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My relatives are lazy house guests. How do I drop them? Add to ...

The question

My brother, along with his daughter, her husband and family usually spend several days over Christmas with me. My niece and nephew, and their two teenage offspring, are self-centered and unused to physical exertion, so never pitch in with anything (snow shovelling, helping with dishes, etc.). Their parents, meanwhile, are full of a sense of entitlement, and treat me like a servant the whole time. I’m quietly at my wits end, but to keep a lid on civility I’ve presented a neutral demeanour in the past. This season I’ve decided not to extend invitations to any family and will instead be spending it with my comfortable family of friends. These cherished friends do not present the high-maintenance level I face with my out-of-town relatives. They share the communal tasks of food preparation and all that goes with it. But I’m losing sleep over the guilt of being anti-family and worried I might cause offence. Help!

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The answer

I hear you, sister. Whatever happened to the art of being a good house guest?

As the only kid among my friends whose parents did not own a cottage, I perfected this vanishing art-form quite young.

I recognized that if I wanted to be invited back to my friends’ parents’ cottages (and I did), to laugh and splash in the sun as opposed to sitting in the sweltering, stifling heat of the city with all the other suckers and pretending it didn’t bother me – I’d better be a) cheerful, b) helpful.

So I’d be all like: “Here, let me get those, Mrs. McGillicuddy, don’t you even think of it. I love doing dishes! You know Agatha Christie once said she got some of her best ideas while doing the dishes and you know I want to be a writer some day, so you’re actually doing me a favour by letting me do the dishes ha-ha-ha!”

Did I get invited back? You bet your bathing-suit bottoms I did. I was a fixture at some of my friends’ cottages, the “brother from another mother.”

But in this Age of Entitlement, the art of being a good house guest has been largely lost, it seems, or has only a very few practitioners left.

Can it be taught? Maybe not. First you have to feel genuine gratitude for being under someone’s else’s roof, and everything else sort of proceeds from there.

I do think rather than affixing your relatives with steely stares and frozen grins and then not inviting them to your house, you should tell them how you feel.

Is that a potentially awkward conversation? You bet. I had a minor one recently. We were renting a cottage and my wife and I were cooking and cleaning and cooking and cleaning and meanwhile our friends didn’t even know how the dishwasher worked (you had to attach it to the sink in a special way). Then one morning we spent an hour cleaning up after everyone’s breakfasts, went down to the dock for an hour, came back and the kitchen looked like an IED made of macaroni and cheese and ketchup had gone off and they just left it.

So I said: “Hey, come on guys, that’s not fair, help us out here,” etc., etc.

Did I want to be that guy? Not really. But I didn’t want to be the guy that simmered and seethed in a piquant, passive-aggressive stew of resentment, either. And I was glad in the end I said something because things went a lot more smoothly after that.

I certainly understand what you mean when you say “to keep a lid on civility I present a neutral demeanour.” But clearly that is not and has not been a successful strategy. So tell them how you feel, and what you expect when they stay at your place. Prediction: They’ll express cluelessness and surprise about your resentfulness. Some people just assume you’ll do everything, wait on them hand and foot, when they’re under your roof.

They might balk. They might squawk. They might turn it back on you, and deliver a number of home truths about you to your doorstep, like pizza. So be it. What have you got to lose, really? Sounds like you’re on the edge of full-on estrangement as it is. This gesture might just pull you back from the brink. Just keep a picture in your mind of them coming over and cheerfully pitching in and expressing gratitude. You might actually find yourself enjoying the company of your actual family almost as much as that of your “family of friends.”

If it doesn’t work out, well, at least they know why the invitations stopped flowing. I think you owe them that much, at least, as family. Consanguinity is more cohesive than chardonnay – or as it’s more popularly put, “blood is thicker than water.”

What am I supposed to do now?

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