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Preventing Trouble With Houseguests

How hosts can reduce the possibility of houseguest-host tensions.

We’re heading towards another busy houseguest season and while houseguests can be a dream, they can also be a nightmare of stress and relationship strain. In a 2013 post, I explained that houseguests are often challenging because homes are “primary territories” where we typically have a large degree of privacy and control. At home, we operate according to automatic routines and habits that require little thought. This predictability, control, and ability to turn off our brains are why our homes are personal recovery and restoration places. Houseguests are like personal territorial invaders. They disrupt our routines, reduce feelings of personal control, and make privacy regulation more difficult.

Houseguests also require significant energy, especially when the relationship isn’t close. Sustaining polite interpersonal interaction, and maintaining our public face in what is normally a private space for our private face, is exhausting. When a host doesn’t have a close relationship with a guest, when guests are emotionally challenging, or a visit is too long and disruptive to routines and privacy, a host is especially likely to feel invaded and territorially defensive. This often manifests as irritability and coldness toward the territorial invader. If that weren’t enough, houseguests frequently strain finances and increase our household labor.

Understanding why a houseguest made you so “grrrr” is comforting, but even better is to minimize the chances of trouble. So, for the busy holiday houseguest season, I offer the following suggestions.

Beware of Issuing Insincere or Impractical Invitations

“You’ll have to come visit us, we have plenty of room,” said the person who didn’t expect to be taken up on their offer. “You know you’re all welcome to stay here,” said the person without the time, energy, or space for houseguests. Unwanted houseguests sometimes result from impulsive offers made long before guests arrive.

Say No to Hosting Unwanted Houseguests

When someone asks if they can stay with you, or drops hints to that effect, don’t automatically issue an invite or say yes to avoid feeling rude. You don’t have to respond to a hint. You can politely say “no” to a request and it helps to have some polite, assertive words ready. For example, “We’d love to see you, but those dates don’t work for us,” “I haven’t been well and I’m not up to houseguests but I’d love to see you,” or, “We’ve got too much going on but I can suggest some other places you might stay.” Although relationship costs are possible, most people will have no problems with your boundary or will quickly get over any hurt. Manage your guilt by reminding yourself of your reasons for saying no and by remembering that it is, after all, your home. You have a right to determine who stays there and when, and to say no if you want to or need to, even if they’ve stayed with you before.

Assume Your Guests Lack Psychic Abilities: Clarify Expectations and Limitations

To avoid feeling rude, hosts sometimes fail to share information with their guests that might reduce problems. Then they end up stressed and irritable (and sometimes rude and passive-aggressive). Their clueless guests are left wondering what the problem is. So if you say yes to houseguests, have a pre-visit dialogue. Clarify visit limits such as length of time, sleeping arrangements, your availability to entertain them or drive them around, or financial restraints that limit your ability to go sight-seeing, provide food and meals, and so on.

Also when your guests arrive, review with your guests the household rules and routines, the best time to get a shower, the coffee and meal situation, and “quiet hours.” Be clear about whether you’d like them to wash their dishes, fold their blankets daily if they’re sleeping on the couch, and so on, and what you want them to do with their towels and sheets before they leave.

Make the Best of It

Unwanted or challenging houseguests are sometimes unavoidable. Be assertive about house rules or personal territory or privacy, if it might help. Emphasize any positives such as the importance of the guest to you or your loved ones. Take lots of deep breaths. Sneak away for some alone time or time with friends to recover or complain. Remember that they won’t be there forever.

More from Shawn M. Burn Ph.D.
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