Miss Conduct

The breakup ultimatum

Taking sides after a bad romantic split. Plus, need-to-know information for interviewers.

> “Howard” is a longtime friend who is like a son to my husband and me. He and “Marilyn” lived together for several years, and we became close to her as well. When they broke up, Howard demanded that we sever our relationship with her and says he’ll cut us out of his life if we don’t. We resent the ultimatum. Does the “family” tie trump the friendship with Marilyn? Would it be different if Howard were real rather than chosen family?

M.K. / Somerville

I don’t think we need to worry about Howard’s “family” status. If Howard were family, then choosing loyalties would affect other people besides the four of you, and there would be deeper ethical issues to untangle. If Howard were, you know, family, then abusing his notion of loyalty would result in personal security concerns far beyond Miss Conduct’s level of expertise.

But Howard is a friend. Particularly, he’s a friend who has chosen to strike a dramatic pose and declare, “It’s me or X!” And when a person pulls the “me-or-X” routine, then as healthy individuals with boundaries and all that good stuff, you really ought to think about sticking with X. Why? Because X isn’t trying to control your lives.


Sometimes, of course, X is in fact trying to control your life. If X is an addiction or an abusive family member or an illness you refuse to address, then “It’s me or X!” coming from a friend or partner invested in your well-being should be a wake-up call. But in those situations, “Me” is trying to save you — not him- or herself — from “X.”

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In less dire circumstances, “It’s me or X (at any given point in time, or at least with 24 hours’ warning)!” is also a reasonable request. Howard would be within his rights to ask you to avoid taking sides publicly, to not talk about her with him, and to be sensitive about who is invited to what for a while. But he’s asking you to alter aspects of your life that don’t even concern him. Friends don’t do that, so I don’t see why “family” ought to have the privilege.


> A job candidate with a significant facial deformity is being interviewed in my office. The candidate is going to meet several people separately. To reduce the risk of an awkward moment, is it appropriate to mention to the interviewers that the candidate’s appearance may be potentially startling? Or is it inappropriate or even demeaning to the interviewee to do so?

J.H. / Malden

Let the interviewers know in advance. I assume you are concerned that doing so would somehow reduce Chris Candidate to his or her difference, or show a lack of confidence in your colleagues’ empathy or manners. That isn’t the case, though — not with this particular condition, and not in this situation.


  Job interviews are complicated exercises in self-presentation for candidates and interviewers alike. You have to balance talking and listening, self-promotion and honesty, and gut instinct and logic while coming across as simultaneously cool, warm, authoritative, collegial, a shark, and a mensch. If a candidate’s facial expressions can’t be easily read or if an interviewer suddenly becomes highly self-conscious about making eye contact, that balancing act becomes ever so much harder for everyone. You can make it easier. Do so.

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

NEED MISS CONDUCT’S HELP?Write to her at And get advice live during a chat with Robin Abrahams on April 17 from noon to 1 p.m.