I have a big, loud, Southern family. The kind of family that still gathers for reunions every year. My grandfather, his seven brothers and sisters, plus their kids, and their kids' kids, and the kids of their kids' kids spend one weekend in October playing card games, swearing at each other, and eating a truly repulsive thing called goop (a mix of mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, and cheddar cheese served on top of hot dogs). The whole thing is kind of overwhelming even for those of us who were born into it. But this year, I'm facing the possibility of bringing my new girlfriend into the mess.
I live far enough from my parents that I only go home a few times a year. So my girlfriend hasn't met my parents yet, and my mom is itching to get a good look at the woman dating her daughter. Since the only other time I'll go home this year is during Christmas, the family reunion seems like the best time for a meet-up. Except, introducing my girlfriend to my whole, conservative family all at once also seems like a terrible idea. I want my girlfriend to meet my family, but I'm worried about the timing. And I'm sure that I'm not the only one who feels that kind of reluctance. Weddings, funerals, family holidays, family vacations, graduations, and other high-stress events can feel like the wrong time to bring a new partner along. But, is there really a "bad" time to introduce your partner to your parents? Or is it best to just rip off the Band-Aid, no matter the circumstances?
According to couples' therapist Jean Fitzpatrick, ripping off the Band-Aid is a bad idea. You shouldn't introduce your partner to your parents just to do it, and definitely not without considering the circumstances. "Bad or good times vary depending on the cast of characters," Fitzpatrick says. What she means is that the specifics of the meeting make a huge difference.
Consider my family reunion. My parents have a sign hanging in their kitchen that says, "I love you more than biscuits and gravy," which (for the uninitiated) means that they're VERY Southern. If my girlfriend were vegan (she isn't), bringing her to a big, Southern family reunion where there's sure to be secret bacon grease in everything (including the vegetables) and no one gives a thought to having a vegetarian option would probably be a bad idea, Fitzpatrick says. Not only would she have nothing to eat, but she'd have to answer awkward questions from about 20 of my uncles (many of whom raise cattle for slaughter) about what the hell is wrong with her. Sounds super fun, right?
"If your whole family runs a marathon every year and your partner is a couch potato, that’s a bad time to meet."
Jean Fitzpatrick, couples' therapist
So, even though there aren't cut-and-dry guidelines for what makes a "bad" time to meet the parents, "bad" times do exist. As with anything else in your relationship, the right timing depends on you and your partner (plus, your parents). "If your whole family runs a marathon every year and your partner is a couch potato, that’s a bad time to meet," Fitzpatrick says. "Unless your partner gets into providing water bottles and cheering at the finish line."
If your partner is an introvert, maybe don't introduce them to your entire family at once. If your family is religious and your partner is an atheist, then a religious holiday probably isn't the best time for them to meet. If your family is used to only meeting people you're serious about, then don't bring home someone you just started seeing. "That might lead to awkward moments," Fitzpatrick says. In other words, put a little thought into the first meeting, and make sure you're setting your partner up for as comfortable a trip as you possibly can.
If an awkward situation is unavoidable — like, if you have to go to a family funeral and your partner wants to support you, or your partner's flight is cancelled and they have to spend an unexpected night at your parents' home (true story: it happened to me) — then do your best to help everyone feel comfortable. "Your partner may feel awkward or overwhelmed," Fitzpatrick says. "In situations like these, traditional courtesies can be very helpful to everybody." In the case of a funeral, bring along a casserole or some other dish and let your partner hand it to your parents. And in the case of a spontaneous visit, Fitzpatrick suggests that you and your partner help with setting the table and cleaning up after meals. Small actions can go a long way.
But if you're not faced with something unexpected, choose a time when your parents and your partner will all be in the best mood. Meeting the parents will always be awkward, but you have it in your power to make sure your partner doesn't run into unnecessarily stressful situations. You know your family, and you know your partner. So do both a solid and choose a setting where everyone is most likely to get along. If your partner doesn't understand why you don't want to bring them to your cousin's bar mitzvah, explain. "It’s not that you don’t want your partner to meet your parents; you want the best possible meeting," Fitzpatrick says. And then, plan an alternate meeting as soon as you can, so your partner knows you really mean what you said.