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Join the party, not your spouse's hip at social events you attend together

You know that the institution of marriage is in trouble when perfectly respectable couples with apparently stable marriages won't let go of each other in public.

Not only do many husbands and wives now join hands to face the world, but even when they need their hands free and are among friends, they still can't bear the pain of being separated. One hears them waxing indignant if expected to sit apart for the entire length of a dinner party and expressing shock at the idea of dancing with anyone else.This is what Miss Manners calls the Ondine Marriage, after the water sprite in dear Jean Giraudoux's play by that name. Extravagantly in love with the plodding chevalier, Ritter Hans von Wittenstein zu Wittenstein, and seeking to guard against future abandonment, Ondine rhapsodizes that they two should be like creatures of the sea who, once coupled, are never parted for an instant, but go through the rest of their lives forever side by side.

Hans is in love too, but he remains unenraptured by Ondine's description of bliss. When he is able to get in a word, he shamefacedly admits that every now and then he would like to go off to visit his horse.

Lacy-hearted though she may be, Miss Manners sympathizes with Hans. People who are in love nevertheless want to go off to visit their horses once in a while.

What's more, those who live under the same roof have ample opportunity to walk around their own houses holding hands. Most people no longer believe that dancing leads directly to sin. Couples with a lot to say to each other develop a shorthand way of talking that isn't easily shared, and fanning out socially gives them twice as much material to talk over later.

So although Miss Manners is charmed by evidence of marital happiness and loyalty, she is troubled that the current methods of showing it suggest the opposite. It may be true that it is difficult to establish a flirtation with anyone else while clasping the spousal hand, but -- as we know from centuries of chaperonage and worse --vigilance can be more of a challenge than a deterrent.

Besides, there are better ways for couples and other family members to display their love and loyalty. Considering how many people have taken up the Ondine posture, Miss Manners is amazed at how rarely the same couples avail themselves of the traditional methods.

Basking in each other's glory is an attitude that has fallen into disuse. Perhaps political wives killed that one, gazing so adoringly at their husbands and laughing so uproariously at their repeated jokes as to frighten off civilian couples from any betrayal of fondness or pleasure. But Miss Manners suspects that an unpleasant sense of individual competition has created an unwillingness to assume a supporting role - even temporarily with the understanding that this will be reciprocated in turn.

When she first heard people asking successful ladies if their husbands and children weren't resentful - as if one naturally wished one's dearest ones failure - she was amazed at how casually such terrible insults to their families were delivered and received.

Dear Miss Manners: My husband and I live in a middle-class neighborhood, have no children and take a great pride in our yard, specifically our beautiful flower garden and grass.

We have neighbors with teen-age boys who play basketball all the time, breaking our flowers and knocking down our shrubs. It's awful. The worst of it all is that the parents instigate the situation, join in and call us foul names and continually harass us.

I have called the sheriff one night when one teen-age boy was playing basketball with a friend and ran over my newly planted blue spruce tree. The teen-ager called me nasty names and when the father came home, he told us not to touch his grass.

Is there no discipline for children any more?

Gentle reader: No, but there is not much among neighbors, either. Your neighbors, who are adults, are calling you names, and you are calling in the law to deal with a careless game of basketball.

Miss Manners' advice to all of you is to calm down and build a fence.