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Originally published Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 5:46 AM

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She’s gung-ho for marriage, he has cold feet

Advice columnist answers a reader query about a marriage-phobic boyfriend.

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Dear Carolyn

DEAR CAROLYN: I’ve been with a wonderful man for two years. We’ve discussed at length spending the rest of our lives together, including our thoughts on money, raising kids, our careers, and working to fix problems that arise in our relationship instead of quitting.

He has told me that actually getting married is not important to him and that our commitment is the same regardless. I greatly value marriage as a sacrament, and he said he was fine with getting married. This was a few months ago.

Last week he took me engagement-ring shopping, and told me a few days later that he was scared because it was hitting home, and he isn’t sure he is “cut out” for marriage. He says he is sometimes selfish and doesn’t put me first. I say, everyone is like that sometimes.

His parents have had a bad relationship all his life. Also, he sometimes puts himself down, and says things like, “You deserve better than me.”

Now he says maybe we will get married.

I love this man, and I’ve considered all his good and not-so-good qualities and decided beyond a doubt that I want to be with him. I believe he will be a great husband and father. Is there a way I can help him reach that conclusion? He is averse to counseling in general, although I haven’t suggested it yet for this issue. Please help.

— Maybe Hearing Bells?

DEAR BELLS: Interesting how you’ve put yourselves in different versions of the same position: The (well-meaning) lies you’ve told yourselves are both coming due.

His is that the commitment is the same whether you’re married or not. If the two were truly the same, then formalizing the commitment with marriage vows wouldn’t be an issue.

Yours is that you’ve decided “beyond a doubt” that you want to be with him. If that were true, then skipping formal marriage vows wouldn’t be an issue.

Both of you need to decide which you believe in more — each other, or your opinions of marriage.

See? Solved, just like that.

Of course it’s going to be difficult, and you want it to be; ultimately your decision will be better for having to think your way through (or around) your own contradictory convictions. The mere act of calling bull on yourselves and each other can be positively cleansing.

In particular, you both could stand to scrub a dynamic lurking beneath the whole marriage-or-not debate: the “You deserve better,” “No, no, dear, you’re just right” Möbius strip of Doom. What happens when you get into that loop — and it sounds as if you’ve been in it for a while — is that each of you shifts the responsibility onto the other for taking the next step. To wit: “Is there a way I can help him reach that conclusion?”

It’s easy to see why, too, since you’re both at the point where you need to either agree to something you’re not entirely comfortable doing, or break up. Painful, scary, hard, right? So, you both default to pushing the other to make the hard choice for you, you by reassuring him to say yes, and he by warning you to say no.

There are ways to “help him reach that conclusion” you so badly want, but please avoid that route. Instead, I urge you (both, if he reads this) to concentrate on reconciling your own contradictions. Consider taking a week, two weeks, a month apart to do that. Not only will that allow you to measure each other’s presence through absence, but it also will remove the temptation to look to each other for answers.

If that brings you together, great, but still consider a pre-marriage class. Remember, the outcome you want isn’t always the best outcome; the best is the one that fits.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax. Find her columns daily at www.seattletimes.com/living

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