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On Again, Off Again is Not the Best Route to the Altar

In today's Dear Abby column, a reader writes:

Every time I start to get over Guy, he comes around again. It's like he has radar.

In this case, Guy is a married man, but that's the result, not the cause.

If you are looking to get married and running into people like Guy, or if you are in Guy's situation of being unable to choose, you need to know this. Some folks have a dread fear of making a bad choice, especially in a decision as big as who to spend the rest of their life with.

The fear, psychology researchers tell us, comes from childhood experiences of being smothered or tied down by our life-essential love for our caretaker. The fear is real, but it is a phobia, a fear much larger than the risk as others see it. (I was going to say the real risk, but I don't think there is a universal scale for how much fear a given risk deserves.) And, while psychologists have pounded their collective heads against the wall of many problems, phobias are one they've gotten figured out.

The phobia is triggered not by the partner, but by the desire to stay, the toying with the idea of committing to this one partner and, as those wedding vows say, "forsaking all others."

If you are dating someone with this phobia, the more delightful you are to be around, the faster you will trigger the phobia. If you make yourself available for another round after distance has reduced the fear, the odds are excellent the relationship will end again just when it feels the warmest and closest and most hopeful to you. It will end because those feelings trigger fears of horrible strings attached to love (which have nothing at all to do with you) or of missing out on even better feelings by making a choice of a mate before getting to know all the possible choices.

If you are looking to get married, your chances of curing a good prospect's phobia are about the same as those of a travel agent who tries to talk those with a strong fear of flying into enjoying their flight to the islands. Unfortunately, people familiar with their commitment phobia often rush into relationships the way a child who knows the water will be cold rushes into the waves. They can look very promising. You will know them by their other commitment (the one they go home to every night or every weekend but swear they will leave as soon as they are certain) or by their sudden 180-degree about-face cooling off period whenever the relationship warms up.

If you recognize yourself in this description, please know most phobias can be cured. But I also want you to know that your picture of love, the one driving your phobia, is that of the child you once were. Marriages do not succeed or fail because they are a match made in heaven or a pairing of soulmates. They succeed or fail mostly because of what goes on in our heads.

Our knee-jerk fear responses, expectations, and fixation on either-or choices dictate most of what happens. They, not the person we're dating or married to, create fear in most cases. These are what convince us we found the wrong person, and we will all see "wrong person" projected onto the face of just about anyone we choose after a few years if we don't Assume Love when upset, Expect Love when disappointed, and Find Third Alternatives when we disagree.

If you share Guy's phobia, give these three tools a try for a few months and see if you can't get yourself through the next desire to run from someone you love.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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