Introducing your parents and future in-laws for the first time often goes one of two ways: they either love each other from the start or they set the stage for a contentious relationship. Whether you're worried about clashing personalities, hot-button political conversations, or feelings of competition or jealousy, preparing for this meeting ahead of time will help you relax. Been putting this meeting off due to schedules (or nerves)? We're here to help.
The good news is, there are no rules about parents meeting before a couple gets engaged. "It really can be before or after," says Lizzie Post, an etiquette expert and co-author of Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette 6th Edition. "Don't get so caught up on needing it to happen by a certain time. You just want to focus on it being a good, positive introduction."
Remember that anyone can plan the introduction.
While it used to be up to his parents to set up a meeting, that's no longer the case. "Traditionally, the groom's family reaches out to the bride's family," says Post, "but that is old-school tradition and few people know that." Now, either family—or the couple—can reach out first and offer to host a get-together. Suggest meeting for brunch at home or in a restaurant, or planning an activity that your family loves and wants to share: a round of golf, an afternoon on your boat, or dinner at your favorite restaurant. "Any of the typical socializing that any of these couples would normally do, it's perfectly appropriate to extend that as the invitation," says Post.
Find something that makes everyone comfortable.
Whether or not you're planning the meeting, you should make sure it's something everyone will be agreeable to. "You don't take the vegetarian to the barbecue joint," Post says, "You have to be somewhat smart about it." When the check comes, whoever offered to host should pick up the bill—though if the other couple offers to split it, you're not breaking any etiquette rules by saying yes.
Give them some time.
If your parents are meeting for the first time at your engagement party or bridal shower, Post suggests giving them a little time together before the guests arrive; even an hour of chatting can give the whole party a more celebratory vibe, since "there's a little bit more of a connection between these two families."
Make sure the time is right.
Introducing your parents at a more opinion-based event—think dress shopping, cake tasting, reception site visit—can be unpredictable, but that doesn't mean you can't make it work. "Weddings are really fascinating times," says Post. "They bring out odd characteristics in people that aren't the typical. It's a funky mix of personalities and insecurities and control that comes out." Do what you think will work best for your family: Don't bring your mother-in-law dress shopping if you think your mom will pick a fight; don't ask your father-in-law to weigh in on the music if he dislikes anything released after 1940. "Think about the people involved and really try to go for an event, location, or dynamic that is going to make sense for these four or six or eight people," Post adds.
Avoid questionable topics.
Typically off-limits topics like religion and money may come up in conversation, since they're often related to wedding plans (and wedding plans are, after all, what all of you have in common). If you're starting to sense tension over the religious details of your ceremony or the budget, table that discussion for later. "This really is a get-to-know-you type meeting," says Post, "but a lot of people jump the gun and turn it into a let's-start-planning-the-wedding meeting—because it's hard not to."
Safer topics: Travel plans, the last movie you saw, everyone's favorite book, how the local sports teams are doing, and even the weather. "We try to tell people not to go straight to, 'What do you do for a living,' but instead to ask people what they are interested in and how they like to spend their time. That way it's really up to them whether they decide to talk about work, or family, or their hobbies or interests," says Post.
Have a plan for handling tricky dynamics.
If a disagreement escalates, be prepared to step in with a quiet reminder that your parents will have plenty of time to hash out their differences over the course of your forever marriage. "Find a way to remind people of why we're here," says Post. "Say, 'I know we have differing views on this,' or, 'it sounds like there's a lot we're going to have to work through, but today the goal was to just meet each other and be friendly and recognize that we're going to do this big, wonderful thing.'"