I\’ve had two horrible, abusive marriages, and have been divorced for five years. When I wasn\’t looking (of course), I met a woman I clicked with emotionally and intellectually. Our friendship started slowly, but recently elevated to hugging and kissing. I\’m now panicking, thinking I\’m not ready for a relationship since I\’m unable to feel secure with a woman after being cheated on by my second wife. How can I learn to trust?

— Petrified

There are things that are beyond a person\’s control, like when you\’re sitting in an easy chair in your living room and you die in a plane crash. Or maybe you\’re walking down the street, minding your own business, and a horrible, abusive marriage falls on you like the house from The Wizard of Oz. Twice.

Chances are, you put more thought into what you\’re having for lunch than who you\’re supposedly having for forever: "Did my steak have leg room? Did my lettuce have a happy childhood? Did my chicken have meaningful conversations and a chance to read the classics?" After you\’re done with the important questions, there\’s just enough time to ask, "Hi, I barely know you, but will you marry me?"

Of course, knowing somebody well is no guarantee. People change. They get more conservative, or less conservative, or convex in the places they used to be concave. But, beyond the handful who go barking mad at 29, most people don\’t change a whole lot. In other words, it\’s unlikely you married some sweet, gentle flower who woke up one morning a raging, plate-throwing psycho. If you never knew what hit you — until you started picking the Wedgwood out of your left cornea — it\’s probably because you never really looked at what you were getting into. Even now, you write about your marriages like they just happened to you, and paint yourself as a victim — very convenient, since "blaming the victim" is considered heresy on par with using the flag to clean the bathtub. 

But often, the victim does bear some responsibility. Take me, for example: I used to live in a pretty isolated section of downtown New York City, just past a big UPS garage. I had a rule that I\’d only take Greenwich Street home when the UPS guys were there loading and unloading. After moving to California, I came back to visit and lah-dee-dah wandered down Greenwich late one night — followed, unbeknownst to me, by some creep who ran up behind me and helped himself to a big grope. I screamed and thrashed. I ran. I was fine. Did I tell myself I was a victim? No, I told myself I was a moron — and resolved never again to meander around New York City with my street smarts dangling off some palm tree back home.

Your problem isn\’t learning to trust; it\’s learning that trust shouldn\’t be thrown around like birdseed. Figure out what your standards are, then put time and effort into determining whether a particular person measures up. Don\’t get sidetracked looking for the good in people, since you\’re unlikely to get divorced because your partner is witty, attractive and inventive in bed. Instead, look for the bad and the ugly, and decide whether you can live with them before you let a woman into your life. Don\’t make excuses: "She\’s great except that her last 12 relationships broke up after she cheated on the guys with their best friends. This time will be different." Yeah, sure it will — because no two so-called best friends will have sex with your girlfriend in exactly the same way.

The platonic bomb

After a great date with this girl I once worked with, we made plans for the following Saturday. She canceled, explaining she\’s a month out of a year-long relationship, isn\’t ready to date, and hopes we can be friends. What does that mean? And how long do I wait to try for more than friends?

— Dated and Confused

"Friends" are what women call males they\’re with when they walk into a club and blurt out, "There isn\’t a single hot guy here!" Once you\’re dropped down the buddy hatch, it\’s often impossible to crawl up for more. In other words, your best bet right now is making yourself scarce. Not angry scarce, but scarce like you\’ve got too many dates to hop on the hamster wheel of obsession. Base when you ask her out again on what you know about the seriousness of her last relationship — multiplied by number of Alanis Morissette songs she replays daily. She still might turn you down, but at least it won\’t be after you\’ve spent months tagging along like her pet eunuch — the guy who gets to hold her curling iron while she gets ready for dates with men she hasn\’t neutered into friends.