Meeting your partner’s parents for the first time is notoriously stressful. But if you keep a few tips in mind, your first encounter can be less like a crappy Ben Stiller movie, and more like the start of a good relationship.
Do your homework.
As in so many situations, you’ll probably have an easier time with your significant other’s parent or parents if you find out a little about them beforehand. I talked to Dr. Ruby Payne, author of Crossing the Tracks for Love: What to Do When You and Your Partner Grew Up in Different Worlds, who says,
Ask your partner for a good memory of his/her parent(s) and a memory that helped them realize that the parent was a human being. That will give you insight into the parent and how the partner sees him/her self in relationship to the parent. Also, ask your partner if there is anything that would be helpful to know - ex: a handicap, idiosyncrasy, habit, political bias, religion, etc.
Eden Unger Bowditch, author of The Daughter-in-Law’s Survival Guide and The Atomic Weight of Secrets, adds that doing a bit of recon on parents beforehand can also help conversations go more smoothly: “Find out what they do and like before you meet them.” In general, knowing some basics about your partner’s parents’ lives and values ahead of time can relieve some of that first-meeting uncertainty.
Make sure they know something about you.
If he or she hasn’t already, it’s wise to have your partner fill the family in about you a bit before you meet. Prof. Erica Chito Childs, a sociologist who studies race, gender, and families told me that for couples in interracial relationships, it’s a good idea for your partner to make sure “the family aware is that they are dating outside their race.” She adds,
I’ve interviewed couples before where one partner says, ‘My parents raised me to be the person I am and they don’t care – race, color, religion, nothing matters.’ And I think it’s never good to take that for granted, because many times parents may have very different views when it comes to who their child should date.
Only you, your partner, and your partner’s family know whether racial, cultural, or religion differences will be an issue — but it can be a good idea to raise these topics before you get together for the first time. Beyond that, it’s just nice for your SO’s progenitors to know a little bit about what you do and what you like, so they’ll know what to talk to you about. Oh, and if you’re vegan or vegetarian and you’re planning on sharing a meal, a heads-up is wise, if only to avoid an awkward scene around the table.
Don’t assume the worst.
A lot of people fear meeting their partner’s parents, but try not to let yourself get too pessimistic. Says Childs,
It’s important to be open-minded and not expect a negative reaction. […] If you go in hesitant and nervous, then maybe you’re not going to be showing your true personality, and that’s going to lead to problems itself.
Do not expect to be rejected or expect a negative experience. That can put a pall over the event — the opposite of counting chickens before they’re hatched…like counting broken eggs before they break.
But don’t expect perfection.
You’ve never met these people before, and they may care a lot about what kind of person their kid is involved with. So while you shouldn’t expect the worst, you also shouldn’t feel bad if your first meeting isn’t a total love-fest. Childs points out that even if your partner says his or her parents are the nicest people ever, they might show you a different side – “we might see our family in a certain way, which may not be exactly how they are.” So if your girlfriend says her mom’s a saint, and then she’s rude to you, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person – your beloved probably just sees Mom in a rosy light. And even if things are awkward now, they may well get better as everyone gets to know each other. In general, says Bowditch, meeting the parents is “like a blind date” – it’s probably not going to be completely comfortable at first, but it could be the start of something great.
Ask questions, and keep things light.
Yes, the stakes might be higher, but in some ways meeting your partner’s parents is just like meeting any new person. Payne’s recommended approach:
When I am meeting someone new for the first time, I always listen and try to find a way to get him/her to talk about him/her self. Almost everyone likes to talk about themselves so I like to listen more than I talk. The key is finding something that that person really likes - hobby, animal, sports, cooking, etc and then listen.
Bowditch adds this advice:
Ask questions that show you are interested in them. Be willing to share things about yourself. Try to find common ground, common interests. Light-hearted humor, when appropriate, can be good, too. Show you care about their child. Be supportive. Unless asked, you might not want to go on and on about the big future plans you’ve made. If you are just meeting them, it might be alienating, like you’ve kept them out of it until now. Try not to be critical. This is the first meeting, after all. Try to be relaxed.
If there’s serious conflict, let your partner defuse it.
Minor awkwardness may be par for the course here, but if your partner’s parents are being actively hostile or offensive toward you, your partner needs to have a talk with them. In situations like this, says Childs,
It’s really important for a partner to have a discussion with their family without the other person there, and just say “I’m in a relationship with this person, I really care about them, it’s important to me that you understand.” Say for example that maybe the parents have some prejudices, or have some concerns — it’s really important to address those outright, and to confront the family on any behavior, and to make it very clear that this is offensive and it’s going to affect the family relationships, not the intimate relationship.
Your partner should be engaged and be responsible for supporting you and controlling the conflict. If your partner is not doing that or if your partner is feeding the fire, and putting you at risk, the problem is not the parents, but the partner. Try to address that before you meet the folks.
Meeting your partner’s parents can present a lot of challenges – but weathering them can actually make your relationship stronger. And even if you’re not besties with them after the first encounter, things can get better – as long as your partner has your back. Says Bowditch,
By being a team, you not only show support for each other, but you show that you have a bond. Even if this seems to work against the parents, if they are really understanding people, this will make them feel confident and good about the relationship.
And hopefully it will help you feel the same way.
Crossing The Tracks For Love: What To Do When You And Your Partner Grew Up In Different Worlds
The Daughter-in-Law’s Survival Guide
Navigating Interracial Borders: Black-White Couples And Their Social Worlds