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How Not to Wear Out a Welcome

Advice to make holiday visits glitch-free

THURSDAY, Dec. 26, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The stress of having visitors for an extended stay wasn't lost on Benjamin Franklin.

"Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days," he said.

Whether your holiday houseguests are already camped out in your TV room or due to arrive in the next few days, mental health experts say there are ways to reduce the stress and make the visit more pleasant for everyone.

If your houseguests are en route, a crucial question to ask before they arrive is how long they plan to stay, says Peter Sheras, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. While that may seem blunt, it will help you as the host to plan -- and build in some alone time if you need it, he says.

"Never offer an open-ended invitation," Sheras advises.

Communication is the key, agrees Robert Maurer, a psychologist on staff at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and an associate clinical professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. "Some people have trouble expressing their wants," he says. "It's hard to say no when someone says, 'Can I come out and visit?'"

If it's a difficult time, you should be straightforward, he says. Either suggest another time or tell the prospective visitor that now's not good, Maurer says. A middle-of-the-road approach, Maurer adds, is to say that a two-day visit would be fine, but you can't handle a weeklong one.

Negotiating transportation up front is another stress reliever. Instead of letting your guests assume you will pick them up at the airport, Sheras says, figure out if you will or won't beforehand.

If picking them up is a hassle, say so. "We live far out," you might tell them. "So car rental would be a good idea."

If you live in a large metropolitan area, you might alert them that picking them up and getting them back to your place might take you a half day during high-traffic holiday times. Taking a shuttle then seems like the considerate thing to do.

Talking about expenses before the visit is wise, too. Suppose your houseguest assumes you will be taking her out to dinner, but you can't pay for a week's worth of dinners out without straining your budget. Maurer suggests being straightforward, saying something like "I need you to share expenses."

Figure out the itinerary before they arrive. Ask your guests what they'd like to do and what they have planned, Sheras says. But quash the notion that you'll all be together every day and night. "The zoo is wonderful," he advises you urge them -- while stressing that you can't go because you have to work.

"If you negotiate a lot of these things up front, you sometimes save yourself grief later," Maurer says.

Look at your own issues, Maurer says. Often, hosts and hostesses swing into house repair and cleanup mode in anticipation of guests. "People think they are going to be judged intensely by the houseguests," Maurer says. So their to-do list becomes enormous, with house fix-up tasks tacked on to the usual list of holiday preparation chores.

In reality, the houseguest doesn't expect the hostess to wash windows inside and out, recaulk the tub, and fix everything in the house before the visit.

If your houseguests are already on the premises and you need a break, there are ways to communicate that.

If you need a brief break, you can always excuse yourself to go to work. There can be a last-minute meeting or project that needs attention. Work-at-home hosts can have an outside meeting or need to do library research.

If you need a longer breather, but would welcome them back in a few days, try something like this, Sheras suggests: "Well, I know you have lots of other places to see in the state. We really enjoyed having you." You might suggest a one- or two-day trip, if you think you'll be ready for more company later.

If you really want the visit to end, you'll have to drop a heavier hint, Sheras says. Or, if you feel the guests have stayed as long as you would like them do, you might need to be honest -- brutally honest, he says. You might need to tell them, "It's really difficult for us to have you stay any longer." You might mention other houseguests who are scheduled to arrive or your hectic schedule, or anything else that makes them realize it's difficult for you to continue entertaining them.

If the visit goes south when houseguests start becoming slobs, it's not too late to have a discussion about house rules. "A lot of houseguests assume that whatever they do at home is OK to do at your house," Maurer says. "You can take it as a huge compliment," since it indicates they truly feel at home.

However, if they start sipping milk straight from the carton, leaving dirty clothes in a trail or otherwise getting on your nerves, a discussion of house rules is appropriate, the experts say. Something simple and brief, such as "These are our house rules. We find it makes life go more smoothly if everyone follows them."

What To Do

The National Mental Health Association and the American Psychological Association have pages devoted to holiday stress.

SOURCES: Robert Maurer, Ph.D., psychologist, Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, Calif., and associate clinical professor, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Los Angeles; Peter Sheras, Ph.D., professor and clinical psychologist, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
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