How to recognize a bad sign: When it walks up to you and says, "HELLO. I AM A VERY BAD SIGN," it's a bad sign.

Dear Carolyn:

I have a very nasty habit of deciding about a year and a half into a relationship that I no longer want to be with my current love interest. I am used to the person at that point, therefore I remain in the relationship for comfort reasons. I am in my late twenties and would like to break this cycle of dead-end relationships and weed out the "wrong" people before I become too attached and have spent too much time. I want to get married someday, but want to make sure I'm making the right choice.

--Trying to Get It Right

Talking in movie theaters is a nasty habit. Spending your future retirement sustenance on overpriced handmade Italian leather shoes is a nasty habit. Ditching bad decisions, even two years after you made them, is a cameo appearance by your sane and stable self.

There's one way to choose the "right" person: Develop some clue about what constitutes the "right" you. What are your strengths? What brings them out? Or suffocates them? What makes you smile? Urgently want to hurl?

Can you know, when you've been "attached" to someone or other your entire adult life?

One way we figure this stuff out is through relationships that don't work, so it's not as if every failed romance is a failure. Most of them tank anyway, and should. The problem is you're reliving the same failure on 18-month intervals. That's not learning, that's clinging.

Pry your cold white knuckles off the dating scene for a while, and learn to live without it. Think of it as calibrating a scale: When you know how it feels to be happy on your own terms, then you can accurately weigh the effect other people have on you.

It helps to weigh different people, too--not just the first to show up.

Dear Carolyn:

I am 24 and have been dating a 26-year-old for two years. She has lived one hour away (two with traffic) for that long. She lives at home with her mom and I have been out on my own. My lease is up with the roomies, but we will "have to compromise" on where to live together due to our distant jobs. Plus she has expressed deep concern for getting married and I'm just not ready. She says I spend too much time with my family and friends, even though she does get the majority of my time. I am warm to living together, but the traffic is going to upset us both. I'm confused as to how to feel about all this.

--Please Help

She wants to get married, you don't.

She lives with Mommy, you don't.

She wants you to give up friends and family for her, you don't.

Know what this relationship needs? A co-signed lease and a really long commute!

You call it confusion, I call it an inner voice telling you to RUN. Even if I'm wrong, you lose nothing if you re-up with the roomies and give yourself time to think. Better now than for two hours, every single day, in traffic.

Dear Carolyn:

Six years ago, when I was 20, I fell in love with a guy (same age). We dated on and off for two years--didn't fight, but saw each other only sporadically and also saw other people. I was upset that he was dating others, but he said they were not sexual relationships. I don't want to get too private here, but while dating, we waited six months to have sex, and only did so a few times. He had an issue with sex that made him closed off physically, so we mostly just cuddled. I wanted a more serious relationship, but he told me he just wasn't ready.

About every 6 to 12 months since we stopped seeing each other, he's called or visited. (We live in different states now.) I still privately feel he's the love of my life, but have had serious relationships over the years and am not sitting home waiting for him.

My question (finally) is: What do you make of his behavior? My friends tell me no man bothers to stay in touch with an ex unless he's thinking maybe something will come out of it later.

--A.

He likes a twice-yearly reminder he's the love of someone's life? He calls as often as you cross his mind? He wants to recapture that nonexclusive nonbliss you once nonhad? To know what one person I don't know has in mind when he places a semiannual call to another person I don't know, I'd have to consult the official Tell Me About It Tea Leaves. Which officially don't exist.

But I will say this: If your physical relationship with him at 20 was unsatisfying, it'll be worse at 26 and dead by 30 if he hasn't gotten help. Enjoy the friendship.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or tellme@washpost.com, and join Carolyn's live discussion at 8 p.m. tomorrow or at noon Friday at washingtonpost.com/liveonline