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Painless Hospitality

How to open your home to others without driving your spouse crazy

My husband, David, and I exemplify opposites attracting. He's laid-back, highly creative and artistic, and very quiet. I'm tense and intense, left-brain logical, and noisily gregarious. What can I say? Somehow it works.

But when it comes to doing things together, we run into trouble. Most of David's artistic hobbies are one-man operations: painting, making stained glass, woodworking, quilting (can you believe it?). And my interests tend to be bookish, which also don't lead us into quality time with each other. So what's a couple to do?

Take up entertaining, that's what. I don't mean entertaining as in song-and-dance-take-it-on-the-road. I mean entertaining as in move-over-Martha-Stewart. As it turns out, even in this time of people "cocooning," having people over is still something of a novelty. For lots of reasons—fear of letting people see your imperfectly cleaned or decorated home, less-than-spectacular cooking skills, shyness—people just don't open up their homes as much as they once did.

For David and me, it's become a real side-by-side pastime that's been great fun and enjoyment for us, as well as a way to make friends and reach out to others. That reaching out to others is important to us. Psychologist John Gottman, in his Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, lists "shared meaning" as his seventh principle. Couples need to have a sense that their oneness has a purpose other than their own companionship and pleasure. Pastor and marriage therapist Tim Gardner says, "Your oneness needs to be invested in something greater than self."

When David and I open our doors to friends and children and acquaintances, we feel we're investing in others. That mutual goal and all the cooking, cleaning, and listening tasks that accompany it give us, in part, that shared meaning. Maybe you as a couple feel lonely for more friends, or maybe (like us) you need a hobby you can share. Or maybe you are working out how to use your home to obey the Bible's command to "be hospitable." Whatever the reason you're considering having other folks into your home, you might appreciate some of the things David and I have learned from our adventures in hospitality.

Love Me, Love My Messes

First off, don't kill yourself getting the house ready before you'll invite people over. I remember meeting my good friend Kim's future husband for the first time in our living room—which was filled with debris from ripping the ceiling down. Not only was there no ceiling, the walls were as yet unpapered and the wood floors needed refinishing. It didn't matter. If anything, our take-us-as-we-are attitude made Mike feel that we were prepared to take him as he was.

You should clean within reason, but don't exhaust yourself and stress out so much that you can't even enjoy your company. Remember that you're bound to be harder on yourself than others are on you. Personally, I always find it an endearing quality when I discover that my acquaintances also have their messy corners or piled up workspaces. It makes them human, just like me. There are even times when it's better not to clean too much. When we've had the couples from our Bible study group over with their children—and also when we've entertained the kids' choir from church—I've found it was a better use of my time to scrub floors and vacuum after the festivities.

Basically, just be yourselves. The point of having people over is to get to know each other, not to impress them by being Martha Stewart (an impossible challenge, and you know it!).

Meals Don't Have to Dazzle

You don't have to attempt elaborate and fabulous new recipes to stun others. And unless you've made cooking enough of a hobby that you prefer to cook as an art form, don't start now. Make things you've made before and feel comfortable making. The food doesn't have to be highfalutin because the food is not the main attraction—building relationships is. If you can't cook at all, you can still have folks over to eat by planning potlucks, where everybody who's coming brings something, or by bringing in food. You could even bypass dinner and have friends over for coffee and dessert.

Play to Your Strengths

My husband is one of those people who loves to cook and who cooks deliciously and beautifully, so whenever possible he cooks for our friends. When he cooks, he loves to mess with gourmet meat and vegetable recipes and fancy French or Italian pastry desserts. When he's in charge in the kitchen, I get the table ready and pop in-and-out with offers to chop things for him or to load the dishwasher or clean whatever is left in the sink.

When I cook, the menus tend to be simpler, but I still call on David to provide the nice touches, like dressing a salad with his own homemade concoction or arranging things on plates (it always looks better when he does it). David usually does the flowers, but we both mess around with candles or other nice touches on the table. Either way, teamwork comes into play. We're both working on the meal (and during the meal) together.

Spice it with Variety

David and I haven't limited our hospitality just to other couples—although that is perhaps our favorite kind of entertaining. We've had fun with our small children's Sunday school teachers, and with families from church who have teenagers. Sometimes we pick up strays—folks at church whose husband or wife or parents are out of town and might be eating alone. We've had coworkers over, as well as our Bible study friends. People are so interesting and varied, we feel like the world is coming into our home through all these different kinds of people.

Let Your Guests Help

It's part of the togetherness of hospitality to let your friends clear the table or help with the dishes if they really want to. If our friends are content to sit and gab, we're happy to let the kitchen mess wait until they've gone home. But when they express anxiety about leaving us with the mess, we let them help. Sometimes people feel more like family if you let them work alongside you.

What's Entertaining?

My friends Ron and Jeanette are the masters of entertaining with entertainment. They plan great theme parties—period shindigs like a 50s or 60s costume get-together, or masquerade balls where guests come as something representing Chicago. Ron concocts hilarious trivia games or name-that-tune challenges to entertain the folks that come. We love going to Ron's and Jeanette's parties, but our own get-togethers are usually smaller, simpler, and more low-key. We have done some massive parties—like an open house for our pastor's anniversary, when I thought our house was going to explode if one more body came through the door. But generally, we invite one or two couples or families at a time. This is partly because David is introverted and really large groups aren't comfortable for him. And it's partly because we want to have folks over more often with less preparation time—and it's easy to cook just a bit more for whomever you've invited to dinner.

Both David and I share an interest in people's stories—how they met, where they've been, what they dream of—so we find it pretty entertaining just to sit around the table after dinner (this is easier, since our living room is still underfurnished) and talk. So do what's entertaining for you. If you're sports fans, create some get-together around sporting events—TV ones or local ones. If you're bookish, start a once-a-month book discussion group. If you love to play games, have friends over to play backgammon or Parcheesi or whatever you enjoy.

Shift Your Focus

The most important idea to keep in mind is that you want to shift your focus off yourself (and the way you look, your house looks, or your meal turns out) and onto those folks who are coming through your door.

It's not a mistake that the word hospitality's root is hospital. The point is to open yourself up to other folks—in part by letting them see the real you in your natural habitat—so that they will open themselves up to you. Every person—no matter how beautiful or perfect or successful they appear on the outside—has his or her own set of special hurts or worries. As you get to be friends, it's possible that you could fill some needed role in that person's life. Maybe all they need is for someone to pay attention to them, to love them enough to throw an extra pork chop in the oven or burger on the grill.

"God created people for relationships," says marriage and family therapist Beverly Burch. "The only thing that was 'not good' at Creation was that Adam was alone. Because we are relational beings, isolation breeds depression. Opening your home opens the door to new relationships, or more supportive ones, both for you and those who come over."

As you focus on the needs and pleasure of your guests, you actually take the pressure off yourself because you realize that opening your home to others isn't about showing off your cooking, cleaning, and decorating achievements. The Bible teaches that "love covers a multitude of sins"; in the same way, your kind, intentional attention is more important to your friends than the fleeting pleasure of your dinner or your decorating.

Have Fun

If your preparations—cleaning, cooking, setting up—get to be so stressful that it hardly seems worth it, then your approach is out of whack and ought to be downscaled. Make it easier on yourself. The point isn't to knock yourselves out; it's to share something together with each other and with your friends.

Any experience you share with your spouse builds your sense of unity, and you can also build your teamwork skills by having friends over. Do it together, from start (menu plans) to finish (the last dish going into the dishwasher), and have a blast.

Annette LaPlaca, together with David and the kids, loves to have friends over to their 93-year-old house, which is never completely clean.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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