The last time Karen's work-shy boyfriend earned money he bought a motorbike. Last year she paid for their holiday. This year, since he's broke, she feels a little resentful about doing the same. Her friend says it's only money, and if they were married or if their sexes were reversed there'd be no problem. He says he'd pay for her if he had the cash. What should she do?
When has money ever been 'only money'? Even handing it over at the till at Sainsbury's isn't simple. Why are you buying the sticky cake for your partner? Because you love him. The cheap brand of bath essence for yourself? Because you feel you don't deserve more. The bunch of flowers for the garage man's sick wife? Because you want to bind him to you and make sure he gives you good service in future.

Apart from gifts defined in conventional social pigeonholes like birthday and Christmas presents - and they can be difficult enough - few presents of any kind are given that consist of unadulterated generosity, pure and simple; many come with sub-texts that are by no means always pleasant. Konrad Lorenz argued that gifts from one tribe to another could often be used as acts of aggression, as a demonstration of sheer power. And gifts can also be used, like Danegeld or Mafia protection money, as appeasements.

So what is going on behind Karen's proposed gift to her boyfriend and why does she feel so uneasy about it? I think that she knows that although she might feel a 24-hour high of artificial generosity after writing the cheque, she will suffer an inevitable kick-back of anger. As she lays out her towel on the beach, and her boyfriend rubs the oil into her back, two choruses will be singing out at her above the roar of the waves. One goes: "Great, I've got the holiday I want, complete control, with my lovely boyfriend by my side". And another one runs: "Yes, but why isn't he contributing a penny to all this?" Similarly, as her boyfriend uncoils himself in the sun, he's listening to a couple of conflicting messages himself. "Lucky old me, fallen on my feet, life of Riley, well-off girlfriend by my side whom I adore" goes one. But there's another rumbling away behind the rocks: "I am being emasculated and humiliated by this controlling bitch. I'm certainly not going to give her the pleasure of being grateful. I'm not more than her pet lap-dog."

Some holiday. There are times when acts of apparent generosity can actually sour a relationship between two people, making each resentful of or beholden to each other and though handing over the cash may seem a short-term, easy solution, the ultimate pay-off puts everyone in the red rather than the black.

Karen's friend? Her crass advice that "if they were married or the sexes were reversed it would be fine", can only be answered by the pompous old reply "if my aunt had wheels she would be an omnibus". Karen is not a man. Her boyfriend is not a woman. They are not married.

And Karen's boyfriend? Actions speak louder than words. He may say that if he were flush he would pay for a holiday for both of them, but in reality he spends his money on himself. He is a liar and a fantasist.

To offer advice to Karen is very difficult indeed. If she pays, she feels resentful. If she doesn't pay she may feel her boyfriend will be angry. If she decides not to go on holiday at all she'll feel upset because she wanted to get away and relax. If she goes away on her own she may well feel uncomfortable that her boyfriend clearly cares more for his motorbike than the opportunity of spending time away with her. In the end she will be forced to see that this issue is not about 'only money' at all. It is all about love and giving and taking. Today in the sun it may look like a tiny little mole on the skin of their relationship but I'm afraid that underneath there is almost certainly a cancerous mass that, unless addressed pretty swiftly, could prove fatal.

Let him be the man

It is not 'only money' and if Karen sometimes feels resentful before she takes her lazy man off on holiday she will feel much more resentful whilst they are there. If he were the woman and she the man it would be quite different: despite all of today's pressure on women to work and bring up family it should still be a source of pride to a man to take care of his wife financially as well as physically. Karen should think over whether she wants to continue with a spineless boyfriend then offer him the opportunity to take a pride in her and in their love. She should let him be the man whilst she allows herself to enjoy taking the woman's role and see what happens.

John Dexter

Hythe, Hampshire

Money exposes the cracks

If two people are in a good relationship and one is broke and the other not I think it reasonably if the affluent partner offers to pay more often than not. It does not matter if the paying partner is male or female: the days of chivalry (and sexual hypocrisy) are supposed to be over. However, I do think the poorer partner should appreciate the fact that she or he is benefiting from the other's generosity. While there is no need for gratitude, they could demonstrate affection in a variety of ways costing little or no money, such as giving small gifts or flowers or cooking dinner occasionally. This is why the ease with which Karen's boyfriend took last year's holiday treat makes me uncomfortable. He does not seem to appreciate her for it. He can afford a motorbike. He takes Karen, her money and her generosity for granted. It might be 'only money', but money so often exposes the cracks in a relationship. In this case it is the fact that he cares more about his money and his wants than his girlfriend.

Veema

Islington

Tell him to get on his bike

After reading your pitiful story I felt I had to pen this little note to you. Tell your boyfriend to get on his bike and get a job and pay for his own holiday, go on holiday on your own and meet a man who treats you with respect and not like a cash dispenser.

Martin

Droitwich

Confront his emotional blackmail

Don't pay for him. He's using a form of emotional blackmail. I had a similar scenario with a man whereby he was happy to remain on benefit whilst I worked full-time and paid for all the luxuries. It was not until I left him that he found the incentive, through necessity, to go out and find work. I received no reimbursement for the many extras I provided.

Ilona

London

The man is a user

Karen's problem is that her boyfriend is a user. These people, both male and female, are quite common. They go with you to a restaurant and then when it comes to the bill they have mysteriously got no money on them. If sharing a flat they never have their chequebook when the rent is due. However, a day later they will be found wearing a brand new dress or sporting a new jacket. Love and friendship should be one of giving to the partner. If I were Karen I'd run a mile. He is unlikely to change his spots.

Nigel Paget

Wallington

Suggest he make a contribution

Karen should suggest her partner work full-time for, say, two months in order to contribute towards the holiday. If he refuses she should go away with a friend instead or splash out on herself only. If he objects Karen can point out that it costs less than a new motorbike. Karen is not being mean; she is refusing to be treated like a doormat.

Jennifer Swanbrick

Preston

NEXT WEEK'S PROBLEM: STEPMOTHER CLOSES IN

Dear Virginia,

My mother died when I was 13 and when I was 14 my father married again and had two more children. I'm quite fond of them but was never that close to my stepmother. She's kind but drinks rather a lot and is something of a drama queen. However, at social occasions now she has started to call me her 'daughter' very loudly and her children, now in their twenties, refer to me as their 'sister'. My father has begged me not to say anything because firstly he says I should be flattered and secondly he says if I do it will cause terrible ructions. Yet this small problem eats me up. What should I do?

Yours sincerely, Ruth

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Send relevant personal experiences or comments 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 any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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