This week: do I offend my partner or my parents? Beth wants to give a party for her 80-year-old parents. But they're fundamentalist Christians and, Beth thinks, were hurt when she 'came out' as a lesbian. Her partner would keep away on the day, but Beth knows she'd feel depressed later. What should she do?
Is Beth making a mountain out of a molehill? It sounds as though everyone has bent over backwards to make life easier for her, but she still persists in taking responsibility for their feelings. Or are they only her own, imagined feelings? To accept Beth's divorce and sexuality must mean that the old pair are a pretty amazing couple, considering their age and religion - even if, underneath, they find it hard to accept. And her partner must be a real brick to offer to be absent herself on the day of the celebrations. But even though Beth is offered two easy ways out, she still dithers and panics at the crossroads.

Either she can't believe that none of the people close to her really mean what they say, or she imagines that she intuitively knows they don't. Life can be very hard when you don't know exactly what people really mean. None of us are mind-readers, after all, though Beth's obviously trying to get herself into training. How can she possibly know that her partner would feel depressed after the party if she weren't to come? How can she possibly know that her parents were extremely hurt when she came out?

If this is how she lives her life, constantly checking what people say against how she imagines they may feel, what a very difficult and tiring time she must be having, working on so many levels at once. This "I know that you know that I know, but we say what we think you want to know, even though we know you say what you don't think" is a typically British middle-class way of carrying on, and is responsible for a lot of needless anxieties such as Beth's.

But although I think this is Beth's real dilemma, let's get back to where her double-thinking has got her today. I think I'd probably organise the party at a venue other than her flat (the single double bedroom in a flat does underline what's going on) and invite a couple of her own straight friends along, along with maybe a couple of gay or single people of her own age. A whole crowd of people crinkled round the edges, and two younger women, might rather focus on the fact that they're a couple.

But apart from that, and in fact most of that advice is unnecessary disguise, why should any parent know anything about their children's sexuality? We know nothing of theirs, after all, and most of us would be pretty repulsed to find that their preferred position was doggy fashion, or that our fathers really liked to nip out to King's Cross and pick up a tart for the night now and again.

Similarly, should our children's sexuality have any meaning or interest for us at all? Parents may want to know if there is any chance of grandchildren, which there wouldn't be with gay or lesbian couples, but beyond that, surely their minds don't naturally wander to what they get up to in bed? No, rather we draw a veil over their sex lives, be they natural, unnatural, peculiar, dull, or bizarre.

Beth's imagination is running riot here, when her parents may have cunningly blotted from their minds most of what they know. Who knows? She should have the party, have the girlfriend, and there the matter should rest. She's told her parents once what's going on, and unless they pursue the subject, there should be an end to itn

What readers say

Don't assume your parents are naive

Middle-aged people sometimes assume that the older generation don't understand the intricacies of human emotions. It's absurd when people talking about sex programmes on TV say "they would shock Grandma". Grandma knew about all those things before you were born, dearie. Beth's parents have survived both World Wars, as babies and then probably on active service.

They'll survive this with flying colours. So will Beth's partner if she includes her in it, and asks her to be understanding and supportive on this once-only, important day.

Michael Connal, London

Beth's partner should keep away

I've just spent my breakfast fuming at the extraordinary idea that Beth should even consider inviting her lesbian partner to her parents' 80th birthday, if it would in any way upset them. Beth's generosity in giving them a party is admirable; but surely it should be as a celebration of their own long and eventful lives, and not of her unconventional coupledom. Thank God, I thought to myself, I'm part of a heterosexual couple, but I have no qualms about leaving my partner behind sometimes.

Olivia Pemberton, Cambridge

This could be our daughter

Could the "dilemma" being presented to you be from our eldest daughter? Yes, divorce, then female friends, then a female partner lasting some years now. My husband is 80 this year and I am following close behind in age.

But it cannot be our daughter, as there is no struggle with us accepting that our daughter is lesbian. Our friends hear her name and that of her female friend used regularly.

A party for Beth's parents? Certainly it would be enjoyable. But a joint party does not sound a great idea. Is Beth striving for approval from her 80-year-old parents? Don't waste your time, Beth. The dust has settled. Be happy in having your partner and in having your parents around.

Name and address withheld

Don't be ashamed of your partner

If your partner were male you wouldn't introduce him to your parents' friends as "the man I sleep with". Likewise, just introduce your partner as your "friend". Why should further explanation be necessary? Don't leave her out of the celebrations; she is part of your life now and hopefully in the future. Leaving her out may damage the relationship as it implies that you are ashamed of her, which presumably you are not.

If you cannot arrange the party including your partner, then stop the plans now. You may well not be able to "pick up the pieces" afterwards.

Diane Duxbury, Higham

Your partner is a control freak

The whole point of giving your parents an 80th birthday party is to give them joy. Your same-sex partner coming along to their celebratory party hardly seems likely to add to their happiness.

It may be your choice to be lesbian, but it's your parents' choice to be fundamentalist Christian. On their day above all you should respect their choice.

As for your partner, the real question is, why does she want to impose herself on your fundamentalist Christian parents on their big day? She is certainly not remotely concerned for their happiness, nor, perhaps more to the point, does she seem to be very interested in your happiness.

Give us a break; she's no "partner", but an old-fashioned, domineering spouse. You should replace her with a grown-up who understands "when to speak and when be silent/when to do and when forbear". A true partner would be mature enough to respect the enduring love you and your parents have for one another - and take herself off to the movies on your parents' big day.

Marise Lavin, NW2

Next week's problem: I'm so lonely. How do I solve the problem of what to do on Saturday night?

Dear Virginia,

I'm a very resourceful and cheerful person, known as "the fixer" because I solve everyone else's problems.

But I'm on my own, and though I go to the theatre or dances and walk in the country, I can't hack the Saturday night problem, and cry inside when I go out alone and everyone else is in groups. On Saturday nights I either go to bed hours early or just stay up and drink.

I love rock music and dancing but I'm too old, at 40, to go alone. Even Line Dancing is only in the week.

I just can't stand this dreadful agony every Saturday. Can you or your readers help?

Yours sincerely, Lal

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora . Send your letters to me at the Features Department, 'The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293-2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have a dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.