#1302: Guest Post: “When your hosts are doing you a favor but their housekeeping habits are making you sad and ill.”

Hello, this week we have a guest post from Rachel Hoffman of Unf*ck Your Habitat blog and book fame about the tricky balance of maintaining your own sanity (and sanitation) in a house where you are a guest.

Dear Captain,

My (she/her) contract-based job expired at the end of April so to save money, my husband and I have been living with his parents. Throughout this time, they have made a massive effort to make me feel welcome and part of the family and have gone above and beyond on multiple occasions where I needed their expertise. My mother and law even makes me coffee every morning and often prepares me lunch!

My problem however, is this: in many ways my in laws live like the sloppiest roommates you can think of. I feel like I’m the only one who changed the toilet paper roll since I arrived, none of them can so much as make toast without covering every surface of the kitchen in crumbs and dishes (which of course is also not cleaned up), and don’t get me started on the number of bathroom items I have found on food preparation surfaces!

I have tried responding directly to specific instances but no matter how I address things they always seem to forget or laugh it off. When I discuss it with my husband he says there’s not much to be done as what I’m asking amounts to asking for adults to change habits they’ve had their whole lives.

How do I learn to deal with this situation in the long term? Do you have any magic scripts that might get them to understand about the dangers of kitchen bathroom cross contamination? I don’t want the relationship with my otherwise lovely in-laws to become even more strained but I’ve gotten sick twice since moving here even though I have barely left the house in months.

I’d be so grateful for any advice you have,
Desperate daughter in law

Dear DDIL,

First of all, let me say that it sounds like you have great in-laws! They seem kind and welcoming, and the fact that you appear to have a healthy relationship with them is going to help SO MUCH, and is likely making this situation far more bearable than it would be otherwise. Unfortunately, there’s a hard-to-swallow part about your in-laws: they’re kind and welcoming people who are either not great at — or not concerned with — being good housekeepers. And the hardest truth? You need to find a way to work around that.

That sucks! I know! They do things that are unhygienic. They leave messes. They don’t change the toilet paper roll. It’s super frustrating. It’s also their house. Their house, that they’re opening to you, rent-free (I’m assuming), so you and their son can get back on your feet. They aren’t technically your roommates in this scenario, they’re your hosts. And your husband is right about one thing (but we’ll get back to him in a minute, don’t you worry): they’re adults, in their own home, with habits they don’t want or intend to change. And you really can’t make them.

You may need to sit with that part for a while, because it’s probably not the answer you want. It’s definitely not the answer I’d want if I were in your shoes. But it is the truth, and once you’ve ruminated on and accepted that, it’ll make your next steps a little clearer and, I hope, a bit less frustrating.

Are there magic scripts to help you here? Probably not. You said you’ve tried to talk to them and they either forget what you’ve said or they laugh it off. That’s a pretty good indication of how future conversations will likely go. That said, however, I think it’s a good idea to have a slightly more structured conversation with them, where all four of you sit down and you spell out your concerns, without resentment or frustration, and see if they have any input. From the rest of your letter, the input they’re likely to have will be along the lines of, “We probably won’t change anything, but we won’t stop you from doing what you need to do in order to feel safe and healthy.” Which, to be frank, might be the best it gets.

The solution that makes the most sense here is also the one most likely to happen: your in-laws go about life as they have for their entire adult lives, and you exert control over what you can, and do what you have to in order to feel normal and safe. It’s definitely not the ideal solution, where everyone pitches in and your in-laws’ house is suddenly clean to your standards instead of theirs, but you’ll free yourself of a lot of frustration when you accept that this isn’t a likely outcome (because it’s their house, and they’re entitled to have whatever standards or lack thereof they want), and efforts to force it will only result in you getting more resentful and angry. (And lest you think you’re the only person in a similar situation, this is one of the most popular posts from my website.)

The cross-contamination issues are worrying, certainly, but if you’ve brought it up and no one else has changed their behavior, the answer here is likely that you’ll need to return things to the bathroom and give the counter a wipe down before beginning food prep. (I do wonder, however, why those items are migrating. Is there something in the kitchen that’s not accessible in the bathroom? Is it a space issue — too many people to too few bathrooms? Because there may be a solution in there somewhere that keeps bathroom items in the bathroom, if you can figure out why they’re making their way to the kitchen.) (Captain Awkward Note: I TOO HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS, though I concur with Rachel that you probably cannot trust any of the kitchen surfaces as long as you live there, and the best way to take care of yourself is sanitizing them often vs. convincing – or trusting – your hosts to change.)

OK, so now, back to your husband. You say that you’re “the only one” who’s changed the toilet paper roll, and “none of them” can prepare food without leaving a mess. Is he counted in all of this? And, perhaps more importantly, was it like that when it was just the two of you at home? Because the two of you should be operating as a unit here, not you vs. the three of them. However, if he’s not used to doing any cleaning at home and you were solely responsible before the move, well, A) we know where he gets it; and B) that’s not particularly sustainable or fair to you, either in the Before Times or in your current situation.

If you’ve been cleaning up after your husband this whole time and now you feel like you’re doing that for three people instead of just one, of course you’re frustrated! The two of you should be a team, and it sounds like maybe you aren’t when it comes to this. So that’s a separate conversation that needs to happen (and frankly, has needed to happen for quite some time). He may not care about the cleaning, but he ostensibly cares about you, and that should be enough to get him on board when you tell him you need him to do his share. (Please note: you are not asking him to help. “Help” implies it’s your responsibility, and that his participation is voluntary and done as a favor.)

With his participation, the situation becomes, “Our household is maintaining our standards of cleanliness in someone else’s messy home.” Without it, it’s, “I’m Cinderella in a house of kind but indifferent stepsisters.” You owe it to yourself to have this conversation soon, but, as always, remember that bringing resentment and frustration into the conversation will severely limit the effectiveness of your discussion.

I always feel bad when there’s no magic bullet solution to a situation like this. But every living situation has what I call “roommate issues,” regardless of the actual relationship between household members. Marital “roommate issues” like division of household labor cause just as many, if not more, problems than the romantic interpersonal stuff.

It may help you to reframe your current situation not as living with “the world’s messiest roommates,” but instead “well-intentioned but messy hosts.” This may also be the push you need to look into alternate living situations, or you may find that just doing whatever it is you need to do to keep sane and safe is worth the trade-off for somewhere to live right now. Get your husband on board, talk it through with him and the in-laws, and then decide what is and is not workable for you. Good luck. I’m rooting for you.

RACHEL HOFFMAN launched Unfuck Your Habitat in 2011 to motivate regular people to get up, start cleaning, and get their lives in order. Her advice has appeared in publications and websites such as Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Elle, Real Simple, NBC News, Apartment Therapy, Livestrong, House Beautiful, The Times (London), Quick and Dirty Tips, Ravishly, and Lifehacker. Check out her work on Twitter, her website, and in her books.