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dilemmas

This week: I've a friend who behaves like a lover Despite teasing, and talk of her boyfriend, Lynn is still being groped by a married actor friend. He tells her she's beautiful while she's talking, and squeezes up too close. Lynn fears that if she tells him she dislikes this, she'll lose a valued old friend

I wonder how old this old friend really is. He's certainly a "dirty old man", the sort of man that my mother would probably have put up with, grudgingly, on the grounds that she was a woman, and it was then the plight of women to put up with this kind of behaviour. It was only a case of wandering hands, and the men with the wriggling fingers were pitied and chuckled at rather than disapproved of.

In the past it was seen as little more than irritating, but that's all down the drain now, and quite right too. Unless this man is totally insensitive, he will be aware of the change in the social climate - he must have read case after case in the papers about harassment, particularly in the last few weeks. There can be only one reason he keeps on: like all abusers he doesn't really think it's wrong. Child abusers frequently say that their victims "like it". Similarly, I'm sure this man thinks that his horrible gropings, from which he certainly gets some kind of kick, are pleasurable for the woman. He refuses to acknowledge that it's wrong, and causes hurt.

Now, why didn't Lynn stop this behaviour at the outset? Was she just a tiny bit flattered by it? Did it make her feel feminine and romantic? Or did she feel that if she put up barriers, even then, it would push him away? Or that his horrid behaviour was worth tolerating because of the pay-off - his looks, intelligence, jokes, fame, whatever (surely not friendship).

What are his real motives? Could it be that he's trying it on, hoping that one day she'll succumb? More likely, he has no interest in sex at all. Like a dog weeing on a fence, he simply wants to put his mark on the woman. When Lynn writes that he sometimes suddenly tells her she's beautiful while she's talking, what's going on? He's using the compliment as an aggressive weapon - most confusing. If anything tells her that he is not remotely interested in her as a person, but only as an object, it is this compliment hurled into her thoughtful conversation, like a hand grenade disguised as a garland. It's intrusive, dominating behaviour, and contemptuous, too, since it shows that he doesn't mind risking her disapproval. Perhaps there's also an element of doing it because he knows it winds her up, and he likes seeing how much she'll take.

As any woman who's been in this situation knows, continuing to ignore the signals, turning one's eyes to steel, sitting rigid with fury, and reducing one's mouth to a thin red line of disgust and disapproval, breathing very little in case just by breathing out one's body might come into contact with so much as a hair of his jersey - all this seems only to inflame these men. They may start to splutter with desire, drool with lust, or just gaze like ghastly puppies at one's furious face. When I've been in similar situations, I've wondered whether, by appearing so cool, I've unwittingly entered some horrible sexual game, playing the hard disciplinarian to the man's panting schoolboy. Then, of course, I've felt disgusted with the entire situation.

Trying the same behaviour back might work - apparently affectionate gestures are extremely alarming to the groper - But, sadly, I think the only solution is to end the relationship. Because there isn't really a relationship to end, full as it is of repulsion, fear and mistrust. Friendship is about love, and letting the barriers down, not about having to keep them upn

What readers say

Tell your friend he is embarrassing you

Your mind may play tricks on you sometimes - but not all the time. You're not imagining what's happening, and being quite a successful actor doesn't make an excuse for him behaving in this way.

If you feel uncomfortable with the situation, then do something about it. Friends are people to feel relaxed with. Friends are people who will be there for you when the going gets tough - and, when the going does get tough, not take advantage of you.

You have no sexual relationship going with this man, so therefore he shouldn't grope you - not even "sort of grope you". If he flirts with the waitresses, they can handle it because it's a one-off. But you get it every time you see him. Make it clear that you feel embarrassed saying this, and that it may just be your imagination, but that you feel uncomfortable with all this "touchy-feely". He may deny it - probably will - but the chances are he'll not do it again.

Ms A Rich, Harpenden

You're being a prick-tease

No, you're not being oversensitive - you're being a borderline prick- tease.

Your married friend is, by your own account, an incurable flirt. Kind of you to say that his wives "seem" quite happy that you see each other, but things aren't always what they seem.

Of course, it's fun to be flattered. But remember that flatterers, flirts and prick-teasers are in fact only interested in themselves. Put a stop to this mutual admiration exercise, or be prepared to take the flak when his wife stops being quite so reasonable.

A Moorhouse, Norfolk

Say nothing, or you will lose a friend

I, too, experienced a similar situation and, instead of ignoring it, I asked my friend why he kissed me, told me I was beautiful, held my hand etc. My question caused surprise and embarrassment, and I now rarely see my delightful and kind friend.

Accept that your friend is an actor, and likes to make every woman feel special. You say he flirts with waitresses; well, that should tell you that he is a compulsive flirt and probably does not even realise he is doing it. My friend did the same - everyone was fair game for a flowery compliment or a long glance. He meant nothing by it, and it probably made him feel good (not to mention the recipients). Enjoy the compliments, let him hold your hand - after all, what's the odd kiss between friends?

Turn it into a great big smacker, pat his cheek, and say goodnight. Say nothing, and keep his friendship.

Mrs Wendy Webster, London NW1

This closeness is putting his marriage at risk

Having behaved like Lynn's actor friend, I would tell Lynn to inform her friend that holding hands and kissing "as friends" may be OK on the surface - but it can destroy a marriage, ie his second marriage.

Lynn should make it clear that she does not wish to come between himself and his wife, and that the closeness should stop. Remain friends, yes, but part-time lovers, no. If he is as friendly as Lynn says, then he'll understand. If he is a chancer then he'll be "hurt" and drop Lynn - then she'll know.

Ewan Mason, Dundee

It's just a harmless game

Over-sensitive? You're not kidding. If you regard someone suddenly holding your hand tightly as a grope, I dread to think what your reaction would be to an arm around your shoulder.

In our lifetime there has been a revolution in male/female friendships; now it is possible to sustain them, even after marriage, without censure.

However, the new situation has its problems. The line between friendship and relationship is a fine one, and signs of affection can easily be misread.

Part of the joy of friendship is the flirtation that can develop with absolutely no "risk" of anything serious developing. For those who are married, it is a healthy way for people to keep their fidelity, and, in a harmless way, still enjoy the chase. It is just fun - so get to know the rules, and enjoy it.

Toby Butler, Hampton Court

Next week's problem: my bright son doesn't want to go to university. Should I put pressure on him to go?

Dear Virginia,

My son's 18 and just taking his A-levels. He didn't do well in his mocks, but he's worked a bit harder for the real thing. However, he keeps saying he doesn't want to go to university. He wants to get a job in London, and he says it's just as difficult to get a job, with or without a degree. His father thinks he should go to university if he possibly can. But though my son's very bright, he's not a natural worker, and I think there's a lot to be said for his view. What do you and your readers think?

Yours sincerely, Carla

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293-2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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