Emotional caretaking. It's what women do for the men in their lives who are great at running companies but can't seem to deal with their own feelings. It's also why Della and Anthea made all the running in this week's celebrity menage a trois. Hettie Judah explains
HOW DO YOU make your boyfriend scream and run away? You show him a photograph of your mother, you threaten him with a rabid pitbull terrier, or you simply gaze deep into his eyes and say, "Darling - I think we need to talk." Thirty years down the line, the spirit of Alfie lives on; once the chase is over men still seem to leave the emotional responsibility within a relationship to their other half - whether as the comforter, the catalyst or the augur of problems: 70 per cent of divorces, after all, are initiated by women.

Clearly a mutual attraction and a bundle of other compatabilities is needed to get things started, but to a greater extent, once things have settled down, women seem to control the shifts within a relationship. Of course, no one is suggesting that men have less emotional involvement in a relationship, but they often seem not to think through and anticipate the result of their actions as part of a couple.

The Bovey/Turner threesome, which has dominated the headlines over the past week, is a classic example. After Grant Bovey left Anthea to return to his wife, the front page of the Sun held a photograph of Della Bovey with a flash across it reading simply "The Winner". This wrangle of relationships was never a matter of chance, it was a game of calculated manoeuvres conducted entirely by the women. The pictures said it all: Della looked triumphant, Anthea looked crestfallen, and Grant looked confused, much as he had looked throughout his 14-week relationship with Anthea.

In a way it was this confusion that allowed Della to win him back; it seemed not to occur to him that he would miss his kids or even make them so unhappy; every consequence of his actions seemed to come as a shock to him. Most of my female friends give testament to this male tendency of avoiding change and emotional confrontation. Stories abound, in particular of boyfriend's ostrich-like behaviour whenever a problem crops up. Rosie was in a long relationship with a man she loved deeply, and while he was clearly not happy, he refused to take the responsibility for a split and instead almost drove her into the ground, to the point where, despite her love, she had to end the relationship herself.

More often than not, it seems that men will not admit that there is a problem or discuss it. "Two years ago I went on holiday with my boyfriend, and while we were away, he casually announced that he had been having an affair," remembers Amy. "He said the affair was over, and it was just sex anyway, but would say no more. I spent the rest of the holiday desperate to talk it over with him, to talk about our relationship, but he refused. In the end it just felt like I was constantly chasing him. "Looking back it seems like his refusal to discuss anything with me was actually more destructive than the affair itself."

Ted, a chiropodist in his late twenties, says that he doesn't worry when his girlfriend wants to talk about their relationship, "because it's the same territory we are going over again and again; it goes in circles." He says that when confronted with "we need to talk" he says, "'Well, if it's that bad, we might as well split up.' Every complaint she makes, I contradict it. By the end of the discussion she's usually decided there isn't a problem after all and starts blaming herself for everything."

"There are just certain things about another person that you just don't need to know," says Paul, a textile designer in his early thirties. "In a way, the more intrigue there is, the better your relationship can be. The minute you start having those long discussions, everything you find out about each other is negative; they are all reasons why you shouldn't be together. Once you have started doing that, you're on a slippery slope, because the fact is that people don't change; as soon as you have exposed your differences it can only get worse. It's better to have a relationship where your knowledge of the other person is quite superficial; cut discussions out and have a good time."

Both Ted and Paul admit that they rarely, if ever, take the impulse to end a relationship or change it any way, they would prefer to drag things out until the woman has to take charge. Many women reading this will be nodding in smug recognition; we all know the type. Just like Grant Bovey, these men refuse to take on emotional responsibility to talk over problems. As with most issues of gender politics, however, the reality is not so black and white.

According to Julia Cole, spokesperson for Relate, the apparent imbalance of emotional responsibility often lies not so much in different approaches to marriage or relationships, but in our methods of communicating emotion and emotional change. Women will verbalise the thought processes that go into a decision, men are more likely to announce their solution. There are mythologies about the way women emote that have become quite popular, with a belief that if all men did what women did it would be OK. Well, it wouldn't. We could end up in situations where people went round in circles and didn't come up with decisions. The approach of neither gender is right or wrong, simply different. It's a bit like one partner saying, 'Speak to me in Japanese,' and the other one saying, 'Well, I don't speak Japanese.' Counselling is about achieving a balance between the two."

Far from becoming more like Alfie, it does seem that men are getting better at articulating the shifts within their relationships and about discussing their feelings. Many of the men I approached were offended by the suggestion that they took an emotional back seat. "I'm always up front. I lay my cards on the table" says Toby, a thirtysomething actor. "I continually reveal myself; partly because I am trying to understand the situation." Interestingly, Toby considers this compulsive honesty to have problems of its own. "I am learning that this might not be the right way to behave; it seems to me the people who are emotionally in control are the ones who don't reveal everything, they remain mysterious. They have some kind of power."

Judy Cunnington of London Marriage Guidance confirms that the received idea of men being less emotionally responsible no longer holds true: "I think that this was traditionally the case; the men did run away, or more accurately, put their head in the sand. I don't think that that is so much the case now. Certainly we find that more men have been approaching us for counselling than used to ten years ago." Cunnington suggests that women have greater expectations of a marriage than men, which explains why so many more divorces are requested by women.

Counsellors attribute the upswing in the number of men wanting to take more responsibility for their relationships to the boom of unhappily single thirtysomethings; not just because of the Bridget Joneses of this world. Although friends in more mature relationships feel that they operate within an established pattern of female emotional responsibility, a generation of men is growing up with the ability to confront the messier elements of their emotional life. The picture may look very different in ten years time.