Every good sibling knows that when you meet your brother or sister's new partner for the first time, it's your responsibility to give them a thorough read. That's why Bachelorette hometown dates can be so cringeworthy (or juicy). But, why do we get so fiercely judgmental when we meet our sibling's partner for the first time?
It essentially feels like you're meeting a new potential family member, even if marriage isn't actually on the table, says Geoffrey Greif, MSW, PhD, co-author of Adult Sibling Relationships. "Any new addition to a family holds the possibility of a profound shift in family culture," Dr. Greif says. Adding new family members is like an "earthquake experience" for the family, and particularly for siblings, he says.
Sibling relationships can be intense, explains Susan McHale, PhD, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University. "Siblings have a lot of history with one another, and you have all this shared family experience," Dr. McHale says. In addition to feeling protective of your sibling, and wanting the best for them, you might also judge this partner because you're worried about how this relationship will impact your relationship with your sibling, she says.
"There's a protectiveness: Is this person going to be good for my sibling?" Dr. McHale says. "Then, in some ways, it's self-protection: How is this relationship going to affect what my sibling has been giving to me?" That might sound petty or competitive, but lots of people fear that they're going to be replaced by their sibling's partner, Dr. Greif says. "They may become less available to them for all the fun things they have been doing together — phone calls, vacations, and holidays," he says.
Younger siblings, in particular, might feel threatened by their sibling's romantic partner, because they often see their older sibling as "their confidant and advisor," Dr. McHale says. So, they might worry that their older sibling won't have the time or energy to be there, now that they're dating someone. On the other hand, older siblings usually feel protective of their sibling, rather than jealous of their relationship, she says.
Any new addition to a family holds the possibility of a profound shift in family culture.
Geoffrey Greif, MSW, PhD
If you had a bad experience with one of your sibling's past partners, that can also influence your perception of this new person, Dr. Greif says. "Other in-laws may already have reshaped the family culture in a positive or negative way, which can also influence the reception for the new person," he says. Or perhaps, your sibling has introduced you to dozens of partners in the past, so this feels like just another one to add to the roster, he says. That's not necessarily fair — to your sibling or their partner — but it's definitely common.
So, how do you not act like a judgmental jerk when you meet your sibling's S.O.? Keep it low-key, Dr. McHale says. "You'd want to have a conversation with your sibling first; presumably you don't know the person's feelings, but you know your sibling's ideas about the person," she says. There should be lots of communication between you and your sibling before the meeting, so you both know what to expect and where they're at in the relationship, she says.
Although it might be tempting to show your sibling's partner a slideshow of embarrassing photos of your sibling, just don't, Dr. McHale says. And until you know how serious the relationship actually is, hold off on asking any personal questions, like who they voted for or when they're going to move in together, Dr. Greif says. "Take a deep breath and don't look past the immediate," he says. And try to empathize with your sibling's partner, because they're probably anxious and sizing up the situation, too, he says.
How you act matters a lot, but ultimately it's your sibling's relationship, not yours, Dr. McHale says. "Remember that the things you say won't ever go away," she says. "If you alienate them by saying something judgmental, just because you don't like them, it doesn't mean they're not the right person for your sibling."