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Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: I can't cope with living in cramped conditions

"We are on top of each other all the time and we’re often arguing"

Dear Virginia,

We have a boy of 16, girl 13, and four-year-old twins. My husband’s brother doesn't have anywhere to live and sometimes crashes on our floor. The problem is that we live in a house with only three bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom. We are on top of each other all the time and we’re often arguing. The children have no space to do homework in peace, and I don’t know how long we can cope. I often dread coming home when I anticipate the chaos that awaits me.  We can’t afford anywhere bigger. Can you suggest anything?

Yours sincerely, Margie

Virginia says...

I’ve never lived in crowded quarters. As an only child, space has seemed a priority in my life, so I’ve engineered a life where other people can’t invade my space. So why have you got yourself into this crowded situation? Why do you let your brother-in-law crash on your floor? There are other floors he could crash on. I know you couldn’t help having the twins, but why did you even think of a third child (or even a second) if you hate being on top of each other so much? You did have some choice in the matter.

I’d love to know what kind of family you were brought up in. Was it lonely and arid and you’re trying to give your children the rough-and-tumble life you feel you were deprived of? Or are you trying to recreate a happy, roistering family past and finding it doesn’t work? Or have financial circumstances forced you to give up the rambling rectory you’ve been living in for years to downsize to a poky semi?

Whatever the answer, you’ve got to approach this problem – if it really is size that is the issue, which somehow I doubt  – like any other crowded space. Get organised. Get rid of the extra people – your brother-in-law – and draw up a proper rota to decide who has which space and when. Children with homework can be designated one bedroom to work in together for an hour or so each night, and it may be that you simply have to divide up one of the bedrooms to make more – albeit tiny  – space. Or perhaps you and your husband could set up a bed in the living room and treat it as your bedroom for the moment. The 16-year-old isn’t going to be living at home for ever, after all.

But I wonder if it’s the size of the house that’s getting you down, or whether there isn’t a family problem here. Some huge families do live perfectly happy lives in spaces smaller than yours – and most children have never known peace and quiet while they do their homework. They simply learn to cut out extraneous sound. If call centre workers in noisy open-plan offices demanded silent cells to work in, they’d soon be out of a job.

My suspicion is that you’d be helped by some kind of short family therapy in which each family member could express themselves and say exactly what they need. Perhaps there’s too much chaos at the moment for anyone to be heard at all. Or if you couldn’t face that, what about setting up your own hour all together a couple of times a week, and allow each person to speak their mind, without being interrupted, for a certain amount of time, instead of screaming unheard in a bear pit. Often, just being able to express your needs and listen to other people’s can, almost magically, change the atmosphere – and sometimes, oddly, without any real practical changes having to be made at all.

Readers say...

Tell your rough sleeper to leave

He isn’t your brother. He’s your husband’s brother. It is clear you have to get together with your husband to try to sort out this awful problem.

Homelessness is very terrible, but you are not responsible for this man who comes and sleeps at your house and upsets your family’s life. There are agencies who help the homeless, though they might ask questions he does not want to answer. But he is not your responsibility and you should not be made to suffer. You and your husband could tell him that. Together.

June Rogers, by email


Your brother-in-law’s got to go

The fact that you have even been thinking of buying a bigger house suggests that you are still in two minds about whether to accommodate your brother-in-law. Well don’t be – from what you tell us, he simply has to go. Your real dilemma is how to get rid of him without appearing cruel, but you will do no one any favours by letting the situation drag on. You and your husband simply have to find the moment to tell your troublesome visitor that he must find somewhere else to live and that you are prepared to help. Whether the three of you can manage to find this new accommodation unaided may be in doubt, and you may need professional advice. But summon up your courage and provide the bad news, however hard that may be.

Don Manley, by email


Put them all to work

I grew up in a house with four brothers and sisters, so this all sounds pretty normal to me. I honestly wouldn’t worry about your children and their homework – I learnt to tune out when I needed to concentrate, and am still able to so to this day. We argued, but it was mostly OK. So I wonder if space isn’t really the problem and that you’re simply trying to do too much, with a job and all those children. I suspect you are shouldering more than your fair share of domestic work. It’s time to get your husband, older children and brother-in-law to pull their weight. Make rotas for cooking, shopping and tidying, and get organised. A crowded house doesn’t have to mean a chaotic house.

Sandra Lyle, by email


Next week's dilemma

I’ve discovered a passionate love letter in my husband’s jeans. Of course I’m extremely upset, particularly as for the last year we haven’t been having sex. I have mentioned to him that we seem to be drifting apart, but he just said it was because we both were busy, with a son of eight as well as full-time jobs. A bit of me feels so betrayed and fed up I just want to tell him to go. But a close friend says we should try marriage guidance, at least for the sake of our son, and because we were so happy for the first six years. But why bother? I haven’t even told my husband I know yet, and each day he lies I despise him more and more.

Yours sincerely,


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