Miss Conduct

Advice: They refused to let me pay, then had the nerve to call me a freeloader

I reconnected with a cousin, and she and her husband insisted on treating me when we got together despite my protests; now they’ve turned on me. Plus, how to sidestep Facebook challenges.

A year ago, I reconnected with a cousin and quickly became fast friends with her and her husband. We met for dinner and they demanded to pay. Her husband did the same, subsequently, at a golf club. The more I pleaded to pay for anything, the more adamantly they refused. When I offered to cook them dinner, she suggested I cook at their place, since they had a Viking stove — and then paid for all the food at the grocery store despite my arguments. Finally, after her husband bought me a $150 ticket to a charity event, she sent me a scathing letter accusing me of taking everything and giving nothing in return. I explained, but she told me she never wanted to see me again. What did I do wrong?

J.M. / Los Angeles


You unwittingly formed a friendship with damaged and dangerous people. Poor innocent J.M. You’re like a proper, punctiliously polite fly in a spider’s web, worrying about not having brought a hostess gift, not realizing you are the hostess gift.

I’m truly sorry for what you went through. You did nothing wrong and I hope it helps for me to tell you that. While traumatic, your cousin’s blowup is a blessing in disguise. The relationship wasn’t sustainable. Even when your cousin and her husband were being ostensibly kind, they were controlling you. In the wake of this unpleasant event, try to hone your Spidey Sense for controllers, manipulators, boundary pushers, and ’splainers. Seeing such folks for what they are and getting out of their webs early is the best defense.

In the meantime, consider the relationship over. Don’t push for reconciliation. And keep telling your story. Not to gossip — write it down or tell it to people who’ll never meet your cousin — but to get what happened straight in your own head. The kind of gaslighting your cousin subjected you to can leave a person doubting everything, even his or her own grip on objective facts. By telling the story you can tame it and train it and turn it into something you own, not something that happened to you.


What do you do when nominated to participate in Facebook challenges you don’t want to do? I think I’m about to become a “Facebook Jerk.”

P.B. / Cambridge

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being nominated for Facebook challenges, and that is not being nominated for Facebook challenges,” Oscar Wilde would tweet were he alive today. For every FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) there is an opposite and equal DOHDAT (Dread of Having to Do the Actual Thing).

Happily, on social media, you can have the best of both worlds. Respond enthusiastically when people nominate you for challenges, and then don’t do them.

There are actual consequences to such behavior in other contexts, but no one is inconvenienced or hurt if you don’t post seven black and white photos, no people, no explanations. And a reputation as a “Facebook flake” doesn’t carry over into other domains; you won’t be seen as socially unreliable, only a bit technologically backward.

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

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