Holiday Hot Seat
December 09, 2011
by Alexis Hauk
Cape Cod Times
You remember the 2000 comedy "Meet the Parents," the one where a poor, hapless male nurse with an unfortunate name endures one nightmare scenario after another while meeting his girlfriend's parents for the first time?
I always suspected that the Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro vehicle was such a hit with audiences because it tapped into a genuine fear about what could happen when you face your potential in-laws.
I mean, obviously Greg Focker faces some over-the-top challenges: He's monitored on hidden camera, given lie detector tests, forced to compete athletically with his girlfriend's ex-fiance. But some scenes aren't so far-fetched - as when he's mocked for his profession, his name and even his religion.
The good news is that meeting the family of your significant other (S.O.) in real life probably won't ever entail literal explosions or dyed cat tails. But it can still cause heaps of anxiety - especially at this time of year.
"Meeting somebody's family over the holidays is really good and really bad timing simultaneously," says Patricia Leavy, associate professor of sociology at Stonehill College in Easton. "On the good, there are more people around, (putting) less pressure on the couple or relationship. On the other side, holidays can be really stressful to begin with, and I think (people) have a picture from pop culture of what it means to meet the families."
Dave Milstone, associate vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, cautions people to recognize the holiday season's own issues. "It's one of those rituals and traditions that (the family) counts on all year. Everybody wants it to be perfect. That's why people act like maniacs."
You may not have a choice, though. Especially if you live far away from your family, holidays offer the most convenient timing. So, whether you're meeting your S.O.'s family, bringing your S.O. home or bracing to lock eyes with your child's new S.O., here are some tips on breaking bread (and ice) in the smoothest, sanest way possible.
Hey, you know that your aunt always decides to quit smoking this time of year, and that your brother is constantly quoting every line from "Anchorman." But your S.O. doesn't. Milstone says you should be sure to educate your special him or her before he or she is thrown in feet first.
Make especially sure that your partner knows which topics to avoid, like religion or politics - after all, who wants to mention something funny from "The Daily Show" only to discover that your S.O.'s uncle is Michele Bachmann's biggest fan?
Focus instead on what would be great to talk about. What kinds of hobbies do you all enjoy as a family? What interests your parents? What do they have in common?
Anna Rae LeClaire, a sophomore at UMass-Dartmouth studying nursing, gave her boyfriend a whole roster of topics this past Thanksgiving.
"I tried to tell him about each of the family members he'd be meeting and how to kind of get on their good side," she says. "One of my dad's brothers, his partner speaks Portuguese, and so does my boyfriend. For my dad, (I told my boyfriend to) mention that you like soccer."
Milstone points out that everyone wants their guests to feel welcome and happy - so help your family out a little. If your boyfriend's mother passed away recently, let them know so that they don't inquire casually whether his mother makes mashed potatoes.
Hopefully the only uncomfortable silence will be when you're enjoying some post-meal indigestion during sleep.
To thine own self be true
While it can be tempting to adopt a personality that you think will please your S.O.'s family, Leavy says you should try to stay authentic. So, if your friends aren't constantly comparing you to Rodney Dangerfield in real life, don't start making lots of wisecracks around your S.O.'s family.
It's not just eager-to-please boyfriends and girlfriends shooting themselves in the foot either. Milstone says parents can make the mistake of walking on eggshells with an S.O. who differs from their expectations - like a same-sex partner.
"People have similar needs and there is anxiety for everyone. The fact that this makes it even more unique doesn't mean people don't want to have conversations," he says. "It's important that the parents try not to bumble over words. If you say the wrong thing, apologize for it. Don't pick every word so carefully that you're being offensive."
If you're celebrating Christmas with your S.O.'s family, figure out whether you'll be there for the ritual gift-giving or not. Otherwise, it will get awkward. Again, you should plan exactly what will happen and in what capacity you'll be participating. Leavy recommends bringing a favorite holiday treat to share, particularly since it can also serve as a way to talk about yourself - the fact that you learned to bake these cookies with your grandmother, for instance.
"Whenever you go to someone's house, it's nice to bring something anyway," says Leavy. "But you don't want to show up dressed as Santa"
By the time you get into your 20s, there's always the danger that you've already introduced your family to past S.O.s. So your current boyfriend or girlfriend is bound to feel nervous that he's walking in the shadow of the thwarted love of your life.
When LeClaire brought her boyfriend home for Thanksgiving, she says she was antsy about her family would react to her new guy, whom she'd been dating for a month, considering that they had already gotten to know her ex-boyfriend of 2½ years so well.
"I think I was just nervous more so the fact that he was somebody new and a lot of my family members thought I'd be with my ex forever," she says.
Leavy says any talk of ex-boyfriends or girlfriends should simply be off-limits when the new partner is present.
"Families really shouldn't be talking about other people you dated," she says. "There are no stories that make that OK. It's not cute."
No alarms, no surprises
Bring up any other factors that might be surprising or possibly uncomfortable with your family. Milstone has spent 33 years in an advisory role with students at various colleges, including UMass-Amherst and Clark University in Worcester. In the last five years, he says he's seen a trend of families becoming more accepting. However, you still don't want to spring anything on your family.
"It's not the time to bring two things to the family at the same time," he says. "If you haven't already talked about this person so they don't know that the person is a different race, religion, that you're gay, anything that's gonna be another surprise, it's probably not the best thing."
Both Leavy and Milstone say you should arrange with your family ahead of time where you and your S.O. will be sleeping and keep public displays of affections to a minimum. "These people don't know you and you've just shown up in their house," says Leavy.
Thank you for being a friend
You should treat your S.O. as an ally during this experience. Which, Milstone says, means that you should not leave him/her alone with your family for long periods of time. Find a time to get away together to relax as a couple, too.
"Mix up the planning so you have some internal and external time. Get out of the house to give them time to breathe," he says. "It's the 72-hour rule. You never spend more than 72 hours (together as a group) before it starts to go downhill."
Don't put too much pressure on yourself or your S.O., Leavy urges. The stakes may seem high, but if you sweat the small stuff too much or criticize your partner for not making a good enough impression, that can have a lasting negative effect when you get back to "normal life."
"I've had friends who've had their families meet their loved one at a holiday or some other event and they were so nervous that they gave their date a hard time over really trivial stuff. Those (relationships) don't last very long."
Leavy also points out that your family is likely not as focused in on your partner's every behavior as you are.
"If your partner says something that is dimwitted or they chew with their mouth open, you have to remember that it's nerve-wracking for them," says Leavy. "Being judgmental is only going to make it worse. All you can do is try to be yourself and hope that your partner is him or herself."
Put. The photo albums. Down.
People often worry that their partner will see or hear something embarrassing about them when they go back home, a place where they may still be considered a child, Milstone says.
"Depending on how old the students are, it's going to make a big difference," he says. "Telling stories about how I did X-Y-Z when I was 4, or comparing me to other girlfriends or boyfriends."
So resist the urge to haul up that home video of your now-grown kid performing Vanilla Ice at the talent show in first grade. It's just not worth it.
"It's just wise to remember that, in the end, if your son or daughter ends up with this person, the strength of the relationship you're going to have with them, all of that is partly based on their significant other, so it really is better if people can get off on the right foot," says Leavy. "The pictures with braces, all that stuff - don't do things that would embarrass your kid. That's not the best possible way to bond. Just share some good food."
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