I have an old friend whose husband, when they are getting ready for company, likes to “help” by going to his study and arranging his engineering magazines in chronological order. This is unusual in that most husbands head for the garage to spiff it up—almost as helpful, right? There must be some logic to their thinking, some reason these areas take priority over those where guests are actually going to spend time. But why inquire, when it might start another pre-party argument?
And start one it might. With couples, party-giving brings out conflict. I am reminded how universal this is whenever I give a talk about entertaining. “Accept that you will have a fight with your spouse on the day of your party,” I’ll say, and the heads nod up and down in knowing agreement.
I spoke recently to a ladies’ group, and afterwards a woman came up to me. “My husband has forbidden me from entertaining in our home, because I turn into such a nut case,” she said. I could relate, and so, certainly, could my husband of 32 years.
We are all nut cases
I will confess that on the day of a party, I wake up in Defcon 4 and devolve to Defcon 1 for about an hour before the doorbell rings. I am focused on getting as much done as possible, so I can be all smiles and graciousness once the guests arrive. Defcon 1 is a face I show only my husband, that of a scolding, humorless harridan. There always is this last minute crush of things to do—or at least I think they should be done—and I get tetchy. I feel like I have to do everything. He would tell you that whatever he does is never good enough. We’ve both become accustomed to this pre-party minuet.
Terms of engagement
For my husband’s part, it took me many years to realize I cannot effectively tell him what to do. But he cheerfully will do anything I ask if I write it on a list and leave it on the kitchen table. I have also learned—although I often forget—that it helps to praise him lavishly for everything he does. But these understandings have been hard-won, and we still have a strongly worded conversation or two before a party.
I like to invite my most comfortable guest to come a half-hour early to have a drink with me and help me with last-minute prep. It relieves the tension to have another person there who is not my spouse, at that point barely speaking to me. But unvaryingly we shake it off, relax and have a really fun time, once the guests arrive. It is always so worth it to have the party. And afterwards, the shared sense of triumph brings us closer.
A shrink weighs in
My fabulous friend David Donovan, a Ph.D. psychologist and couples therapist, says the topic of pre-party conflict comes up with some frequency in his practice. “Many couples—married, not married, traditional, same-sex—become frustrated with each other when they host a party,” he says.
According to David, this frustration has been happening since the dawn of man. “Freud has gone so far as to say that civilization itself is a product of the clash between the incompatible demands of biological urges and social conformity,” he says. “Which is a great way to illustrate how entertaining at home might be one of the best examples of man’s conflict with civilized living.
“We are always battling our flight/fight urges and other instinctual responses when confronted with stress-inducing social rituals. Our desire to commune with and host others is sometimes at odds with our baser instincts like needing more rest, fear of looking bad, or wanting to watch reality TV and eat cheese puffs,” he says. Did I mention David is also very funny?
Fun: it’s a choice
David says this conflict is especially heightened when we share hosting responsibilities with a spouse. “Since there’s a lot of truth to the idea that most couples are together more because of complementary attributes—opposites attract—and not for being alike, conflict is sure to arise as each partner strives to make him or herself satisfied when entertaining.
“Like, one person might be more introverted, detail-oriented and perfectionistic, while the other is more extroverted, social and fun-loving,” he says. Don’t we all know twosomes like that? David points out that this actually makes for a good hosting combination—if one can get past the frustrations with the other.
David advises that couples talk about the event beforehand. “Decide who’s going to do what and what the evening is going to look like,” he says. “Verbalize the different good qualities each brings to the table and make a pact to have fun.”
A word from the etiquette committee
If you and your darling have a pre-party dust-up or two, it’s important to forget your squabbles once the party starts. Or at least conceal your irritation until you are alone together. Never bicker in front of people—it makes everyone feel uncomfortable and embarrassed for you. This applies to attending a party as well as having one. Watch it with the one-liner “just kidding” zingers. You may think you are being funny, but often such digs produce awkward, frozen smiles or worse, the room will go silent and someone feels the need to change the subject. Perhaps to a discussion of engineering magazines, or a tour of the sparkling-clean garage.
I call this recipe medicinal only because it was given to me by my physician, Darren Killen, who is also a friend. He served it at a recent party on a hot day, and guests couldn’t get enough of it. It’s the perfect drink for a summer soirée—delicious, refreshing and not that boozy, so thirsty guests can have several servings and not get slack-jawed.
Never make just one batch
2 cups water
2 tablespoons instant iced tea (e.g. Lipton)
Mix together until juice/sugar are dissolved:
1 12-ounce can frozen orange juice
1 12-ounce can frozen lemonade
7 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 ½ cups bourbon (cheap is best)
Mix well and pour into good-quality freezer bags. Fill the bags about half full, squeeze the air out and stack them flat in the freezer. Freeze the bags solid (usually overnight). To serve: remove bags from freezer about one hour prior to serving and allow to partially thaw. “Slush” or chunk the mixture up before filling glasses. Serve in rocks glasses, with a maraschino cherry. If you are lucky enough to have leftovers, it refreezes very well.