DEAR CAROLYN: My girlfriend of three years always badgered me about getting married before our four-year anniversary. At first the arbitrary deadline annoyed me, but after living together for two years and working through the death of her mother, I really am taking the thought seriously. I’ve even started to save up for a ring.
She’s very particular about jewelry, and I’ve never bought her any before, so I opened up a conversation about engagement rings and she immediately became uncomfortable. A few days later she brought it back up and had talked to some of her friends who I suspect might have given her ideas for a ring beyond my means. When I attempted to temper her expectations she immediately lost patience with me and refused to discuss the matter any further.
When my girlfriend started dating she’d always tell me she had a pretty elaborate picture of how her wedding would go down, and often showed me fantastic online videos of guys proposing while pulling off impossible stunts. I love my girlfriend, but I’m starting to wonder if I can ever live up to her fantasy, especially when talking about the future only crushes her dreams.
DEAR CONFUSED: Does she love you? Or just your willingness to squeeze yourself into the role she’s imagined since she was a kid?
This isn’t about your worthiness as a partner, to her or anyone else; she might like or even love who you really are if she stops thinking about herself long enough to see it.
It’s strictly about the danger of such a single-minded focus on what a romance is supposed to look like and the attention it can afford her. How can a person see what’s really there when her whole field of vision is occupied by expectations she built before she met you and apparently hasn’t reflected on since?
The way it usually plays out, unfortunately, is that people use fixed expectations to build relationships that work for a while as role-playing before they inevitably collapse — when, as the years pile up, reality refuses to be ignored.
It’s also possible I’m overstating the role of expectations here, and your girlfriend really does see you and know you and love you. But that’s not what you see. You see “badgered” and “annoyed” and “arbitrary” and “particular about jewelry” and “beyond my means” and “lost patience” and “refused to discuss” and “impossible stunts” and, mercifully, “I’m starting to wonder if I can ever live up to her fantasy.”
So, yes. Please escalate from “starting to wonder” to full-on, hot-lights questioning of this three-year transaction relationship where she writes emotional invoices and you pony up.
What are you getting out of it emotionally? What is she getting out of her life with you that she couldn’t get from any other guy who agreed to her terms?
What would happen if you proposed without an audience, performed zero stunts, used a Cracker Jack ring and said, “Hey, let’s elope?” Would the simple, profound act of your giving yourself to her for the rest of your lives be enough?
Anyone willing to go into stupid debt can find a way to buy a big ring.
Only you can be you.
Don’t give yourself away cheap.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.