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This week: my partner puts his work before me

Phillipa's partner works hard and stays out late, drinking with male colleagues and foreign clients. When she has talked about this to him before, things improve, but then the problem escalates again. He says his boss expects him to give himself 24 hours a day. Should Phillipa put her foot down even though she knows it would undermine his position at work?

Some people just have to work nights. If Phillipa were teamed up with a mini-cab driver, would she put her foot down if he tottered in at five in the morning after a hard night's driving? No. If her partner were a nurse would she, as he reeled back at dawn after hours of swabbing wounds and binding limbs, stand with a rolling pin by the front door screaming: "And what time do you think this is, might I ask?" No. If he were an opera singer, would she put her foot down and demand he skip the last couple of arias in order to return to the cosy nest? No.

And yet Phillipa's partner is in a type of work where he is expected to stay out late to entertain clients, and she doesn't seem to be able to see this in the same perspective. Is this her problem - or his?

Since he has been able to cut down quite easily on other occasions it does sound as if Phillipa's partner chooses to stay out late drinking, rather than be forced into it. A real professional, after all, would estimate the time he would be home, would not drink too much (no foreign client wants his host to be pissed) and would probably give his guests an idea of when he has to leave them, giving them addresses of further nightclubs, and tipping a taxi-driver to ferry them about their nightly malarkeys. A real professional might ring his partner during the evening in an efficient and sober way, telling her how much he longed to be home in her arms, and giving her an idea of when he'd be back.

So is it the drinking Phillipa minds about - in which case she'd be right to be anxious that her partner were threatening not only his relationship but also his job - or his late hours? Is she worried, as it sounds, that he may be going off with other women - or that he's actually having a far better time out than in? And why does he enjoy staying out so late so often? Is it because he's simply a bit laddish, in which case Phillipa's on to a loser if she wants to pin him down in a domestic set-up; or is it because he feels more relaxed at work, or at least out drinking, than at home?

"Putting your foot down" is easy enough to say, but what if Phillipa does offer some ultimatum? All she'll have is a discontented partner scuffing his heels home at the ranch and moodily channel-hopping with a four-pack by his side.

Phillipa wants her partner to change. She wants him to be the sociable person he is, but at the same time she wants all that social behaviour directed her herself in the evenings. But perhaps it doesn't occur to her that the chances of his changing are about as likely as her changing into a wifey type of woman who's happy to wait for her partner's late return at night; or perhaps he longs for her to change into a fulfilled, independent woman, out at classes and hen parties each night so that he doesn't feel guilty about his jollifications.

People don't change. It's as unlikely that she can change her boyfriend into a home-loving soul if he's a pub-loving soul, as she can get a leopard to change his spots. And, as they say, if a leopard were to change his spots he wouldn't be a leopard.

Phillipa should realise the sort of man she's hooked up with and forget about putting her foot down. She should either shape up or ship out

What readers say

Make him see sense

For 16 years I worked for a major multinational property company, where I suffered much the same regime as Phillipa's partner (but without the going out and drinking - there wasn't time, and even if there had been I would have been too tired). The only criterion for measuring success was one's earning capacity for the firm, and in pursuit of same I started early, worked late and skipped lunches and holidays. Only very late in the day did I realise that my health and my relationship with my wife and family were falling apart as a direct result of my work. It was almost too late when I came to my senses and left - immediately after my resignation I suffered a severe cardiac illness and I am still, some 18 months later, striving to save my marriage.

My wife saw it all coming (but couldn't get through to me) and also rightly surmised that despite my dedication to the firm I actually meant nothing to them. In the event, my boss had decided he wanted me out. My resignation pre-empted dismissal but left me with some measure of self-respect.

Phillipa must have it out with her partner now and make him see sense - no job (and certainly no boss) is worth the pain and sacrifice that will almost inevitably follow sooner or later if she doesn't. I have moved down-market jobwise and am much happier in that respect, but my home life is still in turmoil and I wouldn't wish what we have been through on my worst enemy. Do it, Phillipa, and do it now - the difference in being just in time and being too late is perilously small. If I had done this five years earlier, so much heartache would have been avoided.

Name and address withheld

Ultimatum or threat?

With whom is Phillipa's partner having a relationship? I am confused because it appears as if the partner is "married" to his work and having ongoing affairs with his male colleagues. Besides this, his boss seems to have expectations that very few human beings could hope to meet.

If someone is married to their work, this leaves very little time for other important relationships. Phillipa appreciates this, but it is her responsibility firmly and clearly to make her needs known to her partner. However, the upshot of the sensitive approach is a lack of change and feeling than an ultimatum would leave him feeling as if the relationship with his boss was undermined. But what about her relationship with him? Since ultimatums can seem threatening, I think this situation needs Phillipa to be assertive and try to reach a mutually satisfying agreement.

Nicholas Gough, Swindon

Ask him for a date

Don't "put your foot down". But what about saying you would like to have a meal out once a week or something. If you arrange to go out yourself, you can leave a note saying "supper in oven" or on a plate over a simmering saucepan - you don't have to say where you are!

Barbara Healy, Putney

Next week's problem: a Christmas card nightmare

Dear Virginia,

Have you or your readers any views or tips about who to send Christmas cards to? I have been inundated this year, and it's going to be a nightmare sending cards back to everyone who's sent them. I try not to send cards to really close friends as I can say happy Christmas to them in person, but there are old work colleagues, new acquaintances, old school friends - where do I draw the line? I don't want to hurt anyone, but although one Christmas card isn't very expensive, when they mount up they really start to put pressure on my budget - and my time.

Yours sincerely, Sybil

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293-2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.