Miss Conduct

Advice: My monsters-in-law need a lesson on being houseguests

When they visit, they have a list of expectations. And yet they flout most of our family’s ground rules.

My in-laws come to visit and expect to be asked to sit for dinner, as if me plating nine dinners isn’t a big hint, and expect evening tea, served promptly at 9 p.m. They paw through bookshelves and cabinets, rifle through my mail, and leave their used wet towels on the floor in front of the washing machine. The slippery slope of polite accommodation to their invasive quirks has become a frustrating mountain of double standards. After 15 years, is it too late to reestablish basic ground rules and boundaries? Who should say something? Or can I just leave a pregnancy test kit next to my hair dryer in the bathroom cabinet and see if it draws a reaction?

C.C. / Medford

Prior acceptance of bad behavior does not obligate you to continue accepting bad behavior. This is so important! I often hear from — and read in other advice columns — letter writers who feel if they’ve allowed a boundary to be violated once, that’s it, they’ve forfeited their right to self-assertion forevermore. Like you’re the Supreme Court, and once you’ve set precedent, boom, you’re bound by it.

You are allowed to renegotiate the terms of a relationship. You are allowed to put a stop to bad behavior at any point during the commission of said behavior, not only during the first 10 seconds. And Miss Conduct devoutly wishes more people would.


So, yes, feel free to assert yourselves. Hospitality is not servitude. Hosts decide how much they are willing to accommodate guests and inform guests of those rules. The host is the captain of the ship. Guests may request, and guests may leave, but guests may not demand.

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It’s all very clear-cut up on my mountaintop, isn’t it? Because I just described the abstract morality of the situation. Strategy and tactics are more complicated, and it will be harder to break people of habits they’ve been allowed to persist in for 15 years.

You and your husband need to be on the same page about what the new rules are, how they will be communicated and enforced, and how to talk to your kids (the full version of your letter indicated part of the problem is that your in-laws constantly violate the basic rules of politeness you’re trying to teach your children). And he’s probably the one to have the conversation with his family. Do not argue with them. Do. Not. Argue. Your goal is not to get your in-laws to agree your boundaries are right and reasonable, it is to get them to follow your house rules.

And what will you do if they don’t? Figure this out with your husband, too. Would you go so far as to tell them to stay in a hotel if they can’t behave themselves? (I think you should, but I’m not you or your spouse, so I don’t get a vote.)

It won’t be easy. You’re going to get what behaviorists call an “extinction burst.” When an action doesn’t get the desired response, we don’t give up, we double down. What would you do if your go-to vending machine didn’t dispense your usual afternoon Diet Coke? Shake it, kick it, punch buttons. In this situation, the Coke machine is you — get it? Be prepared for that. Your final suggestion isn’t exactly practical, but it does show you have a sense of humor. You’re going to need that, along with stamina.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

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