Fraught Family Visits

Dear Bartender and Priestess:

My husband’s sister and brother-in-law stay at our house occasionally for overnights, in order to visit my mother-in-law. How can I best put this? They are annoying house guests.

I’ve never seen them lift a finger to make dinner or help with the clean up afterwards. My brother-in-law, “Bob”, drinks a ton of coffee but has never made himself a pot. He speaks loudly, and mostly about himself. My sister-in-law, “Betty”, is sweet but talks incessantly, so much so that she’ll even distract herself from what little help she offers me at cleanup. They’ve never offered to take us out to dinner, or order us some Chinese, or (Heaven forbid!) cook us something.

Usually they visit at our house, but we also have a vacation cabin. When my family visits the cabin it’s for two nights each summer, and we’re never expected to host them over the holidays, because we select a hotel that’s convenient for all of us. Bob and Betty often come for a few nights at Christmas. This year, my husband has invited them to come for two weeks. Two weeks! And he did this without consulting me first. When I asked him why he would invite them for an extended stay without talking to me he said it’s because I would never agree to host his sister. I want to show respect to my in-laws and make my husband happy, but hosting them is so difficult. I literally cannot handle them in my home for two weeks.  What can I do? Can’t Do It!

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Dear Can’t,

B&P: Oh, so many things, so many things. The first thing we want to do is ask you: what are your choices? Because you’re either going to have to find a way to handle your in-laws being at your house for two weeks, or…what? You can leave your husband, I suppose. Or you can check into a spa and take a solo vacation during their visit, thereby nakedly displaying to your in-laws just how much you don’t like them and, by default, how little respect you have for your husband and your chosen family.

That’s not an option? OK, then you have to deal. Our take on this is not as seamless as it often is, and we’re reminded we’re not one brain but two — often contrary ones…

B: Often, a letter writer will state the real issue that’s the root of their problem, but cloak it in distracting-but-not-overly-relevant details. Your in-laws, especially the chatty sis, are annoying, I get it. Jeff never makes a pot of coffee, the brute. And two weeks is a mighty long time to host guests, even ones that you like. But then you say this: [My husband’s] retort is that I would never agree to host his sister.

Let me repeat that: I would never agree to host his sister.

Your husband felt that the only way he could have his family in for an extended visit was to go behind your back and make plans without you, because you would never.

Hey, so…how’s your marriage? Because it seems like you have limited tolerance for the family you married into, which will, with time, have its effect on your husband and your relationship. It already has, since he’s acting out in such a way as to exclude you from input.

P: So Terri and I listened to your silence and came to some slightly different conclusions (which is the problem with silence), although this first one we shared: Sounds like there’s a whole lot of history of people’s not talking to one another. Sadly, it sounds like it starts with you and your husband. You’ve not really discussed who stays and how long, what the house rules are and if they’re different for people who stay two days and people who stay a week, who handles what chores.

And I’m not sure how his retort silenced you. According to what you said, your siblings’ stays are brief and infrequent, and his family stops in during the year, comes for several days during Christmas and is now coming for two weeks. So, “you’d never agree to host them,” is untrue and unfair. And that’s dirty pool. Unless of course, Terri’s on the money here, and you begrudge what’s happening.

B: My guess is, you’re seeing Betty and Bob exactly as they are at home. He probably never makes a pot of coffee in his own kitchen, either, and I’d bet she never stops talking, but for them it’s how it’s done, and they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. My (further) guess is, and neither does your husband, really, though he may nod his head in mute agreement whenever you voice your displeasure with your family by marriage. It’s who they are. And the thing is, if you take the examples you gave us, yourself, then they seem…ok, annoying, but they’re not committing crimes. You don’t say that Bob gets falling-down drunk and hits on you, you don’t say that you’ve caught Betty kicking your dog. Instead, you say he drinks a lot of coffee and talks about himself, and she carries on. Nobody’s picking fights or creating backstabby, noxious family relations. Except you. After they leave. With your husband.

You say you’d like to show respect to your in-laws. I’d like to see you start, too.

B: You haven’t mentioned it, so we don’t have any real information about how your husband participates in your visits. Although, since we know what’s wrong with your in-laws, you probably wouldn’t be too shy about telling us what the hubster’s up to.

I must say, however, that whether or not they’re perfect guests, that’s a lot of time to have people in your house. Are you retired and able to spend the whole summer there or is this your entire vacation?

How much time do you normally spend hosting? And does that interrupt your lazing around doing whatever you normally do while vacating?

B: You mention your own family’s visits, which last for two days and are over. How do you manage to regulate their visits? Are they just better behaved? Or have you taken the time to instill some boundaries with them? Maybe now that you’re going to have them for two weeks (because oh yes, sister, they’re coming), you can start to change some of the rules of their visits to make their behavior less irritating. Overnights, or a few nights in a row are one thing. Two weeks’ worth of visiting, though, that’s living together, and living together requires boundaries.

P: Independent of them, I would certainly be talking about rules for long-term house-guests. But if people are coming for two weeks, will you set up a schedule and make up a list of stuff and ask them to bring that? You haven’t said they’re poor. And even if people have fewer resources, presumably they have some. They can always bring the potatoes, whole and chips. Most people are happy to participate if they know what the expectations are. It might take a while and plenty of snack items to get them trained, but it helps to be direct with people.

You don’t say, but what is your husband’s idea of hosting? What are his jobs for their stay? I can’t believe it, I almost found myself writing, what does he do to help… but in fact, they’re your shared guests, maybe even his guests… His guests require his doing his part and your doing yours… because in a marriage, you get to have a guest in your own house!

 

B: You want to be gracious, be gracious, and remember, the only behavior you ultimately have control over is your own. Have you ever thought about making Bob’s coffee drinking a bit of a joke? Buy him his own mug and set up a station for him. When he comes in, present it with a flourish. Say, “Bob, you’re here for two weeks, and I know how much you like coffee. Here is your own mug, and here are the filters, the spoons, the sugar, the coffee.” Offer to show him how to work your coffee maker. And then go about your day without worrying over his coffee habit. Clear out a space for them in your fridge and tell them they’re welcome to stock up on groceries. Let them know (ahead of time) that you never cook on Wednesdays so everyone is on their own that night. I’m afraid you won’t be able to put Dot on mute, so maybe you can find some interests you share. See if she wants day passes to your local gym, or take her to something you would like to do, too. A talk at a library, a sewing bee, something. If she’s going to talk, then perhaps you can turn her chatter into something you want to hear. Also, give them a key to the cabin to use while they’re there, and let them know they’re more than welcome to come and go as they please. They might not want to be around you 24/7 for two weeks, too, particularly as you tend to sit in judgment of them.

P: Because you’ll have to answer this, how long are you willing to have Betty and Bob at your house? Terri points out your in-laws are coffee guzzlers (good save, Terri, I was for more passive aggressively removing coffee from the house. But she’s right, get him his own miniature coffee maker with a gold basket that he can refill. Save the landfill, save your sanity.) and loud (well Terri and I have a certain fondness for loud-mouthed women) Neither of these are egregious faults.

And when I hear the words vacation cabin, I think vacation. For me, that would be feet up on the screened in porch reading, floating in the lake/pool/body of water maybe reading. Oh, and napping. Rummaging in the fridge. Maybe burgers on the grill. Terri’s idea might include fewer burgers and more cooking… but what do you want for this time? Simply not having these guests is not an option.

Before you deal with the in-laws, I think you and your hubster might want to talk about one another’s goals for the vacation. (PS, yours count as much as his.)

P: Once you have a list of how you want to spend your time, you can talk about how it fits to have guests and what you’re willing to do to entertain people. And if he’s not willing to take up a lot of the slack, because you both know how they are, ask him how he thinks the two of you should solve this problem. Because it’s not your problem or even, really, simply his. They are his family. As Terri points out, you married him. And he comes equipped with family. And he loves them. And that means he knows how to love people. That’s something you want in a partner!

P: And now, more than ever, at last, finally! It’s time to talk to your husband. Not at him, to him. You can start by acknowledging you’ve put your husband in the middle between yourself and his sister and brother-in-law, and that’s not fair of you. Two weeks with them, without his discussing it with you beforehand…yes, he was terribly unfair and dropped a bit of a bomb shell on you, but it’s also a wake-up call that perhaps your own behavior hasn’t invited his conversation in the first place.

B: You’ve let them come and stay with you in order to see Mom, but has it always been through gritted teeth? Your own family seems less mashed up with each other than your husband’s family; they stay in a hotel over the holidays, they are in for two days and done at your cabin. This may be how you want families to act, but it’s not the family you married into. Ask your husband whether or not he finds his sis & BIL’s behavior difficult to manage, too, or if you’ve just made him feel bad about having a sibling. Ask how you can work together as a unit to not have this sort of difficult rift in the future. Be quiet, and let him answer you. Active listening can be extraordinarily difficult; what I am going to ask of you is that you don’t answer until he is done speaking. Don’t talk over him, don’t start formulating a response. Just let your husband speak about this situation with his sister-in-law. He ought to do the same with you and I’m going to ask you again: when it’s your turn to speak, talk to the things that really upset you in this. It’s not Jeff’s coffee habit or Dot’s chatter, it’s that your husband made these extended plans without consulting you. The solid frame of a really large wall is going up between the two of you. Work to dismantle it before you’re divided for a lifetime.

P: And what’s your goal? Their personalities are not going to change, she’ll always talk too loudly and he’ll drink too much coffee, but you can take your book and go sit on the porch.

And, worth your while, you need to think a little about how they’ll respond — because even if they are selfish, you don’t ever want them to seize on this as an opportunity to stop seeing Mom. And that’s a real consideration for as long as Mom’s alive. That’s another gift you get from your loving husband, another Mom.

I don’t know that I was quite as worried as Terri that this was a game changer for you, but I do know it seems like an awfully big hill to put up in your own back yard. You have a husband with a family. And presumably a lovely cabin. Enjoy that!

bnp visiting family

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