Dilemmas: I'm in love with my ex-husband

Alex is in love again with the man she divorced 15 years ago for being hyper-critical, controlling and belittling. He now lives in Spain. But he's had a heart attack and says, `gently', that he can't have sex, which is very important to Alex. Should she take a young lover?

VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

Funny. When I read this dilemma I get the same sensation as I get when watching a film where people are chatting happily in a room and suddenly the camera pans to the doorknob which, ever so slightly, starts to turn - accompanied by a frightful screeching of violins. Things, in fact, are not as they seem.

This toy-boy stuff is a total red herring. Poor old Alex is being led down a dreadfully familiar garden path. Fifteen or so years ago she fell in love with her husband. Then he slowly turned into one of those horribly critical and controlling characters that she couldn't stand, so she divorced him. Now, with all the ghastly memories erased from her mind, she's met him again. She's fallen in love with him again. And I wouldn't be remotely surprised if, in rather less than 15 years, she divorces him again. Why? Because I can already sense that he's on the controlling tack.

He must know how much sex means to her, and he's already punishing her, perhaps for dumping him in the first place, by saying that her favourite activity is out of bounds. He's not saying it with any wringing of hands. He doesn't say that it's awful and that he'll do his very best to find help that might make him able to have sex. He doesn't say that though he can't have sex he'll do anything in his power to help her reach sexual satisfaction some other way. No, he tells her "gently". (Screeching violins again.) And certainly he doesn't tell her the truth, and that is that apart from a few exceptional circumstances, which would probably mean he was pretty much of an invalid - which Alex hasn't mentioned - there's no reason why he shouldn't have sex after a heart attack, anyway.

No, that's one of those bits of folklore that seems to have hung on, like the one that says mumps makes you sterile (it can, but it's pretty unlikely).

According to an excellent little leaflet on sex and heart attacks published by the British Heart Foundation, in general if someone can walk 300 yards on the level comfortably or climb two flights of stairs briskly without getting chest pain or puffing, sex is on. (Since I can't walk up two flights of stairs without dragging myself along by the banisters, I'm starting to worry about sex myself, but that's another story.) If he finds he gets angina after sex, there's medication he can take. If he's impotent, it could be due to his medication. But most men who go off sex after heart attacks are usually suffering from simple anxiety, or they've never been told that it's OK.

Maybe in Spain the advice Alex's ex has been given is different, but that's the view from here. So I'm not even going to answer Alex's question about toy-boys, which sounds an extremely dangerous idea. If her ex really can't have a sex life himself, there are masses of ways he could give her a good sex life if he wanted. And if he can, which is what I suspect, then why is he holding back except because the old controller in him has been roused, and this is just the beginning of a re-run of the old movie in a Spanish setting?

Alex should be on guard. And before she packs up all her furniture and trundles off to Heathrow, she should at least re-read her old diaries, if she kept them. Sometimes it's salutary to remember the bad times as well as the good.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

Sacrifices will be needed

Alex must ask her ex-husband if "not having sex" means he doesn't want to share a bed and enjoy cuddles and mutual stimulation. Around the time of our ruby wedding we abandoned penetrative sex but still both enjoy orgasms - not always on the same occasion - and the thrill of pleasuring each other.

But if he is worried that sexual activity will affect his heart, Alex must accept that his health concerns are likely to invade other areas of life; that she will have to make sacrifices, and that feelings of inadequacy in a formerly dominating man may make him difficult to live with.

A "younger lover" would not help the situation.

"DARBY AND JOAN"

Surrey

Are you bent on revenge?

First, you should resist being fooled into thinking that your husband's personality has been transformed by his heart attack - he is still the same man whom you divorced for belittling you.

You would be wise to examine your motivation in renewing the relationship. In doing so, then taking a younger lover behind his back, there may be an element of revenge for the way he treated you when you were married. If you are in love with him in any real and lasting sense, you would relinquish the idea of a sexual relationship and not embark upon a deceitful, and, to the potential younger lover possibly exploitative, affair.

MS HEIDI GJERTSEN

Cambridge

A toy-boy is a bad idea

What was Alex's sexual relationship with her former husband like before they divorced? And why does she think he would not belittle her now?

But there must be some aspects of his character that are still attractive. People are rarely entirely incompatible; Alex is sensible and honest to acknowledge his good points.

Sex with another outside a relationship is a minefield. Most people want their sex with the person they love and live with.

NAME WITHHELD

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My dear wife died last year and I'm beginning to get over the shock. She'd begun to accept my transvestism; we spent some evenings both dressed "en femme" and she let me wear a nightie in bed. Now I can dress as much as I want to, and all the time under my male garb, but it's so lonely. I can't give it up. I've tried throwing out my wardrobe, but a month later I'll buy a new set. How do I meet a lady who will accept me? And how do I broach the subject? I can't bear to resign myself to being a solitary, sad transvestite.

Yours sincerely, Paul

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail dilemmas@independent.co. uk, giving a postal address for a bouquet

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