“My boyfriend hasn’t proposed yet. Should I break up with him?”: On devotion, garden gnomes & eating menus

An excellent letter here that brings up issues about commitment, devotion, masculine and feminine essence, the map and the territory:

Three years after my divorce from a marriage of 22 years, I met this wonderful guy. We are both in our 50s. When we met 1.5 years ago, I made it clear that I was looking for a partner with whom to spend the rest of my life. He said he was on the same mission. We’ve been inseparable since then. Last year, I was diagnosed for breast cancer and he was there for me the whole time. He is a very devoted, compassionate person. He expressed his love for me over and over and said he would marry me. But until now he hasn’t proposed to me yet.

Because of his professed love and intentions, I was expecting a proposal, but since it wasn’t coming, I was getting frustrated. I threatened to break up with him a few times, but he would always spring back to me saying his life is meaningless without me. Then why he wouldn’t propose? I told him I don’t want to force him do things if that’s not his desire. I asked him please let me go if the marriage is not his plan because I don’t want to continue the relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend. He said, “You don’t make me feel special to like you used to,” and “Marriage is from both parties. What is your contribution to that?”

I finally gave him an ultimatum few weeks ago, because I was really tired of the situation. He is very quiet now. My questions are: What’s going on in a man’s mind when he said I am the love of his life and he would marry me, but not acting on his word? Did I made a good decision giving him the ultimatum? Or did I chase a good man away by acting on my emotions focusing on marriage? — Maria from Canada

A long time ago, on a tiny blue planet in the Milky Way galaxy, I picked up this book called Tao Te Ching. And Chapter 36 of this book got me to thinking, “Y’know, this sounds relevant to a lot of life. Especially relationships.” Which may be why this chapter I have quoted more than any other. It goes like this:

If you want to shrink something, you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception of the way things are.
The soft overcomes the hard. The slow overcomes the fast.

Of course, the first time I read this, it blew my head to smithereens. What the hell does it mean that before you can shrink something, you must allow it to expand? The slow overcomes the fast, the soft overcomes the hard? It’s all paradox! THIS MAKES NO SENSE!!

Ahh, but it does. Let’s think about this line:

“If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given.”

Let’s say I’m interested in a woman, so I want her phone number. I could just go up to her and say, “Hey, what’s your phone number?” Points for boldness, yes, but with significant room for improvement. Instead, what if I spoke to her for a few minutes, inquired about her thoughts, passions, and values, found her charming and delightful, and then suggested an event — a talk, a concert, a reading — that nicely meshed with her worldview? Then she just might say, “Omigod, that sounds great! I’d love to do that. Here’s my number.” Instead of taking something, I have created the circumstances that make giving that thing to me the most natural thing in the world.

While we’re on stereotypes, let’s say a woman wants commitment from a guy. She can say, “Hey, where’s my ring?” Or she can create the circumstances such that the man feels supported, strong, 50 feet tall and capable of moving mountains. He’s sitting there, shaking his head, telling his friends, “Man, I can’t believe how good she is to me. What have I done to deserve this? I ain’t never letting this one go.” And that’s when a man’s thinking goes from “I’ve got a good thing going, so heck, I’ll stick around a little longer” to “I need to lock this down now because I’m never gonna find this anywhere else.”

That, my lovelies, is feminine Goddess Power — the power to make the people around you feel like a trillion bucks. It is the power of devotion. It is real power, because it is always at your disposal and can never be taken away from you.

This is the thing that makes you irresistible. As in, who the hell in their right mind would want to resist that? “No thank you. I do not want to feel supported, told that I’m the greatest partner in the world, feel like I can move mountains. I’m just gonna go sit in the corner over there and do my best imitation of a neglected garden gnome.”

Now, Maria, let’s see what’s happening with you. You say he’s devoted and compassionate. You guys have a great time together. And he stood by you during the cancer thing. Sounds like you have a good thing going with a standup guy.

And yet, you have chosen to strain the relationship. He’s saying things like “you don’t make me feel special to like you used to” and “marriage is from both parties; what’s your contribution to that?”

Now I understand that you went into this relationship with marriage in mind. And he was on board with that. Cool. Now I’d like you to imagine a conversation he’s having with his best friend about how he finally arrived at the decision to marry you:

BEST FRIEND: So, what made you decide to pop the question, bro?
YOUR GUY: You know, she was just… so… demanding. Like, hounding me about it day after day, that I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s so hot. I’d be a fool to let her go.”

And if you’re having a difficult time imagining this conversation, it’s because it has never happened in the history of mankind. Actually, he’s much more likely to be turning the Janet Jackson question around and saying, “What has she done for me lately?”

The second issue, which is more subtle, Maria, is that by insisting that he marry you, you’re putting yourself in a no-win situation. It’s possible that your reminders of his not keeping his word will make him feel less trusted and irritate him enough to leave. Then, both parties lose.

Or he buckles under your demands and proposes. Now you’ve got yourself a man whose masculine essence you can’t really trust, because he hasn’t been true to himself. And if he does marry you, he’s doing it only grudgingly. Once again, both parties lose.

The third issue is this, Maria: what’s important to you about this marriage thing anyway? I mean, if you really love someone and he loves you back, why do we need to bring the lawyers in? Do they somehow make the party better? Where does this insistence on a piece of paper, a ring of metal on your finger come from? What would having that do for you?

I can imagine that for two young folks who want to have kids and raise a family together, there are practical aspects of marriage that make it desirable — kids having the same last name, taxes, finances, etc.

But if you’ve already had a 22-year long marriage and grown kids, what’s important to you about this contract? Is it some kind of hedge against abandonment? Some legitimacy you crave, formalized by the state? What is it?

I would encourage folks to consult Stephanie Coontz’s excellent Marriage: A History – How Love Conquered Marriage. (ebook and paperback). This whole notion that “if you love me, you will marry me” is a very recent fabrication in the history of mankind, and a potentially pernicious one.

Because this much I can tell you: none of those shards of paper or metal will protect you against the deterioration of a relationship in which you aren’t showing up as your best, most generous, supporting, loving self.

This is the age-old conflict between the map and the territory, and how as symbol-binding creatures, we often give preference to the map over the territory, the menu over the food. And then, having chosen the menu over the food, wonder why we’re still hungry.

It sounds to me, Maria, that you already have the substance of a good relationship: mutual support, shared interest, quality time, and real love. You’ve got the food. However, your insistence on the menu — the marriage certificate — seems to be compromising the relationship.

So you have two choices here. You can continue to put your foot down and say, “This is what I signed up for, and by golly, this is what I’ll get. True, I’ll be lonely, but I’ll be right and lonely.” The world would have a little less love in it and be slightly impoverished for the decision.

Or, you can set him free. You can go back to appreciating him, enjoying his company, and making him feel like a zillion bucks. You can say stuff like, “You add so much to my life, and I think I may have been a little misguided in my insistent demands for marriage. It’s true that it’s important to me, but it’s not more important than the relationship we have. And if you arrive at that decision some day, I would welcome it, but I’d prefer that you do it out of your own free will and to find your own reasons to propose if that’s what you want to do.”

If you do that, you improve the chances that someday, he’ll come around to the decision himself. And if not, you still have the food — the actual relationship — which tastes so much better than the menu, y’know?

So, to summarize: Devoted is irresistible; demanding is not. When you question your partner’s trust, you’re effectively invalidating his masculine essence, which puts you in a no-win situation. And be careful that you’re not trading real, nourishing tasty food for a tasteless menu made of fake leather.

Online class vs therapy?

Dear Dr Ali – I’ve been using love as a drug for some years now, going after guys who were clearly no good for me because I needed the love and validation. I am now considering either going for therapy or signing up for one of your online classes. I’ve almost signed up for your class 100 times. Do you think your program would help me? — Helen

Excellent question, Helen! I believe you’re referring to Project Irresistible. And if you’re asking me, if i didn’t think it was helpful, I wouldn’t have created it :)

That said, the class is useful for a few reasons:
1) It guides you through the exercises in The Tao of Dating. Have you done all of them? Don’t know anyone who has. People often say they read the book in one sitting, but this is a cookbook, for chrissakes. If you want to learn how to cook, you must practice making the recipes. Speed reading ain’t gonna do it. The course puts you through the steps.
2) It’s self-paced (recommended: 6 weeks), so you have time for the learnings to integrate. I mean, we’re looking to effect fundamental shifts in habits of thought and mind, and that takes time.
3) As you go through the course, stuff is going to come up. “Hey, why is this exercise so challenging?” “Why am i not comfortable doing this?” “Why does this feel so much better than what i was doing before?” That’s when you stop, pay attention, and go deeper.
4) The whole thing costs less than a single session of therapy — especially with a $100 off coupon. Use discount code “SPRINGY” to bring the price of Project Irresistible from an already reasonable $247 down to a no-brainer $147 for the first 20 to sign up. After you’ve registered, give me about 24hrs to process your registration and you’re good to go.


By popular request, I’ll be doing three therapy sessions per week via Skype on Thursdays. Time slots are 1pm, 2.30pm and 4pm Pacific Time. Write to me directly and put “I want a session!” in the subject line, and include your PayPal address. $175 for a 60min session.

Incidentally, ladies, this is how I make a living — through books, courses and workshops. So when you sign up for these things, get my book, or audiobook, or tell your friends about them, it helps me pay my exorbitant San Francisco rent and to pay Uncle Sam’s impressive tax bill so I can keep writing for you and create solutions for a happier, more fun and fulfilled life. Thanks for your ongoing support!


Fri, May 6, online – “The New Way to Date” teleseminar series put on by my friend and colleague Alicia Ashley. Free to sign up and listen.

Mon May 9, San Francisco, 6.30-8.30pm – “This Is How You Heal Yourself: Advanced Techniques for Overcoming Heartbreak, Phobias and Trauma.” I’m excited to bring some new techniques from recent trainings I’ve attended. This is powerful (and fun!) stuff. Location: Downtown San Francisco. $40-$50. Sign up here.

Thu May 13, Los Angeles, 7pm – “This Is How You Heal Yourself.” Location to be announced — if you know of a good spot, or if you are able to host 15-20 people in your office or living room, esp on the Westside, that would be super useful.

Sat May 14, Los Angeles, 11am-5pm – I’ll be speaking at TEDx Echo Park: Paradigm Shift. My talk’s called “Happiness Engineering: A New Paradigm for Success.” TEDx events are usually fun, and I know a couple of the other speakers to be pretty cool. I’m scheduled to be the first talk. Tickets are $45 and available here. I’m not necessarily endorsing this event since I’m not putting it on. But do feel free to swing by if you’re local and the topic interests you.



26 Comments on ““My boyfriend hasn’t proposed yet. Should I break up with him?”: On devotion, garden gnomes & eating menus”

  1. Christine

    Hey Dr. Alia, just wanted to take time to thank you for your book (I recommend it to all my single girlfriends BTW!) and thoughtful emails and free advice. I thought your TED talk was fantastic and I love how you encourage woman to develop their most sexy, positive goddess selves. I have to say that your email today really rang a chord for me because like you, I agree that aftwr being in a not-so-great ten year marriage and having the good fortune to have 2 lovely children of mine own, I would probably not care either about having a piece of legalese defining my relationship. This opinion is not for everyone, but if feels right to me in my current life position. Maybe I’ll change my mind one day, but I completely agree with you that ultimately what’s most important is the quality of the relations ship itself. Keep up the good work and I have no doubt you’re impacting the love lives of countless wonderful women. Warmest Regards!

  2. Renee

    This was just what I needed to hear today, thank you! We have an amazing relationship & have only been together a little over a year. I don’t want to weaken it by putting pressure on him about marriage. Now I just need to share this with my well-meaning friends who pester me about why I don’t have a ring yet every time I see them! Thank you!

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      I did not know this article could be used as shark repellent. Cool!

  3. Vicki Wells

    Your emails are the only ones, of the numerous ones I get daily, that I actually read, enjoy, and follow from start to finish. Thank you!

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, Vicki! I appreciate it mucho :)

  4. Candice White

    Dr. Ali,
    You do a great service to us “women” who are really in the dark about relationships! We have overdeveloped our masculine traits and underdeveloped our feminine power of being receptive. I believe we have to be every mindful of creating the “space” to have the man come to us….
    Keep up the good work…you are very much appreciated. Candice

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Thanks for the note, Candice! We all have and use both masculine and feminine energy all the time. But it’s worthwhile to note that demanding things is a decidedly masculine function, and tends to tip the polarity in a relationship. You’re asking the man to acquiesce to you, which is a feminine function. If you want to wear the pants in the relationship, fine, but if that wasn’t your intention, you may want to try a different approach.

  5. Michele

    I recently put pressure on my boyfriend about this, and we can both feel the strain in the relationship now. It’s not worth it to push any issue. It would definitely feel much better if it were his decision without the pressure, and I feel very selfish now. I guess I needed this article, and I thank you. Marriage does still remain important to me, but I think a good relationship with a man I trust is better.

  6. Susan

    I took Project Irresistable live course a year ago. It was fun!!!! I’m not immediately going to marry any dudes, but I noticed I have so many more people in my life! Lots of invitations to parties, etc. A lot of Tao of Dating lessons apply to everything else in life, too. The most striking lesson I came away with was to not let everybody else define you, your life, what you “should” be doing. I feel like as long as I am making a living, and getting out of the house as much as possible, having some fun, I’m doing OK. If I’m not attached to a Tall Dark and Handsome male for every social event, (even though I would love to be!) , it is still worthwhile getting out and meeting all kinds of people.

  7. Sincerely

    Dr. Ali,
    I appreciate this post very much and I agree that “Devoted is irresistible; demanding is not.”
    I would also like to offer another view. I don’t buy the part about, “I asked him please let me go if the marriage is not his plan…” Here’s my view: after Maria from Canada thinks this all through including her motives and needs, and whether she’s actually feeling the devotion you (Dr. Ali) describe, there is no reason for her to act toward the boyfriend or herself as if she’s obliged to wait forever. I think we’d all agree, Maria was clear from the start: if no marriage, then no forever. So I think Maria from Canada doesn’t even have to offer an ultimatum assuming she respects her own needs enough to walk if, after time, she isn’t getting what she needs.
    Meanwhile, yet another point — and I’m only conjecturing here. Maybe the boyfriend is blaming himself for the end of his own past relationship(s) and needs reassurance Maria and boyfriend are a really good bet together before he puts himself out there on the line again. It would be ideal if he could vocalize as much, but not all boyfriends are demigods in the communication department. Asking him won’t help him feel safe, there has to be some other way. Just a thought.

  8. Jenny

    Dr Ali,

    your insight as a man, of a man is always so powerful! makes me understand whole dynamics of masculine.feminine balance. very well explained and easy to implement.

    thank you so much!!!!

  9. Jenny

    Your e-mail response makes me re-think of my relationship with my boyfriend and I feel so remorseful and selfish of action on my own selfish emotions.
    thank you for saving me from ruining a wonderful relationship that i have been praying for!

  10. Tessa Bee

    You say that a woman requiring a man to marry her will push him away, but I think it’s only a man who really has no intention of ever committing who will be fazed by this insistence, in which case good riddance.

    A man who’s really in love will want to hang onto a good woman and make her ‘his’ exclusively. In fact, if he is hesitant I think she should keep looking, as any man who wants exclusivity without commitment is being selfish.

    Why do I say that?

    Often men take advantage of devoted women, quite happily enjoying their exclusive love and support for several years: then go off and marry another woman who DOES insist on being a ‘wife’, and is not prepared to settle for being a ‘girlfriend’ or ‘lover’. (I even heard of a man who slept with his girlfriend of five years the night before his wedding to another woman!)
    There are several of these ‘cast-off, long-term girlfriends’ moldering away in churches. Women who were generous, supporting, loving partners; fierce in their world of work, but at home they were the ‘yin’ to his ‘yang’. Feeling secure in his love they waited years for marriage ‘when the time is right’, only to be abandoned by said boyfriend/lover – after they had passed their ‘best-by’ date.

    I’m not saying a marriage certificate will stop a man leaving: but the very fact of swearing in front of witnesses to remain “’til death us do part”, shows a level of commitment which imbues a woman with a sense of security that is simply not there without a tangible commitment. This frees a wife to give her husband all that he deserves: thats his prize, all of her, exclusively.

    So, it’s not about a piece of paper (or metal), it’s about a conscious commitment to build a life with someone, rather than enjoy them until someone ‘better’ or ‘more suitable’ comes along with whom to grow old.

    Also, once you pass a ‘certain age’ it’s embarrassing and childish to introduce someone as your ‘boyfriend’! A man of fifty is no ‘boy’, and so one’s marital situation becomes a matter of self respect.

    Bottom line:
    If there is doubt in his (or her) mind, it is best for them to move on allowing space for someone who does want a commitment (also, don’t underestimate the power of fear of losing a woman he loves as a catalyst a man needs to make a decision.)

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Good counterpoint. It really does come down to the specifics of a relationship, and what kind of guy you’re dealing with. You could have a cad on your hands, or a really great, devoted guy who’s just gun-shy about the marriage thing — especially if he’s coming off a rancorous divorce himself.

    2. Rocio

      I enjoyed reading your comment. A man who cannot claim the woman he loves as his wife does not deserve much of her time. She could keep him as a boy-friend while she finds the man who can take that stand…if someone said to me…congrats you’ve completed 4 yrs of studies, you’re smarter…hurray…and then runs when you say…ahem…when’s the graduation ceremony? Am I actually getting one? What do you mean who cares about the certificate?

  11. Elle

    Hi Dr Ali,
    I have your book and have been following you for a long time now – you give amazing advice from a great perspective. I don’t agree with you on this one though.
    Maria and her man are grown adults, they discussed what their relationship goals were at the outset – and Maria has remained true to those. I can imagine that Maria, like most women, has treated her boyfriend like a king and made him feel like a million dollars from day one.
    She should be able to discuss what her relationship needs are. Most women do not thrive when they are in limbo. Most women want relationship security. Most women want to know that the man they are with has a current intention to be with them in the future. Maria should feel 100 percent comfortable checking in with her man to see if they are still on the same page. If she genuinely and lovingly communicates to him what her genuine needs are, and he cannot meet them, she should wish him the very best for the future and move on.
    There is abundance and a lot of opportunities for love in this world.
    Best wishes

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Excellent counterpoint. It all comes down to the specifics, Elle, to which we are not always privy. Thanks for your contribution!

  12. Dawn

    Hi Dr. Ali B,

    Love the quote from Tao Te Ching. Deep. Enjoyed your response to Maria on my boyfriend hasn’t proposed to me yet. Especially, since she is older why does the contract matter. You forgot to mention, she is not trapped in the relationship, she has the power to leave; but, not to leave as a threat, to leave to set herself free. But, as you have always said, she needs to know what she really wants first.

  13. Courtney

    I gotta throw props out to Alison Armstrong who teaches women how men are not “hairy women” as she puts it. It’s light hearted, and things resonate with both genders. One example was how we process time. After dating for 4 years, a couple splits up. The man thinks it was a nice relationship and good experience. The woman’s take was “WTF, I *wasted* 4 years on you for nothing?!” It’s evolutionary psych based, her eggs are only good for 30 some years where his sperm still have a chance at 75, so why rush? Our brains weren’t re-engineered, the mammal and human lobes and lumps were just glommed on top of the lizard brain.

    The first reader is past the child-rearing years, but I just want to share how Mrs. Armstrong presents it – we process time differently than men. Age isn’t likely to unwire that, and hormones may lessen it, dunno. But I really jived with how Mrs. A puts it – women love more when they have more space. She knows he’ll be there for sure, which takes the risk out of going to that scary vulnerable place of “ok, here’s the detonation button to my heart, I trust you with the code.” (aka what I imagine deep, committed love is like. Too chicken personally, with the disorganized attachment style, that 4th category most books fail to mention)

    However, if she doesn’t know if he’ll be around, anxiety starts to push out that glowing appreciation and fun. Without a firm sense of space (commitment), her capacity to adore is much smaller. I don’t t think that fundamental operating just goes away. Asking well practiced teachers “when will this go away?” I was told it’s like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. It’s still there, the relationship to it can change but it’s still the first reaction.

    (and yeah, I signed up for the course. I waffled but it’s more affordable/available now vs. live so thank you :)

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      This is a most excellent contribution, Courtney! Alison Armstrong is indeed wise — thanks for bringing up your points about the differences in time perception! I just may have learned something new :)

  14. Diaph

    Dear Dr. Ali,
    This post is why I LOVE you. Your wisdom, lessons from the Tao te Ching, and your generosity. And your book is a classic. You’ve taught me so much. Forever thanks!

  15. Serah Blossom

    Not to be unromantic, but I think there are a lot of economic and social tensions that are eased for a women when she is married. The answer to these questions is, um, yes, and it’s completely logical.

    “what’s important to you about this contract? Is it some kind of hedge against abandonment? Some legitimacy you crave, formalized by the state? What is it?”

    There are at least three points of connection in couples: sex drive, infatuation, and attachment. They correspond to physical, emotional, and security needs, in my opinion. All are important, but in US culture right now, women have a harder time meeting their needs for #2 and #3, whereas men have more trouble meeting their needs for #1.

  16. Krissy

    Marriage is definitely on my mind since I’m getting married next month! Last year I read Molloy’s _Why Men Marry Some Women and Not Others_, the jist of which is that men marry women who bring it up (which I acknowledge is different from demanding it). I do know at least one couple for whom this was the case, but it was absolutely not my experience. I think my fiancé and I had discussed marriage one time in the 11 months we’d been dating when he surprised me with his proposal in December (about four months prior when he asked me to move in with him and I said “no, not without at least being engaged” – not in a manipulative way – for me it was just something to try once and never again. But there wasn’t really much marriage conversation beyond that mention.)

    It will be the first marriage for both of us, and we would like to try for kids despite my late age (I’m 38 and he’s 41) – in this case I think it was just a function of his being in the right place and being ready for/wanting it. I don’t know how he would have responded had I brought marriage up – but as a previous poster said, we sort of want to filter out the commitment phobes anyway.

    Maybe not profound, but I guess my point is just that I think it also matters where the gentleman’s at.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Great comment, Krissy! In the end, it really is about the nature of the bond between two people, and where the gentleman’s at, as you put it. Marrying a guy who is already in dad mode will have better prospects than trying to convert a guy who’s in play mode.

  17. family song

    This is my first time visit at here and i am actually pleassant to read
    all at one place.

  18. Rocio

    Ceremonies are valuable…they are our way of sharing a moment…a celebration that is made more sacred with certain rituals…a rite of passage…
    I earned my master’s degree but was unable to make it to the graduation ceremony. I care more about the education and title MA more than the walking through stage with my family taking pics and the toast made in my name…my friends and family joining in the moment. Still, damn I wish I would have planned a little better and had my ceremony. Anyway, a wedding is just that…yes love is the essence still the ceremony is beautiful. Big hugs to u all who find value in that and to those who don’t. I myself love rites of passage and ceremonies that are soulful and bring friends and families together