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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I am a 23-year-old man and I have been dating a wonderful woman my age for three years. We have a great relationship and rarely disagree. I love her for the time we have spent, the experiences we've had and the bond we share.

The problem is that we're at the age when a great many of our friends are married or getting married. I have a feeling that she could see herself married to me, but I have always had a difficult time picturing myself with her for the rest of my life.

I come from a family that has experienced two divorces, which makes me feel very strongly that I do not want to enter into marriage unless I'm absolutely committed and sure it will be 'til death do us part. Also, I have always subscribed to the belief that when you're in love and want to get married, there should be very little doubt that this is something you want to do. I have doubts.

I guess I'm wondering if there isn't someone out there I'm missing, and I don't want to rush into anything that I could regret forever. At the same time, there is nothing better than having someone who cares for you and for whom you care -- it's just not how I imagined things would be.

Am I living in a fairy-tale world, or is there a real love out there, one where there are no doubts? Everyone I know would probably say we have a good relationship and should stay together. I'm interested in what you and your readers might have to say. How do you define love? -- CONFUSED HEART IN MANHATTAN, KAN.

DEAR CONFUSED HEART: When in doubt, don't. Your girlfriend may be hurt at first, but you would be doing her a favor. She will not be happy with a man who doesn't truly love her, and the sooner you set her free, the sooner she can begin healing so she can look for someone who will love her.

To answer your question about the definition of love, I will summarize what I tell my teen readers in the booklet I wrote for them:

"To ask if it is love indicates doubt. Love is sure, and is built on inner realities. Love means liking a person as well as loving. Love is giving, not taking. It is wanting the best for the one you love. Love is on the go. It makes you want to charge out into the world and do, as well as think, big. It doesn't keep you inert, daydreaming and cooped up with only one person.

"Love wants to share. To the one you love, you give your thoughts and your dreams. A new happiness comes with sharing them.

"Mature love is honest and open. As time goes by and you learn more about the object of your affections, your love seems to grow stronger."

When love meets these criteria, then you can be pretty sure it is "real," and then you will want to make plans for the future.

CONFIDENTIAL TO "STRUGGLING STUDENT IN NEW HAVEN": "What matters today is not the difference between those who believe and those who do not believe, but the difference between those who care and those who don't." -- Abbe Pire

What teens need to know about sex, drugs, AIDS, and getting along with peers and parents is in "What Every Teen Should Know." To order, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Teen Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600