"Buy her some flowers," said my friend Tracy, giving me some advice about a first date that I was going on the next day. "It's very romantic," she added.  My thoughts quickly jumped back a few years to a previous relationship. The woman I had just started seeing had received some flowers from a client. Her comment to me (not to the client) had been, "Oh goody, someone decapitated some living things. Now I can put them in a vase and watch them die."

I shared her view of cut flowers, although I had never thought about it in quite those terms. I have never liked to buy cut flowers and experience the daily process of watching them wilt before throwing them away. But it's a giant leap from giving a woman a long-stemmed rose that is about to bloom to giving her a poisoned puppy so she can enjoy it before it dies. I guess it's just a matter of degree.

Somewhere in history, giving someone a gift jumped the boundaries of sharing and friendship, and became a symbol of love. Now it is a complicated process. Take flowers for example. We have to be careful what color roses we purchase, or even what type of flowers we give someone. Some colors and some flowers denote friendship while others, like red tulips, are for love. Some arrangements are for sympathy and others for other special occasions. Amaryllis are for beauty and white lilies for sweetness. I happen to like dandelions. A field of dandelions is a beautiful thing, but I've never heard of anyone giving dandelions as a gift, and I can't even imagine what the message would be. Yet, as a little kid, rubbing a dandelion on a girl's face meant that you loved her. I have not tried that lately and probably won't.

Tracy, who told me to buy flowers, also told me that she didn't like engagement rings and thought they were a waste of money. I argued that they were symbolic of a commitment in one's relationship. Her view was that she didn't need any symbols. I happen to think symbols are important, but one doesn't need to go into debt over them. I also wanted to propose to Tracy. The last time I was engaged (there have only been a couple of times), the engagement ring cost $120 and we split the cost. We wanted a symbol, not an investment. I've never heard of anyone becoming wealthy that way except to marry into it. A good friend of mine from high school bought such an expensive engagement ring that he was still making payments on it after their divorce. Anyone who buys an engagement ring as an investment is investing in the wrong thing.

The "buy me..." mentality as an expression of love is taught to us from birth. As kids our parents buy us gifts because they love us. People buy their relatives' kids gifts because they love them – most of the time, but there is a lot of gift-giving happening out of expectations rather than out of love.

My ex fiancée spent lots of money that she didn't have on expensive gifts for me as an expression of her love. She had to take a second job to do it. Those gifts were expensive symbols, and she probably regrets doing it. I loved those gifts, but I would rather she had quit smoking. That would have been a real gift of love to both of us. Too often we try to buy our way in relationships when the real expression of love is what we do, not what we buy. It's easy to confuse buying with doing.

Now it's time to get ready for that first date. I'm going to buy her dinner, and then maybe she will do me.

• • •

Post Script: I did, she didn't.