There’s nothing women find hotter than a man who knows what he wants. The flip side, of course, is also true: women are turned off by having to make decisions for wishy-washy partners. Of course, you’re not that guy. Never have been. But every now and then you will find yourself in a situation where the answers aren’t as obvious as you might hope. You’ll start hemming and hawing, without the decisiveness you usually show at work, at the game and with her. Do you push your relationship to the next level, or just enjoy where you are? If problems arise, do you stick it out, or pull the plug? It’s important stuff!

Here’s one thing we’ve learnt over the years of giving relationship advice: the longer you linger in making decisions, the more likely you’ll be to find yourself in a bad place – three months into a lease with a woman you can’t stand anymore, for instance, or co-signer of a five-year loan on a new car. That’s where we come in. Use our expert advice to find out when to move forwards – and when to start looking for the exit.

Decision #1 Should you have sex with her?

If you’re looking for a fling, it may be nice to know that women who’ve had casual sex partners have basically the same emotional-health profiles as those who are committed partners, according to a 2009 University of Minnesota study. In fact, 14% of the women in that study reported that their most recent sexual partnership was casual. But that’s not a great percentage. And if she’s looking for a committed relationship, she may be hurt once the realisation that you’re just hooking up sinks in. Not that her intentions are any clearer than yours: nearly 40% of the 2 037 women we surveyed said they’d consider sleeping with a guy on the first date, even though 70% didn’t think it was a good idea. So while it may seem she’s treating sex casually, that doesn’t mean she wants casual sex. The key is sorting all this out while you still have your wits about you.
Your plan: Shoot straight
“Whatever your motivation is, she needs to know about it,” says sex therapist Dr Lori Buckley. In another Men’s Health survey, 83% of 567 women agreed: be open with her before you invite her in, not after you’re both naked and sweaty. “Men only really land in trouble when they misrepresent themselves,” says Lou Paget, author of How to Be a Great Lover (R187 Kalahari.net). But what if she’s the one who’s just in it for the fun while you’re developing a crush? (Yes, guys, it can happen.) If that’s the case, resist the urge. Instead, go home – and go solo, if you catch our drift. This way she’ll remember you as the one who didn’t settle for a hook-up, and that may interest her even more. Ultimately, if you both have your eyes open going into it, you’re more likely to make the right decision, Paget says.

Decision #2 Should you be exclusive?

Women are much more sensitive to their “taken” status than men are – 75% of the women we asked say once they commit to a man, they have eyes only for him. They’re not just saying that to make you feel better – a 2009 study by Indiana University researchers also found that women in relatively committed relationships may truly be less interested in other men. Then there are the men who tend to jump in too quickly, trying to have her sign on the dotted line immediately after the first date. With so many variables in play, how can either of you know if it’s time to lock out other options?
Your plan: Spot the faker
Pay attention to the way you two interact in groups. If one or both of you behave differently with each other than with your friends, you might be changing your personalities out of a fear of losing each other. If that tendency persists, it may signal a mismatch. (Don’t trust your own assessment? Ask your close pals or female friends how you two seem together.) If you want to ask directly about your relationship status, be careful. “She might feel pressured,” says Buckley. “It’s better to simply say something like, ‘I don’t want to go out with anyone else – this feels nice.’” But move the conversation along quickly in case she’s unsure – if she does feel the same way, she’ll stop you and let you know.

Decision #3 Should you shack up?

First, a sigh of relief: if you plan on marrying, cohabitation isn’t the risk factor for divorce some think it is, research shows. Just don’t let economics decide for you. “People move in together because they think they’ll save money or be closer to work, or for other practical reasons,” says Dr Ian Kerner, author of She Comes First (R149 Kalahari.net). A pair of US Census findings bears this out: between 2009 and 2010, the number of cohabitating couples increased 13%. But those couples were more likely to consist of one unemployed partner. Money savvy, sure, but not necessarily a smart decision in the long run. “You don’t want to rationalise moving in together – you want to live with her because you’re in love,” says Kerner.
Your plan: Find out why you want to
A recent University of Denver study found that the least satisfied married couples were the ones who weren’t as committed to each other during their prenup shack-up but who tied the knot anyway. The same pressures that lead to early move-ins set the stage for marital problems and divorce later on. One quick way to tell if you’re ready: compare how you pace your lives. If you find it cute that she hasn’t finished college while you’re halfway through med school, you might change your mind as you live with her and confront those disparities on a day-to- day basis, says Kerner. But if you’re truly not fazed by them – or, even better, if you’re both similarly motivated – then grab some pals, order some pizzas and move her in.

Decision #4 Should you pool your money?

Even within a marriage, the decision to merge money isn’t easy, because financial discussions so readily beget conflict and stress. But a 2008 Sociological Review study found that men and women who make decisions about financial spending together are more satisfied with their family lives – and their own lives – than couples who manage their money separately. And who can deny the appeal of boosting your quality of life (60-inch high-def, anyone?) by going Dutch on certain expenses? The trick is to maintain fairness and anticipate negative fallout.
Your plan: Proceed with caution
Before you sign a mortgage or car loan together, have an exit plan in place. Outline exactly how you will sell the house or deal with the car if one of you moves out. Put your agreement in writing and sign it in case later disputes arise, says financial planner Eleanor Blayney. For smaller-ticket items, consider a strategy not of splitting costs but of dividing who buys what. If you spend R5 000 on a television, for instance, she would then spend R5 000 on a dining room set. Maintain a tally so everything stays fair, and if the relationship ends, you simply keep what you paid for. Here’s one more thing to think about: if you see marriage in your future and one of you has bad credit or is carrying a load of credit-card debt, it’s better for both of you if the more financially stable partner pays off the debt, says financial counsellor Gary Schatsky. You’ll save money in interest in the long term, and also boost that partner’s credit score. (Make a contract to pay it back if you’re still wary.) Bottom line: you’ll boost your fiscal efficiency. “It does you no good if your right pocket is saving money and your left is haemorrhaging it,” says Schatsky.

Decision #5 Should you tie the knot?

Let’s assume you’ve sorted out the big deal-breakers – children, work, religion and so on. Nearly 70% of the women in our survey said their biggest fear about marriage was that they and their husband-to-be would grow apart over time. Those changes, Kerner says, are gradual and typically brought on by marital monotony – assuming, of course, that you allow monotony to develop in the first place.“You always need exciting new experiences to keep you close,” Kerner says. So don’t pop the question until you’re sure she’ll want to keep the relationship as varied and lively as you do.
Your plan: See if she’s game
If you want to gauge whether you’ll truly be great together in the long term, try playing a new game with her, or a sport she doesn’t know. This will help assess her receptiveness to new activities and challenges. “This is also an indirect way to see how she deals with new situations or problems,” says Paget. “If she becomes frustrated or blames you for a problem, it could spell trouble down the road when something goes wrong in the relationship.” Also, remember that people don’t change very much, and their personalities might actually become more pronounced as time goes on, Kerner says. If she tends to worry a lot now, she might become even more stressed once she has a full-blown career to manage or three kids to watch. On the other hand, everything that’s great about her will probably also grow. If she craves excitement, variety and adventure – and of course, if you can’t live without her – then by all means seal the deal. But if you have any doubts at all, then don’t.