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Before your father-in-law wears out his welcome, lay down the law

The question

My widowed father-in-law was blessed to find a second wife, though it took him out of the province. Twice a year, he comes back to visit my husband and his other three children, who live nearby. Though we love him dearly, he and his wife are a handful, and after a few days, we are happy to say our goodbyes. That is where the problem lies. They don't leave! This year they came out without a return ticket and after much pressing they announced they would be staying 2 1/2 weeks! I want to cry! I drop a lot of hints, to no avail! With the other siblings, they keep their stays to a few days. What do they know that I don't know? I am desperate!

The answer

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Obviously I can't know what your siblings-in-law know that you don't – it may be many things – but I do know this: Most people are unaware of what an imposition they are, even at the best of times, when they cross the threshold of your domicile.

No matter how well-behaved, everyone has what one friend of mine calls "unmet needs."

Like me, my friend has three kids, and he coined that immortal phrase when I suggested he get a dog. Him: "The last thing I need is another set of eyes looking up at me, full of unmet needs."

Every creature entering your home brings an invisible nimbus of "unmet needs." Babies need their diapers changed and to be watched like a hawk; kids need to play video games, be given snacks and juice; grown-ups need dinner, wine, and often cigarettes; dogs need walks and kibble and to be picked up after.

Anyway, don't get me started, obviously. But, if on top of their regular needs, your house guests are what you diplomatically call a "handful," i.e. demanding and difficult, then you've got a real problem on your hands.

The main thing with house guests, I feel, is that you need to establish (upfront!) the duration of their stay.

I remember one guy I barely knew, a world-traveller/adventurer type, just returning from a four-year globe-trot, intending to crash-land/couch-surf at our place, announcing when I asked how long he planned to stay: "I was thinking a month, maybe two, see where we go from there…"

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I had a little baby at the time. I was like: "You can stay a week."

You'd think these duration-stipulation conversations would be awkward, but they're not, as long as you're polite yet firm about it. See, house guests tend to be opportunistic organisms. And if you present an opportunistic organism with a window of opportunity, naturally they will climb through.

But if the window is politely but firmly closed, you can almost see the wheels in the opportunistic organism's dome start to spin as they plan their next move.

The good news is, in this case, your father-in-law has not one, not two, but three other options for places to stay in the vicinity, absolutely free of charge.

So all you have to do is, tell him, upfront, clearly and definitively – oh, wait, I almost forgot the other good news: This whole thing is your husband's job, because it's his dad.

So tell your husband, nicely but firmly, that you would like him to explain to his father, nicely but firmly, that he can only stay a pre-set number of days.

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If he has to confer with his siblings and come up with a fair and equitable "dad-sharing" program, so be it. Because they're all taking advantage of you right now, seems to me.

It's nice being nice. But sometimes it's a tweak away from being treated like a welcome mat, which sounds like what's happening to you. Nice, but firm, is the way to be at all times.

How long should you set for his stay? Everyone knows Benjamin Franklin's dictum that house guests and fish start to smell after three days. But he said that before the advent of modern refrigeration. Nowadays, I find it's more like five to seven before my nostrils start twitching.

But it really depends on the guest. The other thing: anyone staying more than, say, a single night? Put 'em to work! Hit him with your unmet needs! Like: "Say, Fred, could I get you to go ahead and grab a leash and walk that dog for me?" Or: "Would you mind setting the table?"

That will benefit you in a number of ways. For one, it'll subtly reinforce in his mind that running a household is work – work he is adding to. Plus, it will ease your burden a bit.

And who knows? It might cause him suddenly to decide he doesn't want to impose on you any longer – and to go stay somewhere where he's treated in more pasha-like fashion.

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