Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas

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Dear Virginia,

I am friends with a couple and I get on with each of them very well individually. The problem is that they are always bickering. I know it doesn't mean anything, but I feel most uncomfortable when they do it. They've been married for more than 10 years, and it seems to be a way of life for them, but I hate the way he puts her down, and her spiteful responses. I don't know where to look, and I don't like to take sides. Should I say something? I'm an old friend of theirs and see them often.

Yours sincerely, Sally

Virginia says...

Something I've realised only late in life is how one's own presence makes a difference to the chemical mix of any situation. Take a family Christmas to which you, a lone outsider, have been invited. You have a marvellous time, everyone is considerate and kind, generations mix freely and you appear to have entered a magical world of harmony and affection. You leave, feeling sad that you don't have a family like that, and return to your lonely flat miserable and depressed.

What you think you've done is to witness an enchanted occasion. The truth is that your presence has actually helped to make it that way. You were asked specifically as a sweetener in a very bitter stew. Without your presence, the family would have been full of resentment, bickering, score-settling and tantrums. You were part of the enchantment. Without you, it would have been hell.

I think a similar thing is happening with this couple. Who knows how they behave when you're not around. But I suspect that, as couples feel free to say unkind and honest things about each other in front of a marriage counsellor, a third party, so they feel free, in front of you, to go further than they would in private life. On their own I should think they bottle up their feelings, anxious that they'll spill out of control. Your presence reassures them. Both know that the other isn't going to turn violent, so they can safely say what they think in front of you without fear.

But you don't want to be used in this way. Why should you? So in future I'd either insist on seeing them individually, or take one of three courses of action. First, leave the room when they start their sniping. I've done it myself. "I'll leave you two to it," I've said, sighing. "This is between the two of you. I'm going to the loo and I hope you'll have sorted it out by the time I get back."

If they haven't, and claim they only behave like this because you're "part of the family" say then that, speaking as "part of the family", would they please stop. Thirdly, if you don't want to risk them ganging up on you if you admit that you hate their public rows, say you're sorry but having had a troubled childhood (whether you did or not is beside the point) you feel nervous at the sound of raised voices. I can't see how they could fail to pay attention. They might not want to see you any more, of course. But that's the risk you'll have to take.

Readers say...

Leave them to it

My wife and I bicker playfully in public. Why? The reaction, of course. The look of disapproval or discomfort on the faces of those who like to judge and rate the actions of their "friends" is priceless. A friend would laugh and tell us to shut up; what Sally does is up to her.

Martin Canning

By email

It's just their way

Don't say a word. Some couples thrive on this kind of interaction. For example, I was a bit put out when my husband announced that he had not had a good time at a party we had just been to at the house of my friends (not his). I was even more upset when he asked, "How come all your friends are always crazy people?"

But I gave as good as I got. "You know, you could be right," I said. "After all, look who I married!" And we both laughed.

It doesn't mean they hate each other. We all have our own kinds of marriages. Let them have theirs. And if you are really uncomfortable around them, then don't visit so often.

Helen Bobuk

By email

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I've been married five years and our sex life has never been very good but I love my wife very much. However, last week she suddenly dropped a bombshell. She told me there is a man she really fancies, someone she met at her yoga class, and that she wants to have an affair with him. She says why don't I find someone as well and then she won't feel guilty. I've told her OK, because otherwise it will be over between us, but what can I do? I don't want to lose her. But I don't like the idea of an open marriage.

Yours sincerely, Brendan

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