This week's problem: When David and Alice fell madly in love they were both just divorced. After six years they split up because Alice wanted to start a new family and David didn't. Within six weeks of separating, he got another woman pregnant and is now living with her and their small baby. How can Alice switch off the pain she feels and get on with her life?
Avoiding pain is getting to be a full-time pursuit. Depressed? Take drugs, or get counselling. Ill? Don't give in; fight the disease. Angry? Punch a pillow. Tormented by anxiety? Try meditation or relaxation. Whatever you do, don't just sit there, do something.

If you've just split up from a partner, put the past behind you and look to the future and new relationships. Get a life. Take a leaf out of the self-help books and remember that the Chinese word for "crisis" consists of two symbols, "emergency" and "opportunity", and concentrate on the "opportunity". Remember that the P in "pain" stands also for "positive". Or does it?

David and Alice are already past masters at pain-avoidance techniques. They were only divorced from their separate partners for a few seconds before they covered up their hurt with the bandage of romance and both fell "madly in love".

Now they themselves have split up and David's following the old pattern. After a bereavement - the death of a relationship is a bereavement in itself - there's a corny old saying that runs: "Men marry, women weep." David's immediately sprung into a new relationship, so desperate for feminine company that he's even thrown his old principles to the winds and accepted the new baby that goes with it.

Perhaps Alice should also look at the old saying again, and rather than look for some kind of protective panacea, use this time to mourn the loss not only of this relationship but also of the first one, which it sounds as if she hasn't yet addressed.

She asks how she can switch off the memories of David. There is no way, and nor should there be one. He is a human being, not a light bulb, and needs to be assimilated into her past rather than switched off. And if she wants to know how to get on with her life, who says that getting on with life is all forward-looking and happy? You can get on with life in the murky waters of grief just as well. You can also get on with life by spending some of it in contemplation, and perhaps Alice should wonder why she picked two unsuitable men on the trot. She'd also be advised to protect herself from getting involved with anyone else on the rebound.

There can be no day without night, no sun without the moon, and no amount of hammering at ourselves with positive messages and psychic tricks can erase the fact that grief is an integral part of daily life. And there really is nothing wrong in that.

readers' responses

It seems as if you did not have enough commitment to one another. You were both divorced and he, particularly, didn't want to make another mistake. It is quite possible that the relationship with his latest woman could easily have just been a one-night affair. You must not feel tormented by this. Remember the past is gone. There must have been some good things you can store in your memory. Switch him off. You must. It's difficult but can be done. Widen your horizons: someone else may well turn up when least expected.

Frank

Bradford

It is a nice idea that one can switch off thoughts of a loved one, but that would just be suppression. If this was possible, there would be two Alices: the first feeling feelings and the second trying to switch them off. The resulting conflict would would probably prolong the suffering. Meet the full force of your feelings and let nature take its course without giving yourself a hard time. New opportunities will reveal themselves.

John Rumsey

London

I think Alice feels betrayed. She probably feels very jealous of the other woman and very angry towards David. Everything she desired for six years has rapidly gone the way of David's new partner. Alice really has no alternative but to start afresh. If she truly loves David, she will let him go and wish him well in everything he does.

It is never easy to let go of a person who has been an important part of one's life, particularly after many years. Unsurprisingly, Alice feels bowed down by the feelings. But at least she has recognised her "torment" and is prepared to do something about it.

Alternatively, Alice could meet new friends by working on her social life. Meeting people, work activities and social activities are means by which she might forget herself and be more receptive to the world around. Gradually, her need for David will change, but only when she allows herself to become more receptive to new ways of approaching life.

Nicholas E Gough

Swindon

Don't torture yourself by trying to work out whether he was being honest with you for a start. The fact is he probably loved you more than he could have imagined. Similarly, he probably genuinely never wanted more children. The new relationship was just wild, irresponsible fun. And then she did the dirty on him and fell pregnant. Deliberately, perhaps. You'll never know for sure. It is not hollow consolation to be fatalistic: it is the way the forces of love operate. The two of you weren't destined to make babies together. The likelihood is that there is somebody out there waiting to do just that.

Anon

London

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

After having had three children and with a big home to run, I suppose I've rather let myself go. I tend to live in T-shirts and track-suit bottoms, and I last went to the hairdresser three years ago. During a row my husband suddenly told me with great bitterness that he no longer fancied me because I looked like a fat bloke. He's since apologised but I still feel hurt and angry. I really don't think it's right to alter how I look for my husband since it's up to me what I wear, or how much I weigh. But a girlfriend says I'm being stupid.

Yours sincerely,

Jude

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 would like to share, let me know.

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