Dear Carolyn:

My boyfriend and I are talking about marriage, but probably won't get engaged for a few months. I feel weird telling him what kind of ring I'd prefer because he really hasn't asked. How do I do that discreetly? I know he really wants it to be a surprise.

Engaged?

Then decide now whether you're the right bride for a groom who'd rather surprise you with a ring he likes than let you pick one out. You know him; how well does he know you?

And if you do still want him, but don't like the ring, then decide whether you're one to love what he gave you because he gave it to you; or to wear it for a year and discover it has a "problem" that you need to "fix"; or to say to him outright, "You're perfect but I'd like to exchange or reset the ring" -- and let him decide if he wants to marry a girl who's that pragmatic.

And before anyone says, "Cheez, it's just a ring, it's the marriage that counts" -- I agree with you, even though you're also missing the point.

Point: The it's-just-a-ring people should marry each other, and the it's-a-symbol-of-our-love!!! people should marry each other, and the diamonds-are-a-false-tradition people should marry each other, and the 2-carats-or-don't-bother people should marry each other (and retain competent counsel).

And if you're a mixed-opinion couple, use this to find out, now, how good you are at handling your differences when emotions, dreams, money and certainties about the perfect way to do whatever are all trying to elbow their way into the discussion.

Thus proving even a materialistic non-issue can be an issue when there are feelings involved, because there's no such thing as a throwaway feeling. Trust yours and see how you do.

Dear Carolyn:

I have been dating a wonderful, caring man for four months. I, in general, have always hoped to eventually be married with kids. He had mentioned, about weekly, how kids are not for him and that he needs his space. (His parents had a bitter divorce.) I intended to end our relationship based on this incompatibility.

When we discussed things, he changed his stance and said he was open to having a family with the right person. I have doubts that a person with many individual goals, who does not particularly want a family, can be happy making the sacrifices required of an active, involved parent. What do you think?

Chicago

I think you've got a legitimate doubt there.

I also think a wonderful, caring man is worth the time it's going to take to confirm or erase your doubts.

He could have exaggerated his original stance against kids (not good), he could be backpedaling to please you (so not good), he could be feeling something new with you and questioning his own biases accordingly (which might make him a really great dad someday).

People say all kinds of things. Usually, it takes nothing more than patience to find out what they really mean. That, and having the strength to trust what you see. Which all helps, conveniently, with the other thing I was thinking: four months?

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com, and join Carolyn's live discussion at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.