Reader question #88: Strategies for dealing with an unwanted houseguest.

Dame Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett
Today's poster child for terrible houseguests: Charlotte Bartlett

Dear Captain Awkward

I recently discovered your blog and.I wonder if you could give me any thoughts about how to deal with my current situation.

About a year ago, my partner became mildly friendly with an English exchange student he was at university with. Although they weren’t great friends, he invited her to stay at our house for a few weeks so she wasn’t homeless when she had to move out of college for the Summer. After that, she moved back to England and we also moved to a different city. He and she have now both graduated and are working in the same industry. Last week, she called to let him know that she was moving permanently to the city we now live in, and asked if she could stay at our place for a bit until she found a job and a place. Without consulting me, he agreed. She is arriving in 2 weeks.

While I wasn’t happy about him agreeing to this request without asking my opinion (we’ve discussed it and he apologised), I have to admit that if he had asked me I would have said yes. This girl is only 22, hasn’t got much money, and is moving across the world to a city where she doesn’t know anyone else, so I do feel that it’s the right thing to do to help her out.

The trouble is, I don’t like this girl. She isn’t a horrible person, but I find her really annoying. Last time she stayed with us she didn’t lift a finger to help out and seemed to expect dinner cooked for her every night. Hints fell on deaf ears. She has never lived outside of her parents’ place other than in college and she just doesn’t have roommate skills. I also found her a difficult person to have in my personal space. A few times I got home from work after a massive day, and really just wanted to pour myself a glass of wine and watch TV. Instead, I’d end up listening to her talk for hours (literally) about things like how unfair her thesis mark was, or how incredibly drunk she got on the weekend. One more thing: I got a very strong vibe that she had a crush on me. This didn’t bother me in itself, but I do think it could have been part of the reason she wanted to hang out so much.

To make matters worse, my partner works away from home a lot and for most of the time she is staying with us he won’t be around. And I have been having a few emotional issues that mean I really need my space at the moment.

Can you suggest any strategies to deal with this situation? I don’t want her to feel unwelcome or like she has to tiptoe around – after all, we said she could stay. But I also don’t want to do the full-on martyr complex act that I did when she last stayed with us (i.e. acting really friendly, doing everything for her, listening to her stories, all the while getting more and more resentful and complaining about her to other people). And how do I make sure this situation doesn’t go on too long? The thought of having her in my home for months makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry.


Ungracious Hostess

Dear Ungracious:

You are very, very kind to let this girl stay with you.  And you are right that you have to renegotiate the terms of her stay so that you don’t have to bury her corpse in the back yard.  Since you’ve already said yes, and she’s arriving so soon, unfortunately you are stuck with her.

My suggestion is that since your partner got you into this, and he will be around less during her stay, that you get him to be the one to lay down some ground rules before she eats your bread and salt.  Have him email her an agreement and/or take her out for a drink on her own when she first arrives. For instance:

  • Put an agreement about length of stay, chores, ground rules, meals in writing. “Hopefully you’ll find a place in no time, but if you haven’t by (date) we’ll need you to move into (hostel) – I’m sure you understand.  In the meantime, we’d appreciate your help with dishes, laundry, etc. and can you pick a night of the week that you cook dinner?”
  • Explain to her that  (you) will be working hard during her stay, and needs her alone time.
  • I am not a lawyer, but DON’T make any agreement that has her paying rent  – that makes her a tenant and conveys certain rights – whereas guests can just be kicked out. (Can I get a quick lawyer-check on this one?)

You also need to agree with your parnter about what happens if (date) is reached and she still hasn’t found a place.  Will you really kick her out?  You need to have a united front.  Also, when your partner IS at home, you guys definitely need to go on date nights and spend some time together without her, but he also has to do some work to get her out of the house and out of your hair when he’s around.  “Hello (houseguest), (partner) is taking you to (tourist attraction)!  Won’t that be nice!”

Now, once she’s there and blabbing in your ear, you need to find it in yourself to say “That all sounds really interesting, but it’s been a long day and I’d really like some quiet time to (finish my book/watch tv/plot your death).  Talk to you later?”

Later can mean a lot of things.  Sometimes it means never.

I feel like we could develop a Good Houseguest Manifesto between us.  If possible, A Good Houseguest:

  • Stays for a defined and agreed-on length of time.
  • Cleans up after herself without being asked and can generally handle her own business.
  • Is really, really good at amusing herself and knows to say, sincerely, “Don’t think about me at all today – just do your thing” when necessary.
  • Makes an effort to slip into the rhythms of the house rather than making the house cater to her, Charlotte Bartlett-style. One of the things I loved about my former roommates, Z. and R., is that we all understood that MORNING TIME IS QUIET TIME. But now and again we’d get a really chatty houseguest and all be giving each other the side-eye, like, “How can she not knowCan’t she see we’re READING?”

Other things you can try:

  • Stock up on movie passes and event listings.  Send her out to do fun things in the city.  Frequently.
  • Put a stack of good, recent books in the room she’ll be staying (A nice thing to do even for non-annoying houseguests).
  • Also stock up on phrases like: “Huh.”  “Hmmm.”  “Interesting.”  “Wow.”  You’ll need them.
  • However, she’s proven that she can’t take hints, so if the polite monosyllable is getting you nowhere, CUT HER OFF.
  • If you need to ask her to do something or to stop doing something, do it as directly as possible in the moment.  “WHY do you NEVER do the dishes? You have no roommate skills AT ALL!”  becomes “Could you please do the dishes tonight? Thank you.”
  • Move the TV/computer into a room with a door that shuts and make it as comfy as possible.  It’s going to be your fortress, where you will be “working” or “unwinding” or “solitary activity of your choice.”
  • Set aside a designated time each day to interact with her (dinner?) and do your best to be pleasant and friendly, but then after that time is over you can definitely retire to do something else.
  • Actually help her out!  With job listings, apartment listings, recommendations, etc.
  • Do stuff with your friends and get out of the house yourself!  Have dinner alone in a good restaurant with a glass of wine and a book, and use some of those movie passes on yourself.

Finally, while this is awkward, once she’s been at your house for a bit, it is okay to say “How is your job/apartment search going? What is your plan?”  And as the deadline approaches, it is also totally ok to keep asking “What is your plan?”  Emphasis on “your.” Do not ask “What are WE going to do about (plan)?”  Same thing when talking about her plans for a given day or evening.  “What’s your plan for today?”

I really hope she finds a way to get settled very soon.

16 thoughts on “Reader question #88: Strategies for dealing with an unwanted houseguest.

  1. This is great advice, but I have a tangential comment/question:

    Is this the whole email/have you had other communication with the letter writer? If not, it might be best to use the word the letter writer specifically chose–partner–instead of husband. There are several reasons why it’s best to use the honorific the letter writer used themselves (e.g. I am gay and female, and married to a woman, but I am *not* a wife, and it bothers me when people make that assumption).

    If the letter writer did in fact refer to their partner as their husband in some other communication or at some other time, I stand corrected!

    1. You’re right, sorry, that’s my mistake. For some reason I thought the LW used “husband” and I was doing the same. I honestly have no clue why I did that. Will fix.

  2. O you LWs, always with the hinting. If hinting doesn’t work, STOP hinting around. Your attempt to avoid the awkward just guarantees a giant avalanche of Awkward soon to come. In its house at Or’ly dread Awkward waits dreaming. Etc.

  3. OMG, I have BEEN that young. (And twenty years later, I CouchSurf as a host… and try to deal nicely with some guests who don’t have a lot of practice in being guests.)

    All of your advice is great, but: “If you need to ask her to do something or to stop doing something, do it as directly as possible in the moment.” THIS.

    It is about the worst thing to do to a guest who has a proven inability to pick up on gentle hints, to seethe madly about that inability until you finally explode all over her. Or him. If you would like her to spend an evening out at the cinema because you have guests coming round and you want the house to yourself, or you want her to do the dishes, or you don’t like the way she stacks up the plates, or you really need to have some quiet time to unwind, TELL HER. Politely, but above all clearly and directly. (If she ignores what you’ve said clearly and directly, you may have a bigger problem, but do not expect her to pick up on the hinting.)

    I was a tenant staying in the spare bedroom of someone who I’m sure was a very nice lady who was a co-worker. She had very specific ideas about how tenants should behave, and very definite ideas about where things should go in the kitchen, which would not be in itself a problem, except that she would not tell me what they were. I’d just find that a dish I had put in one cupboard had been replaced in another, or that though she’d said I could use the sitting-room, if she came in and found me sitting in it watching TV there would be a cold silence until I retreated upstairs, or when the covered bowl of leftover soup I’d put back in the fridge had been cleaned out, put into a little tupperware container, and marked with a postit and my name…. and a general sense of lingering hostility that I hadn’t figured out already how she liked things done. She was not by a long chalk the worst landlady I ever had – she treated me perfectly fairly as a tenant, and I’d liked hger fine at work, but I remember with a general sense of frustration that life with her would have been so much easier if she could admit she had these stringent rules about where I should put things and what things I could use and where I could be when, and tell me directly when I didn’t follow them. She anticipated my giving her notice by exactly a month, and I didn’t mind a bit.

    1. Yes, exactly.

      This girl sounds like an immature and clingy horror, but you have to understand: so much of this seems like a double-edged sword. I’ve been a tenant, a roommate, a houseguest, a traveler, and a foreigner, and the common denominator in bad situations has always been the paralyzing uncertainty produced by silence. You get so paranoid! You constantly get it wrong! Was that a real invitation? Do they want me to replace that? Should I buy more or less? Was I too drunk? Was I not drunk enough? Is it okay that I skipped cleaning the bathroom last Tuesday? Do they hate me?

      She might actually believe that it would be rude to, like, have a social life and not turn your quiet time into a Doris Lessing novel on tape. She might actually be afraid to touch anything in the kitchen, even if it’s her own dirty dish. I know that’s ridiculous–I’d be really annoyed myself, and it’s not as though she’s from the land of crusted-on leftovers–but it’s a normal human reaction to unfamiliar surroundings.

      If she’s worth dealing with, she’ll be grateful for any clarity you can provide her. And she’ll shape up, probably. And then you’ll feel gratified.

      1. Also, wrt bathrooms: when you don’t lay down the law, you aren’t just depriving her of clarity. You’re providing her with an irrestistible moral hazard. It’s also normal, I think, to push your luck in shared living situations–the same way you do when you’re living all by yourself and the dishes are piling up in the sink. Although it’s bad manners to be a lazy and untidy houseguest, it’s also nice not to ever have to clean up after yourself.

        1. Piny, you basically said everything I wanted to say about this situation. Good points, all of ’em. As the host, LW’s partner (with an assist from LW) needs to provide clarity and be willing to say “you know, it’s your turn to do the dishes” once in a while.

  4. I agree with prior assertions re: asserting boundaries and maintaining personal space. I am actually bothered most of all by the thoughtlessness of your partner, LW. Did you tell him about all the trouble you had with his friend last time she stayed? Even if you told him everything was great, thanks, he still owes you a, “Hey, so-and-so needs a place to crash for a few weeks. Is it ok if she stays with us?” Especially if he knows how tough it was on you last time, you need to sit down with him first and iron things out, before you try and figure out what to do with your unwanted houseguest. Your partner needs to have your back. You should take him out for a beer and let him know that what he did was absolutely not cool, or he’ll think he can do this any time he wants.

    Oh and other thing? YOU did not consent to this, and you don’t actually care about being friends with this girl. Who cares if she thinks you’re a jerk? Don’t be afraid to be the bitchy girlfriend, you know? If you don’t want her staying at your house, I suggest you 1)let your partner know what he did wasn’t cool and that you’re going to tell her to stay somewhere else and then 2) let her know that you actually really can’t deal with houseguests right now, but here’s a couple of hostels she could stay at.

    Remember: it’s her decision to move, and she’s a grown-ass woman. If she can’t get her shit together BEFORE moving to a new city, maybe she needs to take more time and find a place to live, etc, before changing venues. People do it all the time.

  5. My partner and I are currently house guests of friends, specifically as a hold-over until we found job(s) and a place to live. And something that worked for both us and our hosts was a “stair-step” approach. So, the first month, we just helped with utilities while we worked on our stuff. If it went into another month, then we would pick up part of the rent. And if it looked like it would go longer than 2 months, we would sit down BEFORE that happened and talk it out.

    You could do something like that, and lay it out when she gets into town. X amount of time with fewer obligations to the household (not necessarily monetary), and then if it takes her a while to get things together, add obligations in and set an expiration (or at least, re-negotiation) date. That ideally would give her time to really focus on getting out of your place, and provide incentive to do it sooner rather than later. And it might provide a built-in way to talk explicitly about what is and is not expected of her.

    However you do it, you can’t go wrong with clarity.

  6. Tonight I was in someone else’s kitchen helping him bake a cake. His wife came in with their two children. They all wanted to help. My friend started to get agitated and anxious, which he often does in these kinds of situations.

    I said “there are too many people in this kitchen. We can’t continue until people leave.”

    My friend’s wife was annoyed. Of course she was! I just kicked her out of her own kitchen. It was rude! Jeez!

    You know what else? YOU KNOW WHAT ELSE?!?!

    Nothing. Nothing else. She and the kids left the kitchen. We baked the cake. We ate delicious cake.

    The End.

    Much awkwardness can be avoided by remembering that you are in charge of your own life. People can definitely get put off when you assert yourself a bit too much, as I probably did tonight. But I didn’t want to be in a kitchen with kids trying to bake a cake with my agitated, anxious friend, so I told everyone what I wanted and they complied because when someone takes charge, other people usually just do what they say.

    Not the appropriate response in all situations, but for most of us we could get by asserting ourselves more often.

    1. This comment concerns me. You are certainly in charge of your life, and asserting yourself is important! However, what about going to your *own* house to bake a cake, if you know there are going to be small children that you’re trying to escape at your buddy’s house. Come on! Your friend has kids and a wife that live in his house and have some claims to being in it.

      Ordering someone out of their own kitchen is a pretty aggressive and entitled way of getting what you want. It might be that you wish your anxious friend would assert himself more with his wife, but that doesn’t make it appropriate or fair for you to start ordering his family around unless there’s some real danger (kids trying to bite your finger off, etc). Maybe you were diplomatic about it, but your comment made it seem like you actually relished taking control in a way that you acknowledged was rude.

      You do not win by making everyone bend to your will, even if you get what you want in the moment. I cannot imagine that in the long term this wife — also a person in her own right! — will feel awesome about your strategies.

      1. Your reaction is a great example of what I’m talking about. Look how you catastrophize one incident – an incident where I clearly overstepped – into some sort of long-term threat to my relationship with this woman.

        People tend to see overstepping as a kind of catastrophe to be avoided at all costs. This tips the scales vastly in favor of not asserting oneself.

        My point is not that it’s a good idea to be rude. It’s that inadvertently overstepping and being a bit rude is just a mistake. You make the mistake, you move on. Next time I go over to their house I’ll bring her a cupcake and be extra nice.

        The fact remains that the best way to get what you want is to tell people what you want. If you’re not willing to do that because you think it’ll destroy your relationships, well… you’re not going to get what you want.

  7. Thanks so much, Captain, for this super helpful advice. The one thing better than good advice is good advice with Room With a View references! I had a chat with my partner and we have come up with a plan based on your ideas. He is going to let her know that we would like the house to ourselves by the end of September. He’s also going to give her a general idea about the tough stuff I’ve been going through lately, so she has some context on me needing space.

    When she moves in I’m going to clear her a shelf in the fridge, and just tell her that I think it would be easiest if we cooked for ourselves separately, and she is welcome to use anything in the kitchen or pantry, and could she please do her dishes afterwards. I’m also going to show her how to use the washing machine and ask if she can avoid showering between 7 and 7 thirty in the morning on workdays. Thank you to everyone who commented about how clear boundaries actually make it easier for both parties in this situation. I really needed to hear that to counteract the stupid voice in my head that tells me that being clear and direct is “bitchy”. I won’t be doing her any favors if I don’t let her know my expectations, and I know from experience hinting won’t work. Some comments also made me realise that there are some expectations that I don’t have, that I should let her know about as well. For example, I don’t want her to contribute financially to bills or anything, and I’m completely relaxed about her using things in the house, reading my books, watching my DVDs, skyping with my wireless etc.

    The personal space stuff is a bit trickier, but I’m going to adopt your suggestions wholesale, Captain. I love the move-the-TV idea, and am going to put the spirit of it into practice by making sure I have some good TV I haven’t seen on my laptop (I’m thinking Downton Abbey), so I have something nice to retreat to. I like the idea of seeing her and chatting for half an hour over food then just letting her know I need to unwind and relaxing with quality programming. And @Piny, that’s such a good point that she might feel socially obliged to chat. People who haven’t lived with roommates can be big on the delusion that friends have to entertain each other constantly, I find. I’m also going to let my friends know I might need some extra reasons to get out of the house around this time.

    My partner is setting up some meetings with recruiters for her. Luckily the job market in her industry is very good here, so she should get a job before too long. So long as she doesn’t use her interviews to complain about the unfairness of her thesis mark 🙂

    Seriously, thank you Captain and commenters. Chances are she’s still going to annoy the shit out of me. But I have a plan! I have strategies! I have a non-negotiable end date! feel slightly less “curl up in a ball and cry” ish already…

    1. Those are good ground rules!

      Several years ago, I found myself in a different city from home for work for what turned out to be a year. Thankfully, that city is full of marvelous friends (like Captain Awkward) who saved me from dropping my basket.

      I stayed with 3 couples during that year. Each of them sat me down beforehand and told me what I could do to make my Guesthood easier for them and what I should specifically NOT do to drive them up a wall. I felt so awkward and weird and mooching to be staying with people for such extended periods of time, and it was a huge relief to me to know what would help and what would hinder.

  8. Oh, hinting. First of all, stop that right now. No hinting. No beating around the bush.
    It’s easy to think that other people are horrible guests because they’re horrible people, but in my experience, it’s often because they’re quite legitimately ignorant of what they’re doing, especially if they’ve been, shall I say, gently reared. All of Captain’s advice is spot-on, although I’d emphasize that this needs to be dealt with up-front, preferably before she’s winging her way across the Atlantic, bags in hand. She’s an adult and you probably want to treat her as one, but frankly, some people just don’t get it. So make it plain – even if you have to resort to the dreaded Chore List. Tell her that she’ll need to do the dishes X nights, keep her things out of the shared space, etc., etc.,
    and mention anything that’s really going to tee you off (as in, are you
    more comfortable with her buying her own food and not eating yours, or giving you an amount for grocery shopping?)
    If she has issues with this, it’s tempting to remind her that she’s a non-paying guest, but I’ve found it’s more effective to say something like, “You sound like you’re not happy staying here anymore. Would you like help in getting your things prepared for you to leave?” The prospect of imminent homelessness will make most people remember that being a non-paying guest in someone’s house is quite a privilege, not a right.

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