of you to avoid blurting out, “Hey, can you stand a little farther away from me? It’ll make it way easier to crop you out.” Unfortunately, you can’t do much to cushion the blow when she invariably squeezes out of you that you stuck around long after you stopped loving her, which will make her feel stupid and humiliated, in addition to the usual fun feelings that come with being dumped. Barring some immediate need for your emotional support (like your partner’s grandma’s impending funeral or bail hearing), the kindest thing you can do is break up as soon as you know it’s over — even if it bummers up your travel plans and means you’ll eat some costs. Letting your girlfriend go without you to Costa Rica might allow her to look back fondly on both the relationship and the vacation — in a way she couldn’t if she were flipping through her trip photos saying, “And this is the guy who wanted nothing to do with me kissing me under a jungle waterfall.”
Advice Goddess Radio: Dr. Matthew Hertenstein on the "tells" that predict a person’s intentions and behavior.