Best practices for taking in a young relative who isn't independent
April 28, 2020 5:46 AM   Subscribe

My wife's younger sister M, who's just turned 30, is leaving her boyfriend, needs a place to live, and has never been fully able to live on her own. We're 38, securely employed, with a spare room, and we're considering offering her a place with us temporarily. I'm not asking if we should do this. I'm interested in, I dunno, best practices? If you've done this and not regretted it, how did you approach it and what boundaries did you set?

M has rocky mental health — anxiety and some pretty clear trauma — and is missing some life skills. She's been employed on and off, mostly as a waiter, but she lives in an expensive city and she's never reliably earned enough to get her own place. She's been in therapy and on anxiety medication, but I'm not sure how much it's helped.

For years now, she's lived with her boyfriend, who has a software job and pays both of their bills. Well, he cheated on her, and she's leaving.

For various reasons, we are thinking of asking M to come live with us. We absolutely don't want this to turn into a situation where she lives with us as long as she wants. We do want her to have a safe place to stay through the worst of the pandemic (which we realize could be a long time) and some help getting back on her feet afterward if she's making an effort in that direction. We know we need to set some clear boundaries. Have you done this in the past? What specifically worked? What (short of "never do it again") would you do differently?

I know questions like this give people a lot to project onto. Please assume that M is not an addict or a criminal, not running a scam on us, not manipulating us, not secretly abusive, etc, and that she has a good relationship with us. If you want to play detective and dig up evidence I'm wrong, please skip the question. Please also assume we don't need your help brainstorming outside-the-box solutions. We're considering plenty of other options; we just want advice on how we might handle this specific one if we decide on it. Thanks!
posted by nebulawindphone to Human Relations (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Research the legalities of what it means to be a tenant in your jurisdiction. I'm not suggesting that she will deliberately overstay her welcome, but you should at least know what legal options you have if she does. In some places, a person who shares living space with the homeowners is a tenant and very difficult to evict and in other places they're not really protected by landlord tenant law at all. Sometimes it makes a difference if they pay rent or have a legal agreement to be/not be a tenant, and in other places those things don't matter that much.

If you all have and maintain a good relationship, that information will never matter. But it'll be good to know what it is before you start anyway.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:08 AM on April 28, 2020 [9 favorites]

Sit down with your wife and get extremely specific about how you would like this to play out. What is the criteria for M moving out? "Worst of the pandemic" could mean anything from a few months from now up to when a vaccine is created in 1-2 years. How will M be expected to contribute to the household financially (rent, utilities) and practically (cleaning, chores)? Will you be sharing food communally or is she going to be expected to purchase her own? How will you deal with things like quiet hours? Once you've figured everything out, put it together in a roommate agreement (plenty of free templates online) and ask M to sign it.

While I've experienced this with friends, not family, the issue with having duel roommate relationships is that family conflict can become roommate conflict and vice versa. It may feel awkward but better to negotiate these things up front instead of doing it after a problem arises and emotions are high.
posted by fox problems at 6:10 AM on April 28, 2020 [9 favorites]

It's awesome that you are considering this. I had a young relative live with me for a year post divorce and she was a very easy roommate. She worked, was not home often, and got along with my cat and kid.

During quarantine you will all be home a lot. Make sure you have separate spaces to hang out. Have agreed rules about knocking on doors, quiet hours, TV sharing, kitchen space and bathroom access, and cleaning responsibilities. And parking if she has a car.

Whether this goes well will largely depend on how hard everyone tries to make it go well.
posted by emjaybee at 6:33 AM on April 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think it’s difficult for both sides to be a long-term “guest”. It think it would be easier to treat this like a roommate situation with a written timeframe and some rights & responsibilities spelled out. Then you can revisit the “agreement” when it’s about to end and consider revising/updating it. It helps you avoid the uncomfortable “how do I bring this up without seeming like a jerk” paralysis that happens when you do something nice but start to want to put some restrictions in place after the fact.

Sources of conflict in these situations (based on personal experience) usually involve $ but in ways you don’t anticipate. She loves to garden but her vigorous watering jacks your water bill up 3x normal. You buy certain chocolate as a treat but she always eats most of it before you can even get a piece. You rarely pay for on-demand movies but she watches them every night and never offers to pay for them.

Good luck!
posted by victoriab at 6:43 AM on April 28, 2020 [13 favorites]

At this moment in time, I would be most concerned about deciding on crystal clear expectations around social distancing. There have been a number of guides written for roommates negotiating these issues that might be helpful to look over. For example, at what point would M be allowed to see friends in person? To go on dates? To have someone over? Can she go shopping on her own, or will you be sending one person from the household every few weeks?
posted by veery at 7:11 AM on April 28, 2020 [15 favorites]

I've done this with friends, and I've also financially supported family and had them crash. I have generally not regretted it afterwards. A few guidelines I would lay out are:

- never ever offer what you can't afford to give. If this is stretching thin resources, have a really good think first. Do not expect anything - loyalty, friendship, money, etc. - in return. If you, like me, don't care that you are up early to get to work while someone else is sleeping until noon, then chances are good it will work out. If you, like some of my relations, have a really hard time being productive while someone else is playing video games and on Tik Tok, have a good hard think about your quality of life before you decide how long to do this for.

- have an end date and put it in writing. Refer to it often, like "after May 2021, when you are on your own..." - don't let it become an unspoken thing. Don't tie it to the pandemic. You can always extend it, it is much harder to move it up. To do this, you have to have a bit of a hard edge. I had a dear friend live with me who was job hunting. Months went by, no job. I set a hard deadline and she got a great job 6 weeks later...some of that was timing but some of it was effort-based, just in a normal lots of us, she needed a deadline. It was all very friendly, but she was a very reasonable person too.

- to add to the basic rules above, lay out rules around guests and overnight guests for after the pandemic, quarantine procedures, and also who pays for what - if she has no income at all who is paying for food and toiletries for example. Pets, noise, where stuff goes, etc. Shared resources like cars, electronics, etc.

- if you're sharing food everyone should have a spot where they can put things no one else can eat without permission.

- cleaning is a big one...if this is likely to become an issue I suggest choosing an authority like FlyLady or UFYH or a book on cleaning and agree to what needs to be done each day/week, or what the basic standards are. I am not sure if this falls into her life skills deficit. Have a meeting about this once a week so that you address issues as you go along.

- missing life skills, trauma and anxiety can mean lots of different things so it's hard to sort that out. Generally with respect to family and mental health I think the cleanest option is to not get into any of that - focus on the behaviour you need to see to share the space and the end date and leave the rest up to her. There is a second option which is that she can stay with you as long as she is pursuing mental health treatment, which you have to define in that case.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:13 AM on April 28, 2020 [16 favorites]

I have done this, very similar, though maybe my partner's younger sister has more life skills than your wife's per your description. She stayed with us for about 14 months, on and off, and it was okay if not ideal.

First, its extremely kind to invite a family member to live with you, but you have to be comfortable holding the tension of "this is not forever" with "this also might be a really long time." I firmly disagree with other posters suggesting you can set a time frame. I don't think you should. You can hope, discuss, and encourage departure, but its hard to kick out a family member (that is not being violent, dangerous, etc).

Also, as this pandemic exposes capitalism for the shell game that it is, regardless of how you assess her "life skills", its going to be super tough for a 30 year old with non-skilled working experience to get a job that will allow her to pay her own rent. So I would just be thinking along 1-3 years of her presence, not months.

Second, it helped us to practice/live separately more than you might in a nuclear family - like, we might make dinner and include her most nights, but then she would always do the dishes and make the next dinner; we didn't buy her food at the grocery (or we picked something up and she paid us back); we had her contribute to internet, energy bills, and rent when she could. Just more "formal" than you might otherwise. Especially if you get along, you are kind, you could easily just incorporate her into your daily life and it gets harder for her to extract and move on.
posted by RajahKing at 7:53 AM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Would be good to set up, in advance, before she spends even the first night, a schedule of "checking in to make sure this is still working". Know now that you will have an opportunity -- every six weeks, every four months, every six months, whatever you decide -- to both sit down and share honestly what's working and what's not, and to make a conscious decision to keep it going or end it.

This way if it gets unbearable for whatever reason, you aren't faced with the task of coming up out of the blue and telling her hey this is a problem and you gotta go. Rather, you'll have an established moment when you both will evaluate the situation and make a decision.
posted by mccxxiii at 7:53 AM on April 28, 2020 [13 favorites]

Questions I would want to iron out or consider:

Is M a guest or a roommate?

If M and her boyfriend start to reconcile, can he visit? Can he stay over? How many times per week?
Can she bring home other overnight guests?

What if M doesn’t social distance as carefully as you and your partner, or vice versa?

When a vaccine is available, is it ok if one of you doesn’t want to take it?

What if one of you gets covid- how will the others handle it? Will your home still have enough space to isolate you / your partner if M is in the guest room?

What if she’s messy or doesn’t like the food you cook- is she a guest where you’d clean up after her and fix her something she likes, or a roommate where she’d cook for herself and contribute 33% to the chores?

How would you discuss it if you three share space or make sound or mess or use scents- or whatever- in a way one of you finds challenging?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:11 AM on April 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

I’ve seen this work out great when the hosting parties are very explicit about how long someone can stay. And I mean coming out and saying it, as in, “The baby will be old enough to sleep in his room in two months, so you will need to find another place by the end of April,” and not “you should probably think about finding another place soon because, you know...” Make sure that dates and timelines are clear. Where I have seen these situations fall apart is when expectations are not made clear and the hosting parties feel that the visitor “should” know what they mean. If your wife’s sister has issues with mental health it may be very hard for her to read between the lines in conversations filled with implications.

Consider also that people with a background of trauma may have needs that look strange or unreasonable to other people but that are embarrassing or hard for them to articulate. For instance, I cannot sleep in a completely dark room and everyone I have ever lived with has strongly implied that leaving a light on is tantamount to murdering endangered condors. It’s a hard thing to admit that I need. I know there will be a lot of questions. I know that people will want to talk about it and offer solutions and tell me why I’m wrong. So maybe just keep in mind that if your sister-in-law has some upsetting quirk, it might not be because she’s too stupid to understand Why the Thing is Bad. Work towards a compromise if it’s something that you truly cannot cope with, but maybe do it without demanding a full explanation.
posted by corey flood at 8:25 AM on April 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

I wish when my brother came to live with us that we had been more up front about expected timelines. I vastly underestimated how much the loss of privacy and my dedicated office space would affect me.

I also underestimated the burden that having him live with us would put on my husband, who felt for a year and a half that he couldn’t complain about my family member.

In the end we had to have a “we’d like to see you out of here by spring” conversation that could have been avoided with an earlier conversation about how long we were really willing to have him with us.
posted by hilaryjade at 8:44 AM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Have enough money to “loan” (give) her a security deposit and first months rent for a place or room later on if she can’t swing that and have the mindset to not expect it back. (If you get it back, that’s gravy. ). Because usually the reason why people can’t move on is the lack of money to move.
posted by gt2 at 9:06 AM on April 28, 2020 [7 favorites]

Since you don't want this to be indefinite it's important to set a timeline but also to recognize that a timeline or deadline itself is not enough. She will not magically be able to find and secure herself a place to live in a year any more than she will be able to now, or would have been able to a year ago. To make this happen, part of the structured timeframe has to be an explicit understanding that you and your wife will help her find a new place, and (as gt2 says above) will help finance it to some extent. How much of the financing you do, and for how long, has to be explicit as well. And the conversation -- before she moves in with you now -- probably should include the fact that she will have to agree to move later to a place that isn't absolutely as ideal as living with relatives who love her, that she will agree to move into something that perhaps has a roommate or no in-apartment washing machine or is on a bus line instead of downtown or whatever it might be. You'll have to stress that many young and youngish people live in places that aren't the most ideal for a while, or for a long while. It might very likely feel like a step down and she won't feel great about leaving her space with you for the new place. What you don't want is to say "OK, it's May 2021, time to go!" and have her say "But I can't find a place." Before she moves in make it clear that you'll be collaboratively looking at and for new places for her, and that compromise may, and probably will, be inevitable when that time comes. And tell her how much of her rent you will pay.
posted by nantucket at 9:17 AM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

If she’s never been fully able to live on her own, be aware that that might not be possible after you’re transitioning out of her living with you either, so make sure that you’re supporting her to connect with resources that can help her find another not-on-her-own place to live.

I like to give folks the thought experiment - if someone were unable to support themselves financially due to physical disabilities, and there were no sheltered housing or similar available for those folks, what would family members be doing? Because there are some trauma situations where there is permanent effect on capacities to live independently, even though they might not be as visible as (some) physical disabilities. This sort of perspective can help with resilience for your cohabitation
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 9:32 AM on April 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

I think the best thing you can do is to collectively come up with a written agreement that touches on:

- Length of stay and option to renew.
- Cleaning/chore arrangements.
- Bill sharing (could be you cover everything or there's a sliding scale, just be explicit).
- Quiet hours.
- Guests.
- How you'll address conflict/disagreements (you need to agree about how to disagree).
- Expectations for job/education/therapy (what does progress look like).

I also think setting up a formal time to actually talk about how things are going a few months in is good. It can be hard to bring up difficult topics in conversations. If something is not working you don't want a situation where someone is festering in resentment, but unclear about how to bring up the subject (see countless AskMeFi questions). Having a prearranged check-in where everyone is going to just talk about how things are going and if anything in the agreement needs to be adjusted can take the pressure off.

And one more thought - should you have the means you might want to consider creating a Mother-in-Law unit in your house so your wife's sister could be a bit more independent, but still have support.
posted by brookeb at 10:25 AM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

I agree with comments made so far. The comment above refers to check in with everyone. Now I think what you and your wife also need is to arrange for regular check ins with each other as well, it’s not unusual for a couple to have a relative like a MIL move in and then get divorced as a result. Your relationship needs to take priority. I think you’re both doing a really lovely thing by the way.
posted by Jubey at 2:45 PM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

About 10 yrs ago a woman who was a mother figure to me lived with us for about 4 months and right now my brother-in-law is living with us for the foreseeable future. My advice is to discuss expectations in depth at the outset. It’s an awkward conversation but it will help everyone live harmoniously. Set rules for non-negotiables and make requests for the less important things. In our case, smoking was non-negotiable, BIL cannot smoke inside for several reasons, my poor lung health being the primary reason. And if we’re providing the food and cooking it he has to come sit at the table with is for 1 meal a day usually dinner. But he can come & go as he pleases, isn’t req’d to hang out with is, etc. It’s like an employment contract, the more that all parties understand and agree on at the start the better it will go. Discuss what will happen if she violates the important parts of the contract up to her being asked to leave. Discuss who pays for what. You’ll probably pay for most everything but it wouldn’t hurt to lay out for example who buy her feminine hygiene items, if she smokes or drinks, who pays for that, maybe snacks you don’t normally keep, or entertainment etc.

You should also talk about what exactly it means for her to work toward independence- a job, savings, ability to pay bills on time, etc. Maybe have a calendar with timelines for certain milestones and review it weekly or monthly.

I also found that the first couple weeks by BIL was here were hardest for all of us, there were plenty of uncomfortable moments and misunderstandings. Getting through those times with love and a sense of humor helps a lot. In our case there are only a few things that are super important, the rest is small stuff on the road to his physical & mental health improving so we try to take it in stride. Good luck! you might make a big difference in her life doing this.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 3:49 PM on April 28, 2020

One thing for your wife to give some thought to - what is the dynamic between the two as sisters? Are they likely to revert to childhood roles, and would that be good or bad for either of them?

My then-husband and I did a similar thing with each of my younger sisters at various times. Sister 1, who is 5 years younger than me, lived with us and our daughter when she finished college, and it was awesome - I got to know her as an adult (I had moved out when she was around twelve?), we had an extra adult around for childcare, etc. She moved back in with us a few years later, after a divorce, though she didn't stay as long that time because we'd had another kid and the apartment was getting crowded for all of us.

Sister 2, who is 13 years younger than me, moved in with us some time later, during a college hiatus, and it was... not as awesome, in part because we never managed to get over the big-sister, little-sister dynamic and relate to each other as equals. Given that your wife's sister already struggles with some life-skills issues, that dynamic could come into play here. Not saying it should or shouldn't (it could be useful, in fact), but it's something to be aware of.
posted by cinnamonduff at 4:53 PM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Friends and romantic partners - can they come over to hang out, stay the night? Be upfront about how many people and how often you can share your space with her social circle. You can’t control her social life but also you probably do not want a bunch of strangers in and out of your space.

I would also confirm with her if she has her own bank account, debts etc. Can she handle her own money or does she need someone to check in weekly with her on her budget? If her ex handled money, she may have no idea and possibly shame over not being financially independent/capable. Be upfront and help her learn if she can.

Also jealousy/envy. If you have nice stuff and can do nice things because you have a decent income and she is struggling to make ends meet, you may need to either be open about the difference or very tactful, depending on your family’s style.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:55 PM on April 28, 2020

I would recommend you have like, a "training day". It's going to feel lame, but my husband's young adult son lives with us for a month or two every summer, and he ruins a lot of our stuff every year. we're two adults who live together, and I forget that not everyone has the same lifeskills as we do. So, while it will feel very parental, it's a good idea to like:

-show them how to use the washer and dryer, how much soap, etc, cleaning lint traps, etc. Are there days you might really need to use the washing machine and she should be aware not to save up all her laundry and then try and do ten loads in one day the night before you go to the gym in the morning and usually wash your gym stuff?
-ditto for dishwasher
-if you have any important dishware or cookware, specify what can and can't go in the dishwasher, what can and cant be used to cook an egg on max flame, how to wash a cast iron pan, what pans can't have metal utensils used on them, etc.
-if you cook for her, is she expected to clean up in return? Some people do not like that expectation.
-what is an acceptable level of cleanliness to live with - like, do toilet seats have to be down, do sinks have to be rinsed after use, do used dishes have to be loaded into the dishwasher or can they go by the sink? how many pairs of shoes are acceptable to have kicking around on the floor by the front door?
-is there anything she just shouldn't use? like, some fancy wine glasses or a vase or a very expensive to go mug or anything that you would be really saddened by it's loss or breakage?

Just spend some time thinking about how you live and how if someone else did something different, it would annoy you. Because some things matter and some things don't to each individual person!

also an important one is if you have pets, talk to her about how you treat your pets, as this is different for everyone and some of my roommates have been like, too mean or rough with my cats over the years and I actually kicked someone out over it.

Also talk to your wife about their expectations for how you will communicate with her! I am very protective of my little sister and I would have a hard time with my spouse complaining about her or telling her to do things I think! Just something to be aware of!

oh also: does she need to tell you if she isn't going to come home if she goes out?
posted by euphoria066 at 5:07 PM on April 28, 2020

I’ve had my best friend, her husband (also a good friend) and their 20 years old daughter live with me for 6 months after they’ve moved to the USA. 3 years later, we are still friends!

They didn’t have any income at that time, just savings, so I didn’t expect, and they didn’t pay anything for rent or utilities. This could be a problem if I had different expectations. If I did, I would have discussed them with them before they moved.

They helped me with some minor house projects, I appreciated that very much, but I also expected that. They helped me with MY chores, which I didn’t expect, but appreciated very much.

We’ve shared a similar level of cleanliness in common areas like the kitchen, so there was no conflict/resentment – we kind of cleaned up after ourselves when we felt like it but before it was too yucky. Think if you are compatible in this way with your sister in law or if you’ll need to discuss and assign some chores. Things like these could lead to some tension.

They broke all of my wine glasses (over time). I thought this was funny. We laughed about it. They never replaced them, and I’m cool with that. But think what your expectations would be re: replacement of broken stuff etc. This could lead to resentment.

I told them early on – we are more like roommates in this situation. So that freed me from feeling like a hostess with guests. Otherwise my sanity wouldn’t last for more than a week. So I could hang out in my PJs, play music which I need to do in order to focus on my job (I worked some from home), eat sporadically, etc.

I freed a couple of shelves in my refrigerator for them. They shopped for their own groceries and cooked their own food. Our eating habits are very different. About once a week either they or I cooked dinner to share, because we felt like it, and we ate together, otherwise they/I were kind of on our own. This helped tremendously because I could eat a piece of cake for dinner and not worry that my “guests” want something else. I think a set up like this was one of the major reasons we didn’t get on each other’s nerves.

Sometimes I wished for more privacy when my boyfriend was over, and we had to get somewhat creative at times. I expected that, but still it was making me wish for their sooner-ish departure at times.

Sometimes they asked me to drive them places, to help with car shopping, to teach the daughter to drive, etc. I wished they were less scared and more willing to step out of their comfort zone on their own. I did a lot of encouragement, and sometimes I had to say things like “sorry, I can’t, you got to do it on your own.” Not because I couldn’t, but because I felt it was necessary to nudge them in this way. It was difficult for me (a pleaser) to do, but I’m glad I did that.

I knew they were motivated and actively searching for ways to move out, so we never set up a deadline for their stay. But in your situation this might be important (“Hey M, you could stay with us till the end of summer”). My friends stayed longer than I expected, but I was ok with that.

I would do this again to help them out.
posted by LakeDream at 10:18 AM on April 30, 2020

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