By: Diane Mapes
Some people are blessed with somewhat normal relatives; others, with families that can seem a bit more unconventional — especially to an outsider. So what’s a person with family issues to do when it comes to introducing a new boyfriend or girlfriend, particularly around the holidays?
Do you bring your sweetie home to meet your scrapping siblings or come up with a glib excuse to keep them away? Warn them about Uncle Toby’s issues ahead of time or cross your fingers and hope he doesn’t attack them under the mistletoe? In other words, what’s the best way to introduce your date into the dysfunctional family fold?
1. Prep your mate
Prepping a new love interest for the family dynamics is key, says Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist in the Long Beach area and author of The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again. “You definitely need to prepare your date,” says Tessina. “Give that person a heads up to let him or her know what the problems are and if there are any real trigger issues to stay away from, like not talking politics with dad because he’s a rabid right-winger. Explain how you relate to your parents — maybe you and your mom get along better if you don’t talk much — and clue your date in about family customs, like the type of humor your family uses.”
Her parents didn’t have any doors in their house, for instance, except for the bathroom, and that didn’t have a lock. Her uncles were rambunctious — one would go around pinching his mother on the rear while another would pull out her fifth-grade Catholic school photo and point out the uncanny resemblance to rock singer Meatloaf. And then there was her aunt (who also happened to be her uncle’s former babysitter), who had a tendency to flirt with anything that moved.
“I would tell a boyfriend, ‘Look, my family is unique. There’s a lot of love but there’s also a lot of crazy,’ and he’d nod and say, ‘Yeah, my family’s crazy, too,’” Marion says.
2. Disclose difficult details
Some family issues can be difficult to explain, though. “My mother was a classic hoarder and, as she aged, her house got more and more crammed with stuff,” says Jeanne, 45, of Seattle. “There would be stuff on every surface, including the dining room table. I always tried to explain the hoarding thing to my boyfriends beforehand but you really didn’t get the fullness of it until you saw it.”
Tessina says even tough issues like mental illness need to be broached, although not so much with casual dates, but with the “keepers.” “Try to look at your family through a stranger’s eyes,” says Tessina. “What is this person going to see when coming through the door? What kind of behaviors are going to experienced?”
“If you have a relative who occasionally acts strange, let your date know the specifics,” says Tessina. Explain that Uncle Aaron has Alzheimer’s and might ask your date five or six times if he or she has eaten yet, but that he doesn’t remember asking already, so just be pleasant about it.
“Give some warning so your date’s not surprised,” Tessina says. “If forewarned, your date will have an easier time dealing with it. You didn’t choose your family and your date didn’t choose his or her family either — good, bad or indifferent. It is what it is. The point is to help your date navigate and deal with it.”
3. Set a time limit
And there are some tricks to dealing with a dysfunctional family visit. Limit the time of your visit, says Tessina, so your date doesn’t have to endure hours upon hours of your father’s booze-driven diatribes or your brother and sister-in-law’s constant bickering. “The first time a date meets your family should be rather short and sweet,” she says. “If you’re bringing someone home for Christmas, for example, set it up so you only stay for dinner or just come for dessert. Do something time-limited so your date doesn’t sit there with all these strange people for endless hours.”
If you’re visiting your relatives out-of-state, give yourself (and your date) an escape hatch. “You have to be a really socially solid person to handle staying in someone’s house,” says Tessina. “There’s no place for your date to get away, there’s too much new stuff.” Tessina advises staying someplace neutral — like a hotel or a friend’s house — and easing your date into the family fold.
“Bring your date over a couple of days before Christmas to help trim the tree,” she says. “Spend a couple of hours meeting the principals, then when they all converge Christmas Eve, there’s a little something established.”
4. Create a covert code
Developing secret signals can also be helpful as a way to navigate around potential rough spots. “Have a silent signal or two that you’ve agreed upon in advance,” says Tessina. “I’ll pinch my husband’s thumb surreptitiously to say, ‘Don’t go there’ or ‘Let’s leave now.’ Also, get an agreement in advance that if you change the subject, your date will go along with it.”
5. Anticipate flukes
Finally, try to remember that your family will sometimes surprise you with a bit of good behavior. “I warned my boyfriend that my mom and sisters were notorious bickerers when I brought him home for Christmas,” says Jeff, a 37-year-old operations researcher from Seattle. “I was prepared for the worst, because the only way they can communicate with each other is at the top of their lungs.”
Contrary to expectations, though, Jeff’s family was incredibly well-behaved for three full days. No fights, no screaming matches, nothing. “He thought I was nuts for characterizing them that way,” says Jeff. “Although after the second trip home, he was like, ‘Oh, I see what you mean.’”