"They’re coming when and for how long?"
Dilemmas with in-laws and other houseguests
Some people enjoy their in-laws’ visits to their home and celebrate the fact that it will be two weeks and not two days.
Others, upon hearing that their in-laws are arriving for a visit, develop a rash and begin frantically reviewing their inventory of excuses:
“I’m sorry, but I have a rare, highly contagious virus that causes explosive vomiting and diarrhea, which I expect to last the entire summer.”
“Actually, we’re tearing down our house and we’ll be living in a tent in our backyard for the entire summer.”
The anticipation of in-laws or other houseguests you cannot refuse can create unbearable tension between you and your beloved and irrational arguments ensue taking over your otherwise harmonious household:
“Your father spits when he talks and he snores so loud, I have to sleep in the car in the garage.”
“And your mother shares the details of her colonoscopy at the dinner table!”
Houseguests, even if they’re people you love, can be challenging. But when you are sharing your home with people you’re not particularly fond of it can be agony. These are times when it’s good to have a plan for how you will manage your frayed and raw emotions.
Your immediate plan may be to have a couple of extra drinks before dinner, but then you risk being brutally honest and although truth-telling is a good thing, the delivery system needs a filter when emotions run hot and alcohol overrides that filter.
So, what can you do right from the start to ensure relative harmony? First, when discussing your feelings toward your in-laws with your partner, stay focused on the issue you want to resolve, such as the length of the visit. Instead of saying, “If they are here for two weeks or even one week, I’m killing them and leaving you.”
Say this: “It would work better for me if the visit could be shorter. Can we talk about that?”
In framing the problem as yours, you are owning responsibility for your feelings and then suggesting a conversation about an alternative. Regardless of how objectionable your partner’s family may be, they are still emotionally connected with the person you share your life with and your contempt is not likely to end in peaceful resolution. Keeping yourself in check by remaining issue-centered and solution-focused will facilitate productive conversations.
I really admire people who can keep their routine for self-care intact while still making time to attend to houseguests. Before I spent thousands of dollars in psychotherapy, I dreaded houseguests, particularly my former mother-in-law who was loud, invasive and hypertensive (which she used to her advantage by threatening to have a stroke if I didn’t cooperate). She used to call at 6 a.m. because it was cheaper:
“Did I wake you?” she’d demand.
“I had to get up to answer the phone anyway,” was my acidic reply.
“Well you should be up anyway…” she’d roar.
And I would say a prayer that she would have an accident that would render her unable to speak forever.
Still, during visits (or invasions as I called them) a part of me wanted her approval and acceptance, so I turned myself inside out cleaning and cooking and making sure I asked her for her meatball recipe even though I didn’t even like her meatballs.
When anyone came to visit, I tended to go overboard trying to ensure that everything was perfect. I’d forget that they’d managed to locate the toilet paper dispenser and that they’d long since mastered the complex task of operating the bathtub faucets before they entered my home. I tended to over plan, cook voluminous amounts of food and buy enough groceries to feed a football team then wallow in self-pity because I was exhausted and felt unappreciated for all the hard work I did that nobody asked me to do in the first place.
I finally learned to set up visits from family or friends in a way that creates space for me to meet my sanity needs; an hour for a run or a yoga class or just to be alone to read. Most guests are quite happy to entertain themselves for a while or follow your suggestions for entertaining themselves. It is possible now for me to balance being a generous and more cheerful hostess with meeting my sanity needs, realizing that most people have similar needs.
When I do have the rare pleasure of hosting a guest who resents me for being unwilling to devote every minute to them, I allow them to feel as resentful as they want, smile and say, “I’ll be back in an hour. Help yourself to the food I’ve prepared for breakfast.”
Kimball Pier is a practicing therapist, substance abuse counselor and divorce mediator. She has an M.S. in marriage and family therapy and advanced divorce mediation certification.
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