“Life on hold” When Guests Arrive

Q. I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Paris, and up till now, I’ve been (I think) really hospitable to friends, family and even friends of friends who have come to town to visit. Recently I’ve realized that I’m not looking forward to these visits the way I used to, but I feel guilty when I imagine myself saying “no” to people who want to stay, as I’m sure their feelings would be hurt. On the other hand I get really resentful at having to put my life on hold every few weeks. I’m sure many people have this problem and I wonder how they handle it.

A: The phrase “put my life on hold” suggests that you may go out of your way for these visitors much more than you need to, to prove your friendship. A good exercise might be for you do draw up a profile of the ideal house guest, such as:

  • stays no longer than three days
  • gets own breakfast/dinner
  • visits Paris independently without me
  • spends some evenings out of the apartment
  • helps with shopping/housework/cooking

and then write a practice letter to an imaginary friend who has asked to stay with you, stating under what conditions you would be comfortable having him/her. For instance, “I’m really excited you are coming over and I hope we will be able to see a lot of each other during your visit. But before I extend an official invitation to stay, I thought I should tell you that I’ve pretty much given up cooking meals for my guests [or taking people sightseeing, inviting people for longer than three days, or whatever your limits are], as I’ve learned from experience that the way I can best enjoy my friends is if I make sure I don’t bite off more than I can chew in terms of entertaining. My apartment is small, friends come through town on a regular basis, and I feel a real need now to make sure I have some time and space to myself while people visit.”

You could then offer to reserve a hotel room in the neighborhood if they feel uncomfortable with what you are able to provide, and suggest ways you could be available to them, such as booking restaurants, planning a tour to Versailles, lending them some wonderful guidebooks, etc. If your friends usually telephone you rather than write, ask a friend here to play the role of the would-be visitor, and practice a dialogue in which you gently but firmly apprise this person of what he/she can expect. Many people fear that setting limits will cost them a friendship, and occasionally this happens; but if the message is delivered kindly, other people generally accept and learn to respect what you can – and cannot – willingly offer.

Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships.

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