This week's problem: an insecure, undermining husband
Jeannie's husband constantly puts her down but later apologises and gives her flowers. He obstructs her visits to evening classes, but is caring

when she is ill or down. Despite what he calls her neurotic behaviour, he breaks down if they talk of splitting up. Jeannie says he is her only friend and deeply in love, but she feels worthless and desperate.

I wonder if Jeannie's ever seen one of those old black-and-white movies in which a vulnerable young heiress is captivated by a good-looking bounder? He marries her, cuts her off from her family, and in the penultimate scene she lies poisoned by his mind-altering drugs. Meanwhile, her "kindly" husband leads the good doctor up the stairs promising to take charge of her medication. We know the husband will soon get his hands on the fortune by incarcerating her in an institution.

Often the heroine sees her husband as a kindly man until the very end, when she's unable to speak. Thus Jeannie sees her husband as kind in coming with her to the psychiatrist; yet he's only attending the sessions to be certain his prisoner doesn't blurt out the truth. She loves him for caring for her, when she's low and unable to catch on to the fact that he's the one who did her the harm in the first place. And Jeannie's fortune? It's the full-time attention her husband hopes will be lavished on him once he's cut her off from all other sources.

Now, it's easy to say that he's the sick one, but unless Jeannie's simply been unfortunate and gradually brainwashed into believing she is powerless, she'll have picked this monster for a reason. It may be that her need to be needed is at any price, even her own mental stability. Or perhaps, like a lot of abused women, Jeannie may so crave the type of parental care he offers when she's depressed, ill or hurt, that she's addicted to her husband's deadly charm. Cruel men like Jeannie's husband, the apologetic flower-bearers of this world, can be extremely beguiling and seductive when they wish.

Perhaps Jeannie could ask herself what she's really getting from her husband? It certainly isn't love. It could be involvement in a sick game. He needs her to control, to be absolutely certain of a woman's presence in his life; she needs his abuse to confirm, perhaps, a very negative view she has of herself, and his care to bolster herself up and make her feel loved in a way that perhaps she never was.

In films there's usually a dashing young ex-fiance to climb through the window to rescue the ailing wife. What Jeannie needs desperately now is a friend to introduce a breath of fresh air into the sickroom. It will be this friend's task to persuade her that her husband does not love her, but that he needs her - a very different kettle of fish - and that he is not her good friend: he is, in fact, her worst enemy.

readers' responses

The hardest thing for you to understand is, unfortunately, the most important: your husband does not love you. He loves having a slave who is weak and pathetic, never angry nor disappointed, always understanding and forgiving, to remedy his insecurity. But what do you want to get out of this? Is he "caring" when you are "unwell"? How unwell are you? Has he caused your illness or made it worse? Love means accepting someone for what they are, then helping them to become a stronger, better, happier person. When you want to improve yourself by going to evening classes, instead of being proud of you he belittles you. You don't love him either, at least not as a woman loves a man. You describe the feeling of a sad little girl for a sad little boy. Denying your personality is no guarantee of keeping him. After years in submission, you will be unhappy and resentful, whereupon he may decide you are "gloomy" and leave you. Mine did.

Ex-wife, London

Your husband is not kind and caring. He may think he is, but he is nasty, manipulative and selfish. He wants you helpless and tied to him. Any show of independence threatens that. He will undermine it and manipulate you into thinking it's your "neurotic" imagination.You say he is your only friend. A friend doesn't try to own you. A friend is more considerate about criticism and hurting your feelings. I bet if you hurt him you'd know about it. You can't argue with a neurotic like him: don't try to, get out while you're sane enough. I was in a similar place and got out, but let me tell you I'm a man and it was no easier to handle than it will be for you. Good luck.

D Haig, Eastbourne

You start by saying: "My husband and I are deeply in love." Whatever gives you that idea? You are being abused in an insidious and destructive way. His sudden illness or servicing the car to prevent you getting to evening class are no more coincidences than the sun rising in the east. They are a deliberate response, possibly unconscious, to prevent your self-actualisation and growth as an individual. Your husband is the one that should be introduced to a psychiatrist, not you. I speak from experience as a mental health nursing student who has looked after the results of such one-sided relationships. Please don't be another "new admission" the next time I go on duty.

Ian Thackeray, Harrogate

It is so obvious to the rest of us: your husband is eroding your confidence and your self-respect. You say you are deeply in love, probably because you have moments of great intensity when alone together and he is apologising, or crying. This is clinging to the wreckage; a relationship that can only function in a vacuum is not worth having.

Vivien Martin, Surrey

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My son, who is just 17, has decided not to go back to school this term, having got As in all his GCSEs. His speciality is Spanish, and he wants to go to Peru for six months before going to sixth-form college next year and doing A-levels within one year. He is bright and mature for his age, but I'm freaked out by this plan because I've read about buses of tourists being taken hostage, and I know how dangerous Peru is at the moment. I've suggested him going to Spain, but you can imagine the jeering response. His dad shares my anxieties, but on balance thinks our son should be allowed to go. But he says if I refuse to let him, he'll back me up. No help at all. He is our only son. I adore him, but have always encouraged him to be as independent as possible. If he wanted to go to India, I wouldn't mind. But Peru! What should I do?

Yours sincerely, Christine

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