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updated: 3/25/2012 8:18 AM

Bad idea: Going through marriage for the honor of it

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Q. In two months I'm due to be married. I've been with my fiancee for five years.

I do love her. She is a wonderful person and she's sacrificed so much for me. She moved when I asked her to, far away from family, friends and career. She took jobs that were beneath her and supported me while I finished my legal education. She's always been the giver; I'm the one who takes.

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Last year she (jokingly, I think) asked me if I would ever marry her. On impulse I bought an engagement ring and proposed. Inertia is leading me somewhere that, for some inexplicable reason, I dread going. I don't want to be married to her.

The horrible thing is -- especially for someone who writes and argues for a living -- I can't articulate why. There is no one else; I've never been unfaithful or even interested in other options. Sex is still great; we still have fun. I can't think of one good reason not to marry this beautiful, intelligent, passionate, selfless woman. I thought this was simply premarital jitters. I've taken no part in wedding preparations, but she's always handled administrative things for us. My groomsmen keep trying to organize a bachelor party, but I keep finding excuses to put it off.

I know I'm doing neither of us any favors by going forward when my heart's not in it, but I can't force myself to tell her the truth: I'm a boy in his mid-30s who simply has no interest in ever growing up. If I end our relationship this way, at this late date, I'm objectively the bad guy, for all time.

I suspect you'll say I'm still the bad guy for being less than completely honest with her. But even in an emotionally expressive age, even in a forum that prioritizes relationship transparency (like this column), maybe other virtues matter more. Maybe commitments that must be adhered to form well before vows are taken. Maybe I have to go through with this thing because there is no honorable way not to. Your thoughts?

A. The next two paragraphs are an excerpt of a letter I received about the same time as yours:

"I married for support and security. He married for love. ...

"Many times I wished for my freedom but I hung in there. ... As the years passed we grew apart but stayed together. I felt I owed him to try but I grew increasingly more depressed. Now, his drinking is getting worse. I feel guilty even thinking about leaving. He is a good person and I know he loves me, but I don't think I love him anymore."

Obviously there are a lot of variables here. However, I don't think it takes a whole lot of creative thinking to see a lonely man self-medicating his way through his empty marriage and unrequited love. And while we also can't know how he would have fared if she'd left when she first wanted to, I imagine we've all witnessed dozens of examples of life after relationship death.

For those tempted to vilify you -- er, the wife in the letter -- for essentially using someone's love to her own practical advantage, I think it's also possible to empathize; each of her choices could easily land in the "other virtues matter more" file. And yet, the big reveal as her story concludes is that in trying to do the right thing, she may well have ruined two lives.

So. Please take this letter as a reasonable projection of how your marriage might feel 25 years from now -- and banish, immediately, all thoughts of inevitability, of putting honor over decency, of self-flagellating your way out of the consequences of your actions, or of pulling a perfect solution out of your (ear) just as her slippered foot hits the aisle.

Since the truth is that you don't want this wedding to happen and you don't know/can't articulate why, that's what your fiancee needs to hear. (Feel free to say "cold feet" in lieu of "don't want this wedding to happen"; no need to use a cudgel.)

She will be hurt, confused, angry -- and right. But, remember, you've already hurt her; this is just notification. In avoiding that last step, you're not protecting her, you're protecting yourself.

If she doesn't dump you upon recognition that she has been a complete sucker for the past five years of her life, and instead promises to do whatever is necessary to keep this wedding/marriage on track, then be clear that the wedding is off. And if your truth-telling mechanism fails you, get yourself the most excellent shrink you can find to help you sort this out. There's no virtue in marrying someone you don't want to marry.

Any always-been-the-givers out there who feel a stab of recognition? Please take heed.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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