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Miss Conduct

Why you can’t have only half of a couple – the half you like – at a party

Illustration by Nathalie Dion

> My husband is good friends with a guy who is nice, funny, and likable. His wife, on the other hand, is cold and fickle. Recently I sat next to her at an event, and she was very rude, only giving one-word answers to my small-talk questions. We are planning our son’s bar mitzvah and are conflicted about inviting this couple. We would want him to come, but the thought of having her at our affair makes me angry. What should we do?

S.L. / Foxborough

Invite or do not, there is no “try,” as Yoda might put it. Or, more to the point, there is no splitting up a married couple because you love him and hate her, or vice versa. No-spouses business dinners and single-sex nights out are kosher, but at life-event celebrations to which couples are invited, complete couples must be invited. You don’t get to invite one half of a couple because you don’t like the other half, or because you disapprove of the relationship. I’m dismayed that I have to explain what ought to be a common-sense rule of courtesy, but you aren’t the first person who has asked if married couples must be considered as united through sickness, health, and other people’s parties.

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Try to develop some compassion for Mrs. Laconic. Whatever the cause of her sub-optimal personality, it isn’t about you. (And, really, how much meaningful interaction do you expect to have with anyone at the event? You’ll be lucky if you manage to say “Shalom” to everyone who attends.) Maybe your neighbor struggles with social anxiety or chronic pain or some other battle of which you know nothing. What is your son’s Torah portion? I wonder if there are words in it about how we should treat strangers or stories about good people who have been misinterpreted or reminders that not everyone has always been particularly fond of us. If so, such words might be worth reflecting on.

> Whenever my new mother-in-law gives a gift, she starts in with “Now before you open it, you probably won’t like it, so don’t worry, I included the receipt. It probably isn’t the right size. Do you hate the color? Really, feel free to return it. You can return it if it isn’t your style. Do you want the receipt?” This doesn’t seem to faze my husband, but it makes me uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter how much I thank her or that I wear/display/use the gifts around her. How can I convince my mother-in-law that I appreciate her gifts without having to say it 50 times?

S.L. / Chicago

What a delightful problem! Not only does your mother-in-law give you gifts you actually like, but she also is determined never to obligate you to wear some hideous sweater encrusted with “flair” out of politeness. I realize her behavior is discombobulating, but it could be so much worse. So very much worse. She’s not giving you ashtrays and construction paper she’s been hoarding since the Johnson administration, and she’s not giving you books on “surrendered wifehood,” either.

Respond to her gift-deprecating monologue the same way your husband and everyone else does (jovially but minimally, I’m guessing). Whatever psychic quirk causes her behavior, it has nothing to do with you. Since she does manage to give you gifts that you use, she clearly likes and knows you well enough – which means that, deep down, she knows you appreciate the things she gives you. At the next party, have an extra glass of wine, start seeing the humor in the situation, and look forward to the day when you, as a family veteran, can tell a new sister- or brother-in-law: “Wait till you see what happens when it’s time for presents. You’re going to love this show!”

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.GOT A QUESTION OR A COMMENT? Write to missconduct@globe.com. BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at boston.com/missconduct . CHAT Get advice live Wednesday, February 29, noon to 1 p.m., at boston.com.

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