This week's problem:

Though 37-year-old Sian has been sleeping with someone she is very fond of, she's never said she loved him. But recently, drunk, she slept with an ex-boyfriend for old times' sake. It was fun and meaningless. But the current boyfriend found out, went spare and said they were finished. Sian feels her body is her own and swears that given the same situation in reverse she'd have only felt cross. What went wrong?

What went wrong? Well, it was a "communication problem", wasn't it? "Communication problem", that catch-all cop-out which gets everyone off the hook.

Well, yes, you could argue that the boyfriend felt that just by sleeping with him regularly Sian made some kind of unspoken commitment to him. But he handed over his trust covertly, assumed they'd entered into some kind of secret contract together, and was then appalled when Sian broke its main clause.

More fool him. He's got his just deserts because he didn't communicate properly.

Similarly, you could argue that Sian should have stated her views on free love clearly as well. They should both have sat down and had a good talk and then none of this would have happened.

But really. I mean. Sian and her boyfriend aren't kids, and surely Sian knows what sex means to most of us. OK, she says that she wouldn't be upset if her boyfriend had a one-night stand, but her view isn't the norm and she must be a complete emotional and social deadhead if she doesn't know it. If you sleep with someone regularly, it's taken as read that, unless you say otherwise, he or she is going to be your exclusive partner, for however short a period.

I hear in Sian's letter a childish and rather unkind squawk of self-justification in all this. All that "but I never said I loved you" and "my body's my own" nonsense. And she should also understand that although her body is unquestionably her own, the sexual act is something that's mutually shared and mutually owned, like joint property. While her boyfriend could never reasonably object to her masturbating on her own, he could certainly object to her sharing a sexual act with someone else.

I hear a lie in her wail, the lie of a child who claims that he "meant to sing out of tune" or who says: "But you never told me that you didn't want me to pick all the flowers, you only pointed to the blue ones." I think Sian found herself - as who hasn't - pissed and panting with desire on the sitting-room floor with the wrong man, and that she pounced on the intellectually attractive idea of sexual freedom as a get-out for doing something wrong, knowing perfectly well that emotional truth reduces reason to dust and ashes.

Now the only way she might get her boyfriend back is to admit she did wrong and know she did wrong, that she did betray him, it was hurtful, that she will never do it again, and mean it.

readers' responses

Yes, I think you did do wrong. Unless you have a verbal agreement that yours is an "open" relationship, it is a breach of manners to sleep with anyone else, or at least to allow your boyfriend to find out about it. In any case, it is extremely rude to allow him to find out without telling him yourself, which is what you should have done immediately if you thought he should know about it. Of course he was angry that he found out through your ex-boyfriend and not yourself - have you really put yourself in his shoes?

Also, consider that he must be jealous of your previous relationship with your ex-boyfriend. Egos are fragile and your reassurances will not convince him that he's number one with you now - as he sees it, you've taken the first available opportunity of sleeping with this man, therefore you must prefer the old flame. Don't expect logic where emotions are concerned.

My advice to you is to crawl. If you really want to continue your relationship, admit that you were wrong. Even if you feel entitled to your sexual freedom (and I would argue with you there), put his emotions first. Don't use rational argument; it won't work.

Sofie Blakstad

I imagine the boyfriend's grievance is not that Sian got drunk and unfortunately had sex with her "friend" but that she did not seem sorry it happened - in fact, she thought it was quite OK. I would say for "friend" read "lover", and if Sian wishes to have that kind of relationship there is nothing wrong with that as long as it does not hurt others. If Sian's boyfriend cannot accept her values then the relationship cannot work. Sian should ask herself what kind of relationships she really wants: lots of casual lovers or one close and faithful lover. It would be selfish and greedy to expect both, and in the end impossible.


Colette Porter

It is obvious that people are rarely so self-assured that they do not feel at least occasional twinges of anxiety that their partner might go off and leave them for someone else. Those who don't are either conceited asses or are about to ditch you anyway. As sexual insecurity generally lies close to the heart of such anxieties, the knowledge that the object of one's affections has been, is or is thinking about, sleeping with someone else generally causes feelings of pain and betrayal and most people prefer not to share their life with someone who is prepared to put them through hell for the sake of a drunken fumble with an old flame. It is not your boyfriend who is being unreasonable but you, in expecting him to shrug off your one-night stand when all you seem to have to offer him is the vague notion that your relationship might someday blossom into something more than twice-weekly sex.

However, the fact that you have your ex-boyfriends to stay, in the first place, and get drunk and sleep with them, in the second, makes me think you are the sort of person who likes their emotional entanglements to be just that: emotional and entangled. If you did not positively thrill to the dramatic possibilities of the situation, you do not appear to have gone out of your way to forestall a crisis: I mean, unless your current boyfriend goes through your drawers and systematically reads your mail, in which case you are well shot of him, how on earth did he come across your "explicit and extremely loving and affectionate" correspondence, unless the card was sitting on the blooming mantelpiece?

At 37 you should know that you can't have your cake and eat it.

A fellow 37-year-old

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My husband suffers from a chronic illness that is, as far as the doctors know, controllable only by prescription drugs. What frustrates me is that he persists in trying every form of alternative medicine, even though the doctors assure him that research shows their claims are dubious, if not useless. He has dominated our lives with special diets, tried everything from aromatherapy to hypnotism - all at some cost. Nothing, needless to say, has had any effect.

Now he's hitched up with some expensive therapist who believes it's all due to something buried in his past which could take years to uncover. He's still chasing after each crazy remedy he comes across, saying it's worth trying everything. If I get angry about the cost, he says I don't want him to get better, which is far from the truth. What can I do?

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. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.