Feeling anxious about bringing your significant other home for the first time this holiday season? It’s normal to feel awkward, but at least it can’t get worse than the time my friend Anna brought her partner John home for Thanksgiving with her extended family.
First, her elderly great-aunt put him through the wringer, grilling him about his college studies, complaining she couldn’t understand his (non-existent) accent (John is part Mexican), and telling Anna he wasn’t good enough for her. Then, during dinner, another guest berated John for not putting his napkin on his lap. The final blow came when Anna came back to the table after helping clear dishes.
“I see poor John sitting at the table, completely frozen, trying not to show the horror he felt inside, with my dad’s middle-aged cousin standing behind him, leaning over and massaging his pecs, talking to everyone at the table like this was normal behavior,” Anna recollects. “And we never went to another extended family holiday again.”
Anna and John’s off-the-charts terrible Thanksgiving aside, though, a family holiday with a SO doesn’t have to be the stuff of TV dramas. Awkward family dynamics may be part of it, but it can also be a valuable chance to make new, relationship-building memories with your partner in the place that formed you.
Talk beforehand about family dynamics — and have a plan to face them together.
If there are any obvious areas where family dynamics will cause tension, be open with your partner about them. You can’t make them go away or not bother you, but you can have an intentional, preemptive plan to communicate when they do.
“Go into it knowing there might be issues that come up,” says Sarah Eisinger, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut. “Say, ‘Let’s not be surprised about it, and we will talk about it when we get some private time together.’”
Eisinger adds that the person coming into the new family group for the first time might be surprised if it brings out a new-to-them facet — for better or worse — in their partner and their relationship. She explains that it’s normal to even feel left behind when a significant other quickly joins in the flow of the family traditions or gets sucked back into long-standing dynamics: “If you really like the person, you’ll have to have a conversation after the fact, and explain it gently.”
If there are deeper dysfunctions in the family, neither partner should be surprised if the newcomer notices or is bothered by them first. Loyalty to one’s family of origin can result in a blindspot, despite best intentions, Eisinger says.
What should couples bear in mind when communicating these tensions with each other? Eisinger offers: “Allow your significant other to influence you and hear what they have to say — hear their feedback, without being defensive.”
Be flexible and generous.
While it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that you shouldn’t discuss controversial topics like politics, is that what you came home for? When things start to veer into a debate, it will take discernment to decide when speaking up is appropriate, Eisinger says. Err toward assuming goodwill.
“No one needs to go to combat on Christmas,” she says. “Let’s be respectful, kind — and if you’re going to broach something, do it very gently.”
The same goes for staying under the same roof with parents who may hold different moral principles than their adult children. If you and your partner will be staying with them, extend the grace and respect they’re owed as hosts.
“Follow whatever the rules are in the family,” Eisinger says, “and talk to each other ahead of time about their expectations.”
Plan some nights in.
Amid showing your significant other your old stomping grounds, getting together with friends, and escaping the house as a couple, carve out some time to just hang out in PJs with your family.
Another friend, Chris, reflects, “Some of the best memories I have from taking my future wife home for the holidays involve my fiercely competitive siblings and I all getting outclassed in a game of Settlers of Catan by her.”
Don’t let the humble family traditions fall by the wayside if you’re planning an exciting itinerary for your SO, and let your partner see your imperfect family holidays as they are.
“Plan real things,” says Chris. After all, “if your significant other is looking to spend the rest of their life with you, they’ll have to live with some of your favorite holiday traditions, too.”
See this time as a gift.
If your relationship has long-term potential, seeing each other with your families of origin is a valuable experience — not that someone’s family is a precise guide to your SO’s personality, but it can be illuminating. Take the opportunity to notice and — hopefully! — appreciate how he or she reacts to family dynamics, treats parents, or interacts with the youngest relatives.
When you go home together, Eisinger says, “you get an insight into this person’s life, their childhood, who they are, and what made them who they are today — whether that be difficult things or lovely things.” That’s a tremendous, intimate gift to give to or receive from someone you love.
And take heart — even Anna and John’s Thanksgiving ended up bringing them closer together, now that it’s cemented as their “legendary couple story,” as Anna puts it.
“It’s something we laugh about now because of how ridiculous it was,” she says.