New relationships can be stressful. The holidays can be stressful. Families can be stressful. Add those three things together and we're talking a potential headache the size of St. Nick's belly. But it needn't be so. For those planning a holiday edition of "meet the parents," we offer some tips on how to make the first get-together go smoothly.
Think about it: Are you ready for this?
Don't let the festive time of year force you into anything the relationship is neither ready for nor right for. If you don't see this person in your life come St. Patrick's Day, avoid sending the wrong signals that a family meet indicates (i.e. I am serious about our future). And even if you are in the early throes of everlasting love, don't let seasonal expectations push you into something prematurely. "The holidays in general can be make or break for a relationship," says Kimberly Moffit, psychotherapist and CosmoTV relationship expert. "I tell the couples, you want to be sure about each other before you add more people to the mix." If for whatever reason you don't feel ready, Ms. Moffit recommends passing the buck (or the old "It's not you, it's them" defence) to avoid any awkwardness or hurt feelings. "You can always bypass the family meeting by saying something like, 'I love my family, but they're pretty intense, especially around the holidays.' " Then suggest a less stressful meeting some time in the new year.
Consider yourself an undercover event planner
Determining the best place for the meeting depends a lot on the parties involved, and since you are the only one who knows all of them, feel free to take the reins. "A family dinner works, but there are other activities that might take the pressure off. Maybe your family likes bowling," Ms. Moffit says. If you do end up on mom and/or dad's turf, try to enforce a fixed timeline, or at least have an escape plan. This is especially true if your loved ones are the type of family that turns holiday gatherings into marathon gabbing/boozing/board game-playing sessions. "If you come from a big or particularly tight-knit clan, and your new partner doesn't, consider that the experience may be a bit overwhelming," Ms. Moffit says. If your family is sensitive, this is another case in which a white lie won't hurt – saying you are due at a friend's place at 10 p.m. (even if you're not) provides a bookend to what is hopefully a pleasant evening.
Conduct recon on both sides
You wouldn't go into a test without studying – prepping your partner in advance will make a huge difference. Start by informing the new flame about the specifics of your family life. Names and occupations are a no-brainer, so go beyond that (my sister just got back from backpacking through Australia, my dad loves football). These tidbits can help ward off those dreaded awkward silences that only heighten anxiety. Furthermore, if your family has quirks, warts or prejudices, expose them in advance. For example, maybe your Depression-era parents think anyone who has more than one glass of wine belongs at the Betty Ford clinic. That may seem unreasonable, but it's something your partner deserves to know before he or she orders a double Scotch on the rocks. Conduct the same sort of advanced info session with your family. "Providing a few details about his or her interests and best qualities will help inform conversation and also indicate to your family that this person is important to you," Ms. Moffit says. The warts thing also works both ways: "If your new guy has a sensitive area, perhaps he just lost his job, you'll want to warn mom and dad to avoid that line of conversation," she says.
Chances are your new partner cares about making a good impression on the family (if he or she doesn't, refer back to tip No. 1) and vice-versa. The good news: This holiday meeting won't be the only time to do that, so neither party should feel pressure to knock it out of the park. Reminding your partner of this basic truth will take the pressure off. "The most important thing is that the new person is polite and friendly, which isn't a particularly tall order," Ms. Moffit says. Another easy crowd-pleaser is a small host/hostess gift (not to be confused with a Christmas present, which can get awkward). If your guest hasn't come to this conclusion on his or her own, casually mention something like your mom is easily won over by a box of Turtles.
Don't do this: Take the "sink or swim" approach. If Uncle Lester brings up peace in the Middle East, change the subject immediately.
Special to The Globe and Mail