This week's problem: Although her friends assure Eileen that her husband adores her, she feels starved of affection. He never cuddles her, dislikes kissing (though they have regular sex), finds it impossible to talk about her problems and never tells her he loves her. If she's low, however, he'll buy her a bottle of expensive scent. Eileen feels she's dying from lack of an occasional affectionate gesture.
In these days where "show your feelings" is a fashionable mantra for the success of any relationship, it's easy to blame Eileen's husband. Surely he ought to be counselled into the ground in order that he might unbend a fraction. But no doubt his fears of bringing his feelings into the open are just as strong and deep-rooted as Eileen's longing to be shown them. And he's not the one who's hurting. So unless she actually threatens to leave, he has no motive to lie on the couch and part with his money.

Eileen has two options. She can get her cuddles and affection from other sources. No, I don't mean a sneaky affair. I mean that she could be getting hugs from women, children, older people, gay men or even heterosexual men - if she can pick the right ones. People are more physically affectionate than they used to be, and if she wants the sensual buzz that comes from the contact of warm, human flesh, there are plenty of cheeks available, plenty of arms to link, plenty of hands to hold, shoulders to lean on and loving squeezes to be had from people other than her husband. Girlfriends now even say: "I love you" to one another sometimes.

Or Eileen can try to see what her friends can see and she cannot - that her husband adores her. Clearly his love is palpable to them; why isn't it palpable to her? Does she have a barrier to experiencing the love he has to offer? Take, for instance, that bottle of scent. It may not be much, but it's a lumbering, and very touching, attempt at real consolation. No matter it's crude; it's the equivalent of a dumb dog who, realising you're unhappy, lays its favourite bone on your knee and gazes up at you.

I think Eileen may be tyrannised by the pursuit of intimacy that causes the downfall of so many good partnerships. Saying, as he apparently does when she asks if he loves her, that he wouldn't be there if he didn't, might not be a romantic way of expressing love, but it's easy to say "I love you" and much more difficult to "be there".

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," wrote Elizabeth Barratt Browning. There are other ways of expressing love than kissing, holding hands and chewing the fat over emotional problems. Before she leaves him and goes off in search of a man who is emotionally adept in the way she understands (a rare man, almost certainly), Eileen should perhaps try to understand her husband's language of love, language that is at the moment completely foreign to her.

readers' responses

Leave him. Living with someone who is unable to express himself in a loving way (apart from "sex once a week") is a killer. It happened to me, so I know what you are going through. I remember seeing a happy couple walking hand-in-hand and thinking, "That is never going to happen to us". It didn't. If you stay, you will be destroyed; you will be jealous of anybody he smiles at.

Your husband is not capable of having a normal relationship. Normal warm feelings are wasted on a man who is congenitally unable to respond to you.

I now live happily on my own and have lots of friends; my only regret is the two years I spent with a partner who had a splinter of ice in his heart.

Anon

Bucks

I cannot say whether your husband loves you or not. I do know my ex-partner could easily have written your letter word for word. I failed on most of the points you mention and more. I failed to hug her or show much affection. I used to smoke and felt guilty kissing her untainted lips. After 12 years she left me. She couldn't chastise me - we failed to talk. I am devastated, I loved her (and still do) more than one has a right to expect. Talk to your husband, forcefully if necessary - he probably does love you.

Harry Osborne

E Sussex

A s a marriage counsellor for 30 years, I can tell you that you have described the state of 98 per cent of marriages after the first 10 years. We used to give advice along the lines of "how to reawaken interest", "how to vary routines", for the wife not to demand too much affirmation of the husband's love etc, but the years brought cynicism and a complete reversal of my approach. The truth is the husband does not really "love" the wife.

This sounds brutal but the wife is in fact in possession of the more brutal card. The husband may not love the wife but he does depend on her; the wife does not depend on him. It may sound from her longing for his affection that she does, but the truth is that her route to happiness lies in abandoning any expectation of emotional support from her husband, and with this abandonment comes power.

If the wife does not care, the husband wakes up almost instantly. It cannot be a cosmetic change on the wife's part; she has to realise that it is fundamentally true that she does not need the husband's love.

To be in a situation where you should be getting love and are not is worse than being alone and self-sufficient. If Eileen looks away from the question of her husband's feelings, and towards goals and strengths of her own, she may find there are some interesting changes in the marriage.

Margaret Smith

London

There's a letter that will strike a chord with millions of readers. There is no other corner of the globe as densely populated with inhibited men unable to show emotion as these isles. Stiff upper lip and emotional constipation reigns supreme. Millions of affection-starved women long for a touch and cry themselves to sleep.

I know what it is like to be desperately lonely in a marriage. I am a foreigner married for two decades to one of those withdrawn, uncommunicative Englishmen. I am often depressed and sometimes driven to breaking point. But I will not leave him, because - like you - I think he loves me. And because, apart from this apparent coolness, he is decent, loyal and supportive.

I myself am a bit introspective and withdrawn. If you were really warm and demonstrative, Eileen, would you be with this man in the first place? People like us still need a hug or an arm round the shoulder when we are feeling down. But we do not offer it spontaneously, do not inspire it in others and, what's worse, do not know how to ask for it.

Olga Olsen

London

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

When David and I met we were both just divorced with two children each. We fell madly in love but never lived together, feeling we needed space before making a serious commitment. Six years later we separated, having come to the conclusion that we needed different things - I wanted to go the whole way and he didn't. He swore he could never love anyone as much as me but also said he didn't really like children and would not want to start again. A few weeks later, he made a woman pregnant accidentally and they are now living together with their four-month-old baby. I find it so difficult to turn the page and start afresh, tormented by what he's done. What can I do to switch him off and get on with my life?

Yours sincerely,

Alice

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, 'Independent', One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share, let me know.

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