Coping With Guests

Feeling tense about summer guests? Some ideas that can help.

Posted Jul 20, 2010

It happens every summer. Visitors, both welcome and unwelcome, begin to arrive.  And many of us begin to feel inadequate, anxious, and unhappy just at the time when we're supposed to be most relaxed. 

For example: A mother of two small children worked for weeks to clean up her usually cluttered apartment before her mother-in-law arrived, and still believed that it would not pass inspection. A newlywed couple panicked about how to cope with his sister's family of four, who would be staying with them for a week. A young working woman with very little money to spare obsessed about whether or not to replace the somewhat lumpy futon on which her college roommate would be sleeping.

You might wonder if worrying about replacing a piece of furniture is really worth talking about in therapy. The answer, at least from my perspective, is a definite yes. For one thing, talking about small details of life can lead to important insights about underlying psychodynamics (for more about this, see references 1 and 2). As we talk about a messy apartment, a critical mother-in-law, or an uncomfortable couch, clients begin to access other, less easily articulated, concerns. For example, the client who worried about her mother-in-law's criticism of her home was not simply dealing with her husband's mother. She was, we began to see, unsure of herself as a woman. Although her husband clearly loved her deeply and her children appeared to be thriving, she felt that markers of femininity like being a good cook, having a well-decorated and clean home, and looking a certain way, were missing in her.

While on the one hand these issues were clearly more complicated than whether or not she was an adequate homemaker, talking about her worries about her mother-in-law's criticism was an important first step in the discussion. Eventually it would lead us to a lifelong fear that she was not really adequate as a woman, a worry that had both personal and societal foundations.

For the newlyweds, the issues were different, but again augmented by social expectations. Both had been unhappily married before, and the husband's sister was the first to visit them since their wedding. They naturally wanted to show how well they were doing, but since they were still in the process of establishing themselves as a unit there were bound to be some difficulties with another family in the picture. One immediate problem was that they had different ideas about being a good host/hostess. He wanted to plan wonderful meals and provide a guest room with all the amenities, while she wanted to focus on entertainment plans.

Again, exploration of the concrete details led to some useful understanding of their deeper and more complex individual dynamics. Eager to avoid mistakes which had damaged their previous relationships, this couple was quickly able to put some of their individual issues into the context of the relationship.

I have found over the years that there are some common themes that come up as summer visitors begin to arrive.These themes have different meanings for each of us, but I thought it might be useful to offer a couple of thoughts about dealing with each of them.Take a look also at a very helpful posting by Nanci Tangeman!

1. Manage your expectations: Visions of summer guests often evoke unrealistic ideas even in the most realistic of us. Try to keep yours within reasonable limits. If you like grocery shopping and cooking and have the time and means to do it, for example, by all means, include some wonderful meals in your hosting plans. But if you don't love these activities, you will inevitably end up feeling bad, either angry or victimized, and no one will have a good time. (therefore, go to #4)

2. Do a lot of pre-planning: Have ideas about meals, places to go, things to do, activities for all sorts of weather conditions; and know all the details about how to implement any of these plans. For example, if there is an exhibit at a local museum that you think your guests would enjoy, find out the museum's hours and days, price of admission for all age groups, and think about how you will get everyone there. Same with trips to the beach or state parks, etc.

3. Be flexible: No matter how much fun an activity seems, it will be a dead bore (or worse) if you force it on a group who isn't interested. Sometimes sitting around and talking is all anyone wants to do. Don't worry. It'll be a lot more fun than going somewhere no one wants to go.

4. Encourage your guests to take an active role in all plans: I recently made reservations to go to a wonderful restaurant with some houseguests; but they decided that they wanted to make dinner instead. They chose the menu, did the grocery shopping, and took over the kitchen. My husband became the sous-chef and I cancelled the dinner reservations and set the table. A wonderful time was had by all!

5. Remember that your friends/family are there to visit with you, not to judge your entry in a home beautiful competition: In most cases, even the most critical in-laws will be more pleasant if you focus on enjoying the time with them rather than on how to make them approve of you.

6. Protect your own boundaries: No one can spend 24/7 with another person without getting nutty. Take time for yourself even with a house full of guests. Go for a walk by yourself. If someone offers to come with you, tell them politely and sweetly that you need just a few minutes alone, and that then you'd love their company to do something else. Go read a book somewhere. Call a friend. Take a hot shower. Having boundaries not only doesn't make you a bad person, it also allows you to be more relaxed with the people who are in your house.

7. Respect your guests' boundaries: Don't take it personally if someone else needs a little time alone. Everything I said in #6 holds true for them as well as for you. (My husband and I used to be invited back regularly as houseguests before we had our own place because, as one friend put it, we were there for fun, we always shopped, cooked and helped clean up, but we also took off on our own for long bike rides during the day!)

8. Remember that your guests may be feeling as anxious as you! Friends and relatives often seem judgmental when they are feeling awkward or uncomfortable. Your college roommate may need to show off a little because he feels that you are more successful than he is; or your mother-in-law may be stand-offish because she senses that you don't like her!! The more you can step back and not take others' behavior personally (see my earlier post on this topic), the more likely you will be to have a pleasant visit.

And finally, if all else fails, remember that this is a time-limited proposition. Soon you will have your home to yourself again. And then you can try to figure out the psychological meanings of all of these worries!!!

1. Harry Stack Sullivan. The Psychiatric Interview. Norton Publishing Co. 1970.
2. F. Diane Barth. "Speaking of Feelings: Affects, Language and Psychoanalysis." Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 1998.