Q: “I share a cottage with a sibling and two cousins. I’m the only ‘handy’ owner, but we all pull together for chores and big improvements—except for one of my cousins. He doesn’t lift a finger to help and avoids the work weekends that we have twice a year. He pays his share of the cottage dues, but that’s all he does. The others don’t seem to think it’s a big deal, but I’m starting to get mad. How do other cottagers do it?”
A: A brilliant entrepreneur I know (my wife) has this to say about co-ownership situations: “Ideally, when starting any new venture, the only business partner you should have is the bank.” Wise words. And I think the same could really be said about cottage co-ownership which, with family or others, is a situation to be avoided at all costs. If only to preserve your own sanity.
But for a great many cottagers, myself included, that perfect world does not exist. I feel your pain because at one time I shared a family cottage with my three brothers. We definitely experienced bumps along the co-ownership path, but work sharing wasn’t one of the problems, even though we had wildly varying skill sets. Like most cottagers I know, we each did our best according to our own aptitude. For example, one of my brothers had a physical disability, so he couldn’t build docks or hump asphalt shingles up a ladder. But he was a trained chef, and kept the chuckwagon open, turning out three squares a day so the rest of us could stay focused on the dirty job at hand. At the end of the business, he’d help clean up and pass out cold beer. All in all, a full and fair contribution.
But a distressing number of cottagers are so inept that they represent a liability and a menace when it comes to cottage work. They are afraid of heights, cannot decipher the markings on a tape measure, and regularly lose their grip on swinging hammers. These people are very real, and you probably know at least one of them. The few that I know are well aware of their shortcomings in the handy department, but they compensate the old-fashioned way, with a liberal application of cash money. They spring for boat gas or buy an expensive new tool for common use. These bunglers are useless on the job site but will happily pay out-of-pocket for a new cottage sofa. Yes, they are buying their way out of work, but at least they try to contribute.
It sounds like this is not the situation at your cottage. To be blunt, your cousin seems like a complete jerk. Anyone who routinely shafts his co-owners—his own kin—with all the cottage grunt work, and does so knowingly, deserves a fiery eternity emptying Satan’s latrine with a sauna dipper. Maybe you could buy him out. Who knows? Your cousin might be happy to take the money and run, but I realize this could be impossible if the rest of you can’t afford to pay him to go away. (Plus, some sharing arrangements have legal agreements that lay out specific rules for buyouts and can include some sort of shotgun clause that could result in you losing your share of the place.) Your situation seems even more complex because it doesn’t sound like the other owners think your goldbricking cousin is a problem.
Personally, my go-to for these sorts of issues is public shaming. Start referring to the skiver as “my lazy-ass cousin” whenever he is within earshot. Make a sign for his bedroom that says “Count Slackula’s Den of Sloth.” At dinner, set out place cards for your co-owners. Susan’s might have a picture of a pretty bird, Tom’s a cute chipmunk, but Braydon, who doesn’t help out? His says “Deadbeat Bum” beside a photo of a bloodsucking leech. You get the idea. The possibilities are limitless and this approach is really fun.
That said, I have been repeatedly informed that public humiliation isn’t really “in” these days, so here’s plan B. The proper thing to do, the grown-up rational approach would be to seek consensus with the other owners before sitting down with Mr. Lazy Pants for a friendly and constructive meeting where you can talk about the subject in a blame-free, non-judgmental environment. Use powerful “I” statements: “I feel so frustrated with the whole situation” or “I just want to understand what’s going on here.” Maybe he will come to see your side of the issue and a new era of cottage cooperation will dawn under a halo of warm light, bringing hearts and hands together. You can certainly try this approach, but I think we both know that a habitual shirker like your cousin knows how to game the system and has done so for years. Clearly he is the kind of person who doesn’t bring wine or beer to a cottage weekend and selfishly eats all the pecans in the mixed nut bowl.
I am aware that it is impolitic to offend delicate sensibilities. Mustn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, right? Well, in this case I think you might need to employ some direct action towards your cousin by getting right up in his grill. Call it Plan B, Part 2, where you forcefully explain your side of things. Ask if there’s a reason for his behaviour. Don’t back down, and don’t let him squirm away. Make it very clear that the other owners are 100 per cent with you on this matter, even if they have never formally said as much. Explain that he is hurting your feelings (see what we did there?) and that the rest of you need his help to make this cohab a success. (“It’s tearing us apart!”) If you could squeeze out a few tears, that would be great. You need to use guilt as a power tool. (“Susan cries every night!”) I am convinced that you will get a powerful and emotional reaction out of him. And if you don’t, it’s a pretty good indication that he might be trending in the direction of narcissistic sociopathy so maybe you should lock your bedroom door and sleep with one eye open. Because when you share a cottage with blood relatives, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
This article was originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine.