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Miss Conduct

Unwelcome visitors

A friendly favor gone awfully awry, plus getting a blowhard to leave you alone.

June 26, 2011

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Last year my husband was unemployed and we couldn’t make rent. Very close friends offered to let us stay in their partially finished attic. It turned out they hated having us there but couldn’t say so. The husband yelled at our young kids, threw our stuff away, and stormed about the house, but his wife always said everything was fine. We moved out after three months with very hard feelings. Two months later I tried to make a play date for the kids, but the wife said she wasn’t ready because we had hurt her too much. Now our daughter is being baptized. Mutual friends have said they are not comfortable coming unless we invite these friends. What do I do?

Anonymous / Boston

Invite them. An invitation isn’t an obligation – if your friends still don’t feel ready to socialize, they can always decline. And a baptism! Spiritually, an ethos of inclusion and forgiveness ought to be part of welcoming your daughter into the church. Besides, a religious ceremony with all its choreography and solemnity provides a lot of structure and something to talk about, making awkward relationships easier to manage than a more free-form environment would.

That’s the advice you asked for. Do you mind an unsolicited second helping? Because a few red flags stuck up in your letter. For one thing, why are mutual friends involved in this kerfuffle? No one needs to know anything other than that the Atticsons helped you out for a while by letting you live with them, it was awfully crowded, and you moved out. If other friends are feeling that you’re putting them in the middle of your conflict, take some steps to fix that. Also, while you say Mrs. Atticson is still feeling hurt, you don’t appear to have any sense of having hurt her. What’s up with the disconnect? If the relationship starts chugging back to life after the baptism, you may need to sit down and have a good coffee talk with her. Or maybe you have the kind of friendship in which the sharp edges can simply wear down over time. Either way, your continued friendship will depend on the extent to which you can agree on what the story of your three months together is going to be.

My friend’s brother-in-law tries to engage me in political discussions whenever we’re at my friend’s house. I try to avoid him by moving into a different room or telling him I’m not going to discuss these issues, but he is relentless. It gets worse once he’s had a few drinks. Other than declining invitations to my friend’s home, or being rude, is there anything I can say to shut him down?

L.G. / Salem

Alas! If a witty riposte or soulful rebuke could shut down a drunken bully, history would have played out very differently, my dear. Since there are no magic words, you must speak to your friend. She (you didn’t mention gender, but I’m going to say “she” to distinguish host and guest) ought to know that her relative is acting up. It’s the responsibility of a host to ensure that everyone at a party is behaving appropriately, and her brother-in-law is certainly not. Don’t be accusing or angry, but describe his behavior as matter-of-factly as you can. If your friend responds with some vague hand waving, let her know that as far as you can see, your options are to continue being bullied, stop attending her parties, or assert yourself in a manner that you would judge rude and she might find upsetting. If she continues to waffle, simply stop going. But if it does get to that point, try to be forgiving. She isn’t necessarily choosing the bully-in-law over you; families are complicated, and she might be more constrained by family politics than you realize.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

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