For many couples, the holidays are the time of year when they finally get to meet their significant other's family. If you just got engaged, this is an even bigger deal—you're about to meet the people who will soon be your family. This is also a time when you and your partner can explore the boundaries of your own relationship. Not only are you able to see your partner interact with his or her own family, but he or she will see how you engage with them, too.
"This is when you, as a couple, can really shine as partners," says Dawn Michael, Ph.D., a certified sexuality counselor, clinical sexologist, and author. However, Dr. Michael also points out that uncomfortable situations are also part of the territory. You can't always predict how these meetings will unfold, and you certainly can't control the behavior of everyone at the table. To ensure things go well, here are some expert-approved tips for meeting your partner's extended family for the first time.
Get the 411.
Ask your partner to give you the rundown on the family at least a few days before you show up at the front door. Start with ironing down everyone's name. "Chances are, the family will only have one name to remember: yours," says Claudia Six, Ph.D., clinical sexologist and relationship coach. You, on the other hand, will have many names to remember. For this reason, Dr. Six suggests starting before you get there. Get briefed on names and maybe quirky traits about them, to help you memorize who is who.
Ask about family etiquette.
Every family does things differently—and it's not your job to guess how your partner's family prefers things. To make sure you're prepared for any curveballs, ask your partner ahead of time about etiquette when it comes to dressing, eating, and conversations. If you come in leggings and an oversized sweater, but his entire family is decked out in dresses and suits, you'll probably feel uncomfortable. Derichs also suggests discussing how the family handles with physical affection. "You and your S.O. might be all over each other with affection, and then you walk into a room of family members and nobody is touching," she says. "A simple, 'my family are not huggers' or 'my family hugs and kisses everyone' is all that's needed to give you the heads up."
Bring a gift or a dish.
This likely won't be something you'll have to do each and every time, but Dr. Six points out that bringing something for the host is a nice gesture when you're meeting them for the first time. "Bake or make a simple dish that shows off your culinary skills without stepping on anyone's toes—an appetizer or a dessert," she suggests. "These give you something to do when you get there, and make the house smell good." If you do decide to provide a dish, try finding out ahead of time whether or not anyone has allergies or aversions.
Look for an opportunity to engage in one-on-one convos.
It can be tricky to score some alone time with his family members when you're at a large gathering, but try to work in conversations with each person or a few small groups of people. "This helps the family get a better sense of you, and you of them," Dr. Six says. "This will also demonstrate that you're not shy, can hold your own without your beloved by your side, and are willing to pitch in and be a team player, not a diva who won't get her hands dirty."
Find a common ground.
As topics arise, don't hesitate to talk about yourself. Of course, you'll want the conversation to feel balanced, but feel free to talk about things you might have in common. "For example, if his mom says she loves Zumba, feel free to chime in and tell her about your own love of dance," says Dr. Six. "And if his father mentions he loves antique furniture, feel free to let him know your father shares a similar interest."
Be a good listener.
They might ask you a laundry list of questions in an effort to get to know you, but make sure to listen and ask them questions, too. "Some good ones are: What is your favorite way to spend free time? What kind of traditions did your family have growing up? Where do you work? What is the last movie you saw? What have you been binge-watching lately?" suggests Julienne Derichs, a Chicago-based licensed clinical professional counselor. She recommends keeping some conversations starters in your back pocket so that you can take them out whenever there's a lull in the conversation. "People love talking about themselves so remember to direct the conversation back to your S.O.'s family members."
Pay attention to yourself in their presence.
Experts agree that this one might be the most important. While your partner's family may be trying you on, so to speak, you are doing the same with them. Questions Dr. Six recommends asking yourself during and after the holiday event are: Do you feel welcomed, judged, insecure, accepted, not listened to? Are they loud and boisterous while you are quiet and reserved? Are they materialistic and superficial while you have a meditation practice and donate to help others? Are they nosy and gossipy while you are respectful and private? Are they good people despite all that? "This will be information about them for you to be mindful of," she adds. "You don't need to change them, just accept them."