A few years ago, my wife’s cousin stayed with us for about six weeks while she was going through the hiring process at my company. It was the longest six weeks of my life. She pretty much sat on the couch and never moved a finger to help around the house — even to pick up after herself. Never once did this relative buy groceries or treat us to a meal. It has caused a lot of tension in our marriage.
In March 2020, we agreed to have the same cousin’s family — aunt, uncle, sister and her two children — stay with us. Susan, the cousin, lives in a one-bedroom apartment and has no room to host them. (Yes, she has paid $1,100 a month for the last 11-plus years. That’s another story about lost equity opportunities.) The day they were to arrive was the day that America shut down due to COVID-19.
“‘My wife essentially provided a maid service to our guests, and it has become too much for me to bear.’”
Even though they had just driven 1,400 miles and been in contact with numerous people during their three-day drive, we still welcomed them. For seven days we had no choice but to have them at our house. I was an “essential worker” during the pandemic, and had no choice but to go to work. That was a mixed blessing. My wife took five days of vacation because we have two children.
Long story short: We saw the same behavior from these relatives. My wife essentially provided a maid service to our guests, and it has become too much for me to bear. I spoke to my wife about asking them to help pitch in, but she refused to speak up, so I bit my tongue during their entire visit.
Fast forward to 2023: This marked the fourth year that we’ve opened our home to my wife’s family.
My parents visit every other month (they live 200 miles away), and during every visit they offer to take us out to dinner, and clean up after themselves. They’ll wash dishes and tell us to sit down and relax. They never leave a mess. Why can’t my wife’s aunt, uncle and cousins be more like that? Their vacations should not cost us money, or create more work for us.
How do I tell them that we won’t be hosting them this year?
Not a Vrbo
Dear Not a Vrbo,
Once bitten, twice shy. Four bites? You’ve either caught bed bugs, or you’ve volunteered for way too much punishment from bad guests. And you have volunteered. You and your wife need to make a pact: You’re a team, you own a home together, and you both have families, but if one of you has an extended family that refuses to behave well, you need a unanimous vote to greenlight those guests in future.
There’s a big difference between hosting parents/in-laws and hosting aunts, uncles and cousins, especially ones that seem to think that your home is a responsibility-free zone. You’re not a five-star hotel. You’re not Disneyland. Your role is not to cook and entertain and pretend like you don’t know that underneath the familiar, happy-go-lucky, smiling relative “masks” are a bunch of virtual strangers.
You don’t know these people. Not really. If you did, you would welcome them with open arms. You keep inviting them and expecting them to behave differently. Based on your repeated attempts to change this reality, I can only assume that a small, even a tiny, part of you, likes to get annoyed with them and/or you are afraid of what might happen if you tell them it’s not possible for them to stay.
“‘This is not about their stinginess and messiness, or thoughtfulness — that’s their business — it’s about your needs.’”
So what do you say? “It doesn’t work for us this year.” Why? “We’ve got too much going on.” Why do you have too much going on? “Because we’re too busy.” Why? “We’ve got too much going on.” Wait, what? Put your answers in the spin cycle, and rinse and repeat. Pushy people know they’re pushy. That’s the point. It’s not about your comfort level, it’s about their ability to get what they want.
The time has come for (a) you and your wife to get on the same page (one person should always have the right to veto badly behaved guests) and (b) speak up for yourself. This is not about their stinginess and messiness, or thoughtfulness — that’s their business — it’s about your needs: “I need to have the house to ourselves this summer.” Why? “Because we’re too busy.” Why? “We’ve got too much going on.”
It’s time to change your thinking. You’re not being held hostage by your hosts, you’re being held hostage by your own unwillingness to set a clear boundary — and stick to it. The responsibility here lies with you, and not with your wife’s relatives. It’s your job to tell people what your needs are in situations such as this. They can respect those needs or not, but the end result is the same.
You will have a guest-free house this summer.
You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.
By emailing your questions, you agree to have them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.
Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.
The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.
More from Quentin Fottrell: