I’ve Had It With House Guests

Q. This issue must come up so often in Franco-American couples such as mine that I’m amazed no one’s written you about it already, or did I miss something? It concerns the visitors, including in-laws, who stream continuously through Paris – and my apartment – during the summer. Yes, my wife “sacrificed” home, friends and family by moving here to marry me! Yes, her parents have the right to see their daughter and their grandchildren! Yes, Americans take pride in their tradition of hospitality! But after ten years of running a “pension de famille” for my wife’s compatriots – who, granted, obligingly thank us with Bloomingdale’s placemats or coffee table art books, plus the obligatory dinner out – I’ve had it! My wife tells me I should move to a hotel when guests come, but isn’t that “le monde à l’envers?” Some advice, and quickly, please!

A:  I can really feel your exasperation, and though you are the first to write about this issue, you are right that it is a biggie. If ever there were a situation that needs conflict resolution skills, this is it. It sounds as though a lot of emotion enters into the arguments you have with your spouse, so the feelings are strong, and both of you need room to express them in all their depth without being interrupted or otherwise put down. If you have learned any “active listening” techniques (basically, expressing your point of view in short sentences and then pausing to let the other person feed back what they have heard), use those with each other as long as is necessary for both of you to feel you have truly been heard. Remember, hearing does not mean agreeing, and feeling listened to can truly help defuse negativity.

Once the feelings have been expressed, it is easier to move into problem solving. Here is how one Franco-American couple with exactly your issue worked with it. In a cool moment, the couple drew up a list of their regular visitors and the wife prioritized them, coming up with about a half dozen to whom she felt it was truly important to offer hospitality. They then worked on time frames, with the man asking, “What is the shortest stay for your mother/sister/friend that you feel honors the relationship?” and the woman asking, “What is the longest stay you can endure without feeling invaded?” Using the answers as baselines, they negotiated with different configurations until they found solutions both could live with. The wife gave up her demands that her more introverted husband “be polite,” “be nice,” “be welcoming,” and allowed him to be anti-social without taking it as a reflection of herself. As this went some way toward meeting his need for privacy, his aggressiveness toward her and her guests diminished.

Cultural differences, gender differences and personality factors are all at play here. This may be one of those situations – every couple has them – where you will never achieve real agreement but “good enough” accommodations can generally be reached.

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.