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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I have three wonderful sons, ranging in age from 12 to 19. For the last 10 years, I have had bouts of depression when I think about losing them to girlfriends or wives. I keep remembering all the negative mother-in-law jokes and the derogatory commercials I have seen. How can anyone think that a mother can turn off her love for a son because another woman might get jealous or possessive? It is pounded into everyone's head that mothers-in-law are horrible and unworthy of communication and love from their son and his family.

I am sick of it! I'm a good person. I love my sons with every ounce of my being. I'll be there for them whenever I am needed. It is horrifying to me that the first time I might say something that doesn't suit my son's wife, she'll cut me out of their lives.

Men are such doormats for their girlfriends and wives! Why don't they stand up for their mothers the way we stood up for them? -- SICK OF THE BAD REP

DEAR SICK: Where did you get the idea that the majority of in-law relationships are dysfunctional? Women who welcome their daughters-in-law and don't treat them as rivals usually have warm and loving relationships. Have you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy? I am concerned that your preconceptions will poison your future relationships. Please discuss them with a psychotherapist, and don't put it off.

DEAR ABBY: I live with a man I'll call Elmer who is, for the most part, a great guy. He accepted my son as his own and provided for him the same way he does for our daughter. We have a nice home, material comforts, and Elmer makes sure all our bills are covered if I can't afford to pay them myself.

Last year, I decided I wanted to go and swim with the dolphins -- literally. I told Elmer this is a spiritual thing, something I want to do for myself and by myself. Elmer tends to be sort of a control freak, but if I stand my ground, he usually backs down. With this dolphin thing, though, he's making my life miserable.

Elmer has 1,001 reasons for me not to take the trip, none of which are valid.

What can I do to make him see that there are plenty of couples who sometimes take separate trips? He says if I love him, I won't go without him. He didn't give me this hard a time when I changed religions. -- NEEDS ADVICE IN MARYLAND

DEAR NEEDS: Since I don't know Elmer, it's hard to say what you can do to reassure him. He may be afraid that you will get in over your head -- literally. Or he may feel insecure about the relationship he has with you since you are not married.

However, in life we must all follow our own spiritual paths. We must also prioritize our wishes in the order of their importance. If swimming with the dolphins is more important to you than Elmer, then you will have to dive in, even if it means swimming through the rest of your life without him.

Good advice for everyone -- teens to seniors -- is in "The Anger in All of Us and How to Deal With It." To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $5 (U.S. funds only) to: Dear Abby, Anger Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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