Dear Virginia, I'm a single parent with a gorgeous little boy who is now four years old. The problem is that I've met a really niceman who is a bit older than me (he's 40) and my son appears to hate him. He plays up all the time. My boyfriend can't cope, and gets very angry. I'd really like to take this relationship much further, but whenever we're together it's horrible for all of us. What can I do? Yours sincerely, Katy

I'll never forget when my son was young and I, a single parent, was besotted with some man. He and my five-year-old had never got on, and when, on some six-mile hike organised by the person I thought was Mr Right, my son started to complain of being tired, this bloke yelled: "You'll never grow up to be a man, you wimp!", reached down to pick up some gravel, and threw it at him.

That, of course, was the end of that. Never again did I even contemplate falling for anyone who didn't get on with my son – and it was difficult because, like your young boy, mine did everything in his power to deter my boyfriends, even the nice ones. A perfect pleasant little fellow suddenly became a whining, raging monster whenever a bloke appeared on the horizon. I was very lucky, eventually, to find one whose good humour and total refusal to administer any kind of discipline whatsoever, meant that he passed the test.

Your "nice man" is neither "nice" nor a man. It's small wonder he's single. Doesn't he remember what it was like to be young and frightened and insecure? Can't he put himself in your son's little shoes and imagine what it must be like to have a mum all to himself and then risk having her snatched away? Presumably there was a Mr Katy around at some point, and he left. Your son is terrified that his mother, the only person he has in the world, will also leave him in the lurch. In fact, the disruptive way he seems to behave around your bloke is apreservation tactic for which he should be admired, not cursed.

Your son doesn't need to be shouted at. He needs to be wooed – and not necessarily with presents. This so-called "nice man" should play football with him, read him stories, organise an expedition to the zoo. Slowly he should make him realise that to have him around is an asset, not something horrifying.

Witnessing this man's behaviour gives an indication of how he might behave if you were ever to become, like all of us do now and again, childish. For instance, if you were upset at work or your mother died, and you became dependent and tearful, even for a few days, I bet this "nice" bloke would just shout at you to pull yourself together. Clearly, any sign of weakness drives him nuts. This is not a strong man on whom you could depend; he is a weak, fractious one, who can't stand to see his own hidden characteristics being acted out by anyone else.

If this "nice man" really loved you, he should love the whole package. Disliking your son, who is not something you could ever change, is rather like saying: "I love you, except for your ghastly face." If this man really wants a partner and not a mother, he should know, instinctively, that the way to your heart is through your boy.

And if there is any person to get angry with, I can think of a couple of people far more deserving than your brave, vulnerable and innocent son.

Readers say

He's 40-going-on-four

Imagine yourself with two four-year-olds, both vying for your love and attention. I would suggest that this is the situation you are in. One of your four-year-olds is totally dependent on you; the other is not. This situation can only become more horrible for you all. Time to say good-bye to the "40 going on four".

Rita Leaman, York

Let them get to know each other

The question you must ask yourself is: "Will this man make a good stepfather to my son?" However much you care for him, if the answer is no then you must finish the relationship. Your son has to take priority. If the answer is yes, then it is worth persevering. Your son is probably jealous; reassure him how important he is, but he should not be allowed to get away with bad behaviour. Keep contact between your son and boyfriend to "little and often" and avoid days out for now – let them get to know each other slowly. At 40, this man is probably too set in his ways to cope with a small child. The problems will only get worse if this is not sorted out now.

Claire Jones, Leicester

He needs to make an effort

"Love me, love my kid." If he really loves you, he should. Two years ago, I was re-contacted by a beloved friend I'd lost touch with; he was by then married with a son of two, and invited me to stay. I was horrified, as I normally find children younger than seven or so quite unbearable, and wondered how I could possibly cope. But such was my love for my friend and my joy at hearing from him again, that I steeled myself and went. To my astonishment, I got on splendidly with the kid, who now calls me "Uncle Chris". Surely your boyfriend could have done the same, but now it is probably too late. End it.

Chris Heron, Cambridge

Ditch him

A "really nice" 40-year-old man whose only strategy for dealing with a "gorgeous" four-year-old's "playing up" is to get "very angry"? There isn't a worthwhile relationship here to take "much further". Your son should come first, and both of you should have been more sensitive to his needs. Try to imagine how you would feel if you overheard this man describing the situation: "She has a horrid child who really winds me up." Be brave, ditch him, and find someone who cares enough about you to make the effort with your son.

Dinah Ellis, Weymouth, Dorset

It's a difficult age

I was a single parent for 13 years before finally meeting the right man who could be both a partner for me and a father for my two children. I had had serious relationships, but always felt that my children had to come first. I had to keep in mind that I was responsible for them above all else.

Kathy's four-year-old son is at the age where he wants to marry his mother and would even be in conflict with his real father if he were around. The difference is that his real father would have been bonded with him before these conflicts arose. If a grown man can't handle this transient stage, then he may not be the right man for the long term. Maybe in a couple of years this relationship could work out, but for now, seeing the man without the boy may be the best way to sustain it. A 40-year-old man should be able to understand that the boy is acting in a totally natural manner. The boy will grow beyond this stage, but I wonder about the man.

Heidi Lichterman, Cambridge

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