If your relationship is fairly new, you may find yourself in a predicament this holiday season like the one I experienced last year: My partner and I met in the spring and were stupidly in love by winter. We wanted to be involved in each other’s holiday plans, but the relationship was new enough that I hadn’t yet met his parents—meaning my holiday visit would also be my first time meeting his ma and pa. Yikes!
Meeting a significant other’s family can be nerve-wracking enough on its own, but when you add in the pressures and inevitable stress of the holidays, it can make the encounter feel all the more intense.
Couples counselor Kerri-Anne Brown actually cautions against meeting a significant other’s family for the first time around the holidays. “A second meeting, perhaps,” she told HelloGiggles. “[But] the holidays tend to come with its own pressures, so adding that extra layer raises the stakes. The usual pressure of meeting your partner’s parents for the first time will likely be amplified during the holiday session.”
But don’t panic, young lovers. If you’re taking the leap and having the meeting this season, I talked to a few relationship coaches and family therapists to get you through these trying times. Here’s their comprehensive guide to nailing that first meeting with bae’s parents this holiday season.
1Avoid making the big family celebration your first meeting.
If you can, try not to make the big holiday event be your first meeting with the parents, said Maria C. Inoa, licensed social worker and owner of Full Potential Counseling in Florida. You and your partner should try to plan a separate lunch or dinner date with them before the big celebration involving all the holiday traditions, extended family, parties, and what-have-you. That celebration will likely be much more stressful for the parents if they’re hosting, and with the entire family there, you might not get a ton of attention. That might sound great to you if you’re shy and want to blend into the background, but if your goal is to really get your partner’s parents to get to know you and like you, a more relaxed lunch together before the chaos of the big party is probably a better time to do it.
2Do your homework.
“A major pitfall I’ve seen in my practice is partners not preparing their significant others for what they’re walking into,” Brown said. “If you suspect that there will be some challenges for your parents to accept your partner, then they need to be prepared for that.”
Your partner is your ally here. Before going into the visit, the two of you should sit down and spend some time talking about what to expect. Go over who you’ll be meeting, what they’ll be like, what the family traditions are, what the “vibe” is like with the family (casual and expressive? more formal and buttoned-up?), good conversation topics to bring up that will definitely be a hit, and any other quirky dynamics that might be at play during the gathering. When you walk in, you should already be well-prepped about what’s about to happen.
3Make sure you and your partner are on the same page about your relationship.
“It’s also important for both partners to be on the same page about the relationship and future goals,” Brown said. “Being clear about the kind of relationship you’re in is something good to establish prior to meeting parents. Is the relationship just a casual one or something more committed and serious?”
You two are likely to encounter questions about your relationship, and depending on the family, there may be some playful jokes about wedding rings and picking out china. It’s good to be prepared in advance so you two are telling the same story to relatives. If you are in a more casual arrangement, it might be worth discussing whether meeting the whole family on such a big day is really a good idea.
Your instinct might be to dress to impress, but make sure to prioritize comfort as well. Don’t put yourself in some fancy get-up that will have you fidgeting or distracted at the dinner table. “Feeling comfortable helps you to feel more relaxed and just be yourself,” Brown told HG.
5Listen more than you talk.
You want the family to get to know you, but that doesn’t mean you need to sit there giving a monologue about your life. Don’t work yourself up feeling like you need to speak a lot to make a good impression, said Shula Melamed, a relationship and well-being coach. That, of course, doesn’t mean you have to be silent, but just being an active listener can go a long way and will make people see that you care a lot about meeting them.
“It’s not about selling yourself. It’s about sharing about yourself,” Melamed told HelloGiggles. “Try to find a good balance. If you are a little bit shy, finding other ways to share information about yourself—being helpful, asking questions, being interested, being engaged in the conversation.”
6Avoid controversial conversation topics.
Anything involving politics, social issues, or other controversial subjects should be avoided during the first meeting, if possible. If something like that comes up, you can roll with it and participate within reason. But if someone says something that strikes you as particularly offensive or egregiously against your personal views, now might not be the best time to get into an argument over it.
“I would try to focus on listening, not reacting, and if you need to, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom to get away,” Inoa explained. “I would try to maybe listen more—not that you can’t offer your opinion. I think it depends on the person and their viewpoint. You might sense that your opinion will not be welcomed or sit right with them, so it may just be that you just listen to their viewpoint and then just move on.”
Feel free to state that you disagree if it’s important to you, but you can state it and then leave it. Show respect for them as members of your partner’s family, even if you don’t respect their views. There will always be another time, when you’re more acquainted with the family, when you can engage further.
7Ask questions about the family.
Focus the conversation around the family members and their traditions, Melamed recommended. Older relatives in particular love discussing these things: “What recipe is this? Was this in your family for a long time? If you’re at their house, asking questions about photographs or family members—that kind of thing is great. Show interest. Know that it’s not just about you being evaluated. It’s about you finding out more about the family—where they’re from, how they grew up. Asking questions about your partner is also a great thing as well. May be embarrassing for them, but too bad.”
If it’s a dinner at someone’s house, ask in advance if there’s something you can bring. They might tell you not to worry about it, but it’s good etiquette to come with a gift, even if it’s small. Bring a bottle of wine (ask your partner in advance what kind of booze the family likes), or make a small dessert dish that can easily be tacked onto the menu no matter what’s being served.
In addition, ask if you can help whoever’s cooking the meal or getting the house set up. There’s almost certainly something you can do to pitch in, even if it’s just setting up the table or running a quick errand for the host. They’ll appreciate the gesture a lot, you’ll come off looking super polite and helpful, and it might yield some good one-on-one time with someone in the kitchen.
9Put the phone down.
Especially in large groups, it can feel a little overwhelming to follow all the inside jokes and stories about people you don’t know, and you may feel tempted to just melt into the background and even whip out your phone because you’re feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Don’t do it! Family members who catch you by yourself scrolling through social media might assume you’re doing it because you’re bored or don’t care about getting to know them. If you’re feeling anxious and need to re-center yourself, go to the bathroom for your five-minute phone break. But put it away when you get back out there.
10Find an ally in the group.
Pick out a relative who seems to be particularly friendly or similar to you and get some quality one-on-one time with them during down time at the gathering. If you have good energy with at least one person in the sea of strangers (other than your partner, who might not be with you every second of the time you’re there), you’ll feel a lot more at ease and able to access your more authentic self. Another easy way to find a quick ally: Connect with one of the other significant others or in-laws there.
11Don’t be shy about PDA.
You might think you need to be totally hands-off with your partner in front of their family, which could be true if they’re a particularly conservative bunch. But oftentimes, families really do like seeing their child, sibling, or relative experiencing happiness, love, and connection. Definitely be tasteful about it, Inoa warned, but don’t feel like you can’t express your affection in front of the family.
“If you’re with someone and you hold hands and you hug, and that’s just a normal thing, I think it’s good to show the family, ‘This is where we are. We feel comfortable with each other. We really like each other,’” she explained. “It tells them how your relationship is going and where it’s going.”
12Chill on the booze.
Be mindful of how much you’re drinking, Brown recommended. You can definitely have a glass of wine or a beer during the festivities, but this isn’t the time for high-key partying or raging. Even if you’re big on social drinking, your lowered inhibitions might lead you to behaviors that rub some relatives the wrong way. Best to play it safe for this first visit.
13Have a plan in mind for religious services.
Your partner’s family might have different faith convictions than they do, so make sure to ask in advance about what role religious traditions will play during the visit, especially if you have different beliefs yourself. If going to a service together as a family is on the schedule, have a plan in mind for whether you’d like to attend.
“Do what is most comfortable for you while being respectful to them,” Inoa told HelloGiggles. “If someone doesn’t typically go to church and [their partner’s family is] just going to a regular service, nothing out of the ordinary, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going. You don’t necessarily have to participate or pray or sing along. You’re just there supporting your significant other.”
If attending the service does conflict with your personal convictions or would make you uncomfortable for whatever reason, talk to your partner in advance about it so you can come up with a plan together.
14Don’t sweat it if it doesn’t go perfectly.
Remember: It’s the holidays. Many people have a lot going on between holiday shopping, hosting events, and navigating complicated relationships with relatives they haven’t seen in a while.
“As you’re meeting them, they might not be completely acting their normal, bubbly selves, so give them that extra grace,” Inoa said. “You may meet them a couple months later, and they are not as tense and are more talkative. Be aware of that going in.”
And let’s say there’s someone who particularly didn’t seem to click well with you. That’s still no reason to call the whole visit a bust. Said Inoa, “Not every family member may like you, and that’s okay because you probably are closer in your own family to certain family members. So there might be certain family members in your significant other’s family that you feel more drawn to or connect more with. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
There will always be more opportunities in the future to smooth over any bumps you encounter. Recap with your partner that initial meeting to celebrate the good moments, take note of anything that could’ve gone better, and make plans for knocking it out of the park at meeting number two.