Miss Conduct

Advice: My sister-in-law is toxic. Can I keep her away from my kid?

Plus, dealing with boors at a dinner party.

Need advice? Submit questions for Miss Conduct here.

My sister-in-law has been a nightmare since my husband and I first started dating nine years ago. At our wedding, she threw a tantrum, questioning my upbringing and insulting my mother — who was standing right there. This same woman giggled with giddy joy telling me that she’d made her other brother’s wife cry a few days before her wedding. I’m not interested in having such a toxic person in my life, and now that we are trying to start a family, I’ve realized I also don’t want her in my future children’s lives. My husband isn’t ready to cut her off, but he completely understands my decision.

Am I wrong if I cut off communication with her?

M.A. / Boston

Nope! Not a bit. You only have so much time and energy. Spend it on good people.

You’re wise to think of cutting ties before you have a child. Weed before you plant, you know? It’s easier to let the relationship die off now than to manage hostile, unpredictable Auntie Pathy throughout your kids’ childhood. (Raising children is hard enough without feeling a familial obligation to expose them to adults whom said children should very much not consider role models.) Nine years is more than enough. She’s had her chances.


Some people will say you are wrong
and argue with you. Some folks are very, very invested in the idea that family should be forgiven everything. Don’t waste energy trying to explain your decision to such folks. Maybe don’t wonder too deeply about where they got that idea, either.

How do you politely tell a very good friend’s adult son that his tales from college and high school turn entire dinners into stages for his repetitive, silly stories? I see him frequently so I don’t want to ruin our friendship, but I know others are annoyed by his domineering behavior, too.

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 M.T. / Dedham

Everyone has to breathe sometime. When your yaktivist friend pauses for breath, regardless of where he is in his anecdote, break in firmly and loudly as if he’d just ended it, “That was hilarious! And you all wound up getting bailed out in the end, didn’t you? Who I’d really love to hear from next is Joanne, who went to the Maldives this year. Joanne, what was it like?” Joanne needs to be prepped and ready to go — this is no role for a stammering amateur.

Try this a couple of times within the group, and if that doesn’t work, pull him aside. “I hate to say this, and I’ll only say it once, but you dominate conversations too much with your stories. Other people need a chance at the spotlight.” Be calm, and don’t be dragged into arguing about it. You’ve already tried to head him off at the pass, and he knows that perfectly well.

Be civil and kind, but don’t drive yourself to madness by trying to hone your words to be just sharp enough to get through, but not sharp enough to hurt. That’s a mug’s game. If he reacts to a kindly and necessary yank on the leash by ending your relationship, that’s his choice.

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