Dear Virginia, I love my boyfriend very much, but he has bad personal habits and still appears to find crude toilet humour deeply entertaining. For example, he finds burping and farting very amusing, and his smelly feet are a constant source of hilarity. And that is by no means the worst of it. I'm not a prude, but I cringe at his behaviour. When I ask him to stop, he just laughs. His mates are just the same. I know it sounds silly, but I'm starting to get really upset. What can I do? Yours sincerely, Zara

What is it about men and farts? Indeed, what is it about boys and farts? Because there is something distinctly infantile about a preoccupation with all things scatological.

It's one thing when a boy of four insists on downing his pants and showing you his bottom, or calling you "poo-face" or, unable to contain his laughter, reveals he's "done a burp" – and even that can get pretty wearing. But when they go on doing it aged 20 – or even 40 or 50 – it's not only rather repulsive and embarrassing, but also baffling.

Indeed, I was so baffled by this behaviour that I had to ask a man for the answer. Not being a nose-picker, bottom-scratcher or, indeed, a man who, the minute he gets into a lift, waves his hand over his nose and can barely restrain his giggles, he too was somewhat baffled. But, eventually, he came to think there were two reasons for this behaviour.

One reason, he said, was that this is a way a very insecure man says: "I'm absolutely vile. I despise myself. And I have to warn you that although I may appear charming and loving, there's a dark side to me and I want you to know about it."

So fearful are these men of abandonment that they have to display this side of themselves all the time, and get giggling approval for it – hence the whole thing of a bloke who often, right in the middle of a reasonable conversation, will say: "Hang on! I'm going to fart!" The whole world has to wait for this momentous event. So it's a way both of drawing attention to himself, and of continually putting himself on the line in a "love me, love my farts" kind of way. It's that kind of beer-belly mentality: "You've got to accept me warts and all, and in case you haven't noticed the warts, I'm going to expose them loud and clear to the world."

But there's a second reason, and it's the reason why most people dislike such behaviour. It is because, fundamentally, it is a sign of aggression, but disguised in such a way as to make it seem jokey and acceptable. In cracking up about toilet humour and smelly feet – and, in effect, subjecting you to their smells – these men are behaving in a very dominating and destructive way and telling you, loud and clear, that there is a bit of them that really doesn't like you at all. Of course, it may well be that it's their mothers they're really getting at, but who cares; you're the one who's bearing the brunt of it all.

But if you object, they will turn on you, accuse you of being uptight or prudish, or declare that you have no sense of humour, in such a way that in the end it's quite easy to feel that by objecting you are showing yourself to be completely silly.

But you aren't being silly. However much you tell this man that you loathe his behaviour, he just won't stop. That in itself shows that he's so preoccupied with himself that he couldn't care less what you think. You might try saying that you find it utterly sexually unattractive and that you can't fancy him if he continues to behave like this – hit him below the belt, as it were – but I doubt it will work.

I'd drop him – and find someone with enough self-confidence not to need to fart in your face every other minute.

Readers say

Try talking to his Mum

Is Zara actually my son's lovely girlfriend, under an assumed name? I've cringed at his conversation for years, and it's not just his socks that are smelly!

I hesitate to say anything to his partner – after all, she has chosen him. To comment on his personal habits rather shows a lack of confidence in her judgement, so I never say anything.

If Zara's boyfriend still has his mother around, may I suggest to Zara that she talks to her? They both love him. Perhaps, if the two women in his life both point out his failings and present a united front, he may realise how offensive and unpleasant he can seem.

And if that is my son's girlfriend writing, please, please talk to me... you are not letting him down.

name and address supplied

Just walk away

It is not surprising that you are upset, Zara. Your boyfriend sounds absolutely repellent. Smelly feet are bad enough, but cringe-making behaviour and crude jokes as well? No self-respecting woman needs to put up with this. What is holding you back? Be brave, walk away and find yourself a grown-up.

Anna Dickie, Sudbury, Suffolk

A Last chance

I don't think you are being silly. Your boyfriend is obviously more interested in being "one of the lads" than in his relationship with you. If he's a teenager, he may grow out of it – but are you prepared to wait? If he's older, he is less likely to change and you must ask yourself if you really want such a long-term relationship. Speak to him again. Tell him his behaviour is offensive and is threatening your relationship. If he cares for you at all, he will make an effort; if not, at least you know where you stand.

Linda Acaster, Leicester

Smells like teen spirit

Oh, Zara. If I substitute your first line with "I love my son very much, but...", it would all make sense. That's the kind of relationship you seem to have: a grown-up with a teenager. Even if he makes an effort to please you, his mates will drag him back to their level. Bow out gracefully, and seek the company of peers you feel comfortable with. The lad will no doubt get there in the end, but don't waste your time waiting.

Maria de Haas, haltwhistle, Northumberland

it's not a relationship killer

You have my sympathy. My wife belches, farts and has a lavatorial sense of humour. I find it rather distasteful. But we have been together for 33 years, so it need not be an impediment to a very happy marriage.

Les (full name and address supplied)