Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I've been going out with an extraordinarily attractive woman I'll call Alice. We love spending time together. However, she has some issues I don't know how to handle. Alice was abused by several ex-boyfriends and her self-esteem is zero. She is intelligent, witty, caring -- but doesn't believe a word I say because of the mind games she has been subjected to.

I'm one of those "knight in shining armor" types who is faithful, doesn't throw temper tantrums, remembers to put the toilet seat down, gives my lady fresh flowers, etc., but whenever we talk about our future, she ends up in tears. She tells me she doesn't deserve to be treated so nicely and runs away because everything I am is so foreign to her. It's as though she's waiting for the other shoe to drop -- a shoe I don't have in my hand.

I want Alice to know she is a valuable person and worthy of the love I want to give her. Have any of your female readers been abused by an old boyfriend, met a nice guy, and then were able to have a normal relationship? -- ANONYMOUS IN ANCHORAGE

DEAR ANONYMOUS: The answer to your question is an emphatic YES. Read on -- the following letter arrived the same day as yours.

DEAR ABBY: I have been in several abusive relationships in the past. Not just physical, but mental and verbal as well. I have kissed a lot of frogs who ended up being toads instead of princes -- so I finally quit looking. The barrage of abuse to which I had been subjected left me with self-esteem so low I wondered why any man would want to be with me.

My last boyfriend tried to have me arrested after he hid a bunch of his stuff and said I stole it. After a long investigation by the police, they realized he was lying. The guy left owing me a large sum of money, and the only thing I can say is that it was the best loss I ever took.

Last fall, after things quieted down, I found a better job. I quit looking for the frog who would turn into a prince, and met a man who adores me. He thinks I am pretty. I cried the first time he said it to me. I had never heard it from anyone before. When we talk on the phone, I hear "I love you" no less than a dozen times. This has helped me greatly and my self-esteem is slowly rebuilding.

I'd like to say to all the women who read your column that if I can break the cycle of abuse, anyone can. It may take time to find the person God intended you to be with, but you will. -- FINALLY HAPPY IN OKLAHOMA

DEAR FINALLY HAPPY: Congratulations on your healing. After any trauma, it takes time to recover. That is why it's so important to proceed slowly, and not jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Learning to trust your own judgment, act on your instincts and not compromise your ideals is a process. Counseling can speed it up.

To receive a collection of Abby's most memorable -- and most frequently requested -- poems and essays, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $5 (U.S. funds) to: Dear Abby -- Keepers Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included in the price.)

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