Dear Virginia,

For a year I've been going out with a woman 20 years younger than me – she's 30 – and I want to marry her and have children. However, until she met me, she was seeing someone even older than me, and though she's now broken up with him she still regards him as a sort of father figure, and he has a great influence on her life. He is also quite a well-known figure. He assures her she'll be miserable if she marries me. He knows nothing about me, by the way. I am beside myself. She's the first woman I've ever loved, and I know I can make her happy. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Evan

Your girlfriend's ex-boyfriend is clearly a horribly controlling sort of man. It sounds as if he's one of those "if I can't have her, no one can" sort of people. And obviously he doesn't have her interests at heart, just his own. I imagine he's someone who hates change, and also perhaps fears that if she marries you, he will lose whatever relationship he and your girlfriend have at the moment. I don't know what this is, but it's quite flattering to be in the role of father figure, and no doubt they go around together quite a bit as friends, and he fears all that will stop if she marries you – which, to be honest, it probably will.

I'm sure you might be tempted to engineer a meeting with him so that you can have it out with him but I wouldn't go near him. The moment he meets you, he'll be armed with ammunition to strengthen his case. "His suits are so scruffy"; "He doesn't know who Almodovar is"; "He's a pompous ass" – I don't know what insults he might hurl at you, but he's bound to find fault. You're in a far stronger position staying clear of him. I notice that you add that he is quite a well-known figure... so remember that many people who become famous, even in a small way, become famous for a reason: they are deeply insecure.

Your strength lies not in trying to diminish him in the eyes of your girlfriend, but in generously acknowledging his strong points. If she feels there's a hint of jealousy in your opinion, it'll weaken it. It's up to you to be the stronger, more confident, and more patronising of the two of you rivals. Say you can see his point of view, that he probably feels very insecure at the idea of losing her, and tell your girlfriend that she must, if she marries you, be sure to stay in touch with him because he is a very good friend to her. Push the old father figure off his perch and step into the role yourself, by appearing to be understanding, wise and charitable about his preposterous opinions, rather than irritated by them. Make him out to be a poor old chump, someone to be pitied and protected, rather than feared.

And if she continues to prevaricate, then, instead of pleading and begging, I think you must walk away. I bet you feel you couldn't do that because you feel couldn't bear to lose her. But remember, just because you walk away for a month or so doesn't mean you can't change your mind and walk back. But quite honestly, I don't think you'd have to. I suspect that long before, if she really does love you, she'd be running after you.

She's not ready

Much as you love her, your confidence that you could make this woman happy is misplaced as long as her ex-boyfriend looms so large in her life. You may dream of marriage and children with her, but if she needs to discuss you with her ex, she is nowhere near ready for such a commitment.

Probably she finds your proposal flattering, and she obviously relishes his continuing interest in her. However, I suspect your mention of children came as a shock, since it sounds as if she enjoys being the child in her relationships. You must work at establishing a relationship where you are equals, and no third party exerts influence over her attitude to you, before it will be worth considering a future together.

Elinor Forbes

By email

Confront him

I'm afraid there's really only one sensible thing you can do: confront the devil. See him on your own, make quite sure that your girl has no idea about it, and tell him straight that he's to stop trying to influence her, he's to keep away and if he doesn't stop sticking his nose into your affair then you'll knock his head off. And mean it. Then go straight to your lover and go down on one knee and ask her to marry you. Her answer will tell you all you need to know about her real feelings for you.

Ruth Brooks

By email

Three's a crowd

This man's interference in your girlfriend's life, and her continued attachment to him, bode very ill for any future you may have together. I'm really sorry that it is this woman you have fallen in love with – though I can't help wondering if it is her slight inaccessibility that attracts you. Do you really want a third party in the background throughout your marriage? If she is not prepared to stop having any contact with him, or at least stop listening to his dog-in-the-manger advice, then get out of this relationship.

Elizabeth Smith

By email

Find out the truth

I don't think age is of any great importance in your situation. It seems to me that you are being used by her and this other man, whom I assume is married. I suspect she is still in love with him but he will not change his situation. He seems to want to have it both ways. She is giving him an ultimatum: marry me or else I will marry someone else. As he knows nothing about you and you know quite a bit about him, you hold the upper hand. You have to find out the truth because if you are second best, is she worth it? If she can bring herself to sever all connections with this man, then there might possibly be a chance that she realises that what she has with you is worth fighting for. Until that time, if I were you, I would cool down a bit and wait and see what happens.

Anita Ashford

By email

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My husband runs his own business and I work part-time so I can look after our two children. The problem is that he's so worried about the recession and whether his business will survive that he can't sleep. He has started to become extremely snappy and bad-tempered, often lashing out at the children. I've done my best to explain everything to them, but it doesn't stop them being upset and frightened of him. I'm as understanding towards him as I possibly can be, but I'm starting to worry that the children will be really affected by his behaviour. I have a very "que sera sera" attitude to life and can't really understand the extent of his anxiety. I'm sure we'll manage somehow, whatever happens. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Geraldine

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