Charlotte's husband was having his cake and eating it. Having fallen for the Swedish au pair, 18 years his junior, he announced that he didn't want a divorce but needed a little bit of freedom - in the shape of trips to Sweden and a flat in London.

With three children between six and 13, Charlotte didn't know what to do. As she still loved her husband, should she stand by her man, hoping his affair was simply part of a mid-life crisis that would soon blow over? Or should she, as friends advised, break away? Another problem was that she had never worked, and feared what she called 'a lonely old age'.

Elaine Morton, of Darvel, Ayrshire, was all for waiting. 'The au pair will resent not having a stable relationship and probably not getting the children she wants,' she wrote.

But Anne Gifford, of Kent, who had been through a similar situation, warned: 'Though Charlotte is right to think the affair will probably burn itself out, once her husband has the freedom of a flat in London and, by her compliance, a licence to have affairs, his infidelity could easily become a way of life. If it's not a Swede, it will be a Spanish girl, or a Dane, or an Italian. I fear Charlotte faces a much lonelier old age if she stays with her husband than if she kicks him out. At least on her own, when the children are grown up, if not before, she will have her pick of men who value her far more than her husband appears to.'

And anyway, what is this 'lonely old age' Charlotte talks of, and when does it begin? Joan Cussens, of Runcorn, Cheshire, would like to know. 'I am 75, enjoy my single status, which I gained in the Fifties . . . now I've outlived all the friends of my own generation but have a couple of young men, the ages of my daughter, who enjoy my company.'

Charlotte should make a list, suggested Pete Cromer, of Edinburgh. 'She should write down the pros and cons of sticking with her husband on the one hand and insisting that he goes on the other. Each situation would be unbearable, I suspect, but on balance only she can decide which would be least unbearable.'

But another reader, who had been through exactly the same situation and wished to be anonymous, felt it was preposterous that Charlotte should have to take responsibility for what happened in the future. 'Charlotte should hold one fact in front of her. This dilemma is of her husband's making, and therefore his and not hers. No way should she feel forced into the miserable position of having to make Hobson's choices. Let him take on that burden.

'The best thing she can do now is to insist on one final discussion with her husband, making it clear to him that his proposition is unacceptable to her, spelling out the consequences - for him - of breaking up his family and telling him that her tolerance and patience have a definite sell-by date, which is hers to know and his to guess.

'She should show no fear, and put the ball firmly into his court. She should then refuse to be drawn on the subject again.

'Thereafter, she should try to concentrate on her own self-preservation. If her husband runs off with the Swedish lover, the decision is made for her and she's lost nothing that she wouldn't have lost anyway. But by concentrating on building her self-respect, other solutions to the mess should evolve naturally. In the end, whatever she does will be something she wants to do when she feels ready. She should not allow well- meaning friends to bully her into doing anything before it feels right for her.'

Self-respect is the key here. Charlotte can argue that to allow her husband his freedom within the marriage is a purely pragmatic decision; she can say it's better for her children to have a father at home; she can paint herself as a martyr. But the bottom line is that if she allows him to get away with it, she's nothing more than a doormat.

Losing her self-respect must mean she loses the respect of friends, her children and, indeed, her husband. (After all, it's never very flattering to find yourself married and a hero to nothing but a desperate piece of driftwood.) If Charlotte puts her foot down, however, she values herself more, and when you value yourself more you become more valued. In other words, she's more likely to get her husband to stay - in a real, emotional sense - by insisting he goes and seeing what happens, than by ending up as a lowly worm with only half a husband.

Dear Virginia,

You must take it on trust that I am a loving, committed father who wants to play the fullest part in bringing up my three-year-old son. I'm separated from my wife, and when I appealed to the courts for more access, they reduced it from 20 hours a week to three. Due to my wife's evasive action I've only seen my son for nine hours since last October. I am now beside myself with grief. I can't stop crying and find it difficult to work. His mother's attitude is so negative, the problem will never go away, and no court would sanction my son's mother going to prison for breaking a court order. She's a good mother, anyway, but can't accept me as a parent. I feel that now it might be in the best interests of my son to stop seeing him altogether. Should I do so, though it breaks my heart?

Yours, Graham

Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956-1739, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know. I will report back next Thursday.