Emily Postmodern: How To Behave When Meeting The Parents Of Someone You Maybe-Might Love

Under the best of circumstances, meeting your partner’s parents is stressful. At worst, it can feel like moderating peace negotiations in the Middle East. In a perfect world, we would all have great relationships with our parents. We’d have similar world views, they’d be comfortable with our sexual and gender identities, and they would embrace our choice of partner with open arms. Instead, meeting the parents of your intended — or your intended for the moment — can be fraught with awkwardness and anxiety. There’s no clear cut answer about when and how you should take this step. Thankfully, we’ve got some tips on how to approach it with grace and confidence.

Temper Your Expectations

Never expect to meet someone’s parents after dating for a certain length of time. There are so many factors at play here. Are the parents local? Do they have a close relationship? Will it involve a lot of advance planning and possibly a plane ticket to go visit them in some small town? Your partner might be ready to introduce you long before a convenient time arises. I’m very close to my mother and want all my friends to know her and how rad she is. From my perspective, it isn’t a big deal to introduce her to a romantic interest, but our close relationship — and her general awesomeness — can make her very intimidating!

Introducing a partner to a parent you aren’t very close to might feel like a big deal to you, but not as intimidating to your partner. If you aren’t as close to your parents, and are introducing them to your partner out of a sense of obligation, you probably aren’t as concerned with that they think of your special someone. That alone majorly decreases the pressure on your intended, making the situation a little easier for everyone.

Consider The Circumstance

Maybe you meet someone’s parents during their regularly scheduled family brunch. Maybe, after a few years of dating, you accompany them home for seasonal holidays or family events. Behavior that’s correct for one scenario might seem a little silly for another. Bringing flowers or a bottle of wine to a nice dinner at home is a brilliant and welcome touch. Bringing those same gifts to meet at a restaurant is not so much.

When visiting someone’s home — parents’ or not — it’s always good form to bring a gift or write a thoughtful note, as a way of expressing your gratitude for their generosity. Even if they’re easy-going and unconventional, they’ll be impressed with your thoughtfulness! It never hurts to be remembered as “the one with the manners.” If you know for certain the parents in question enjoy wine, that’s a great gift, but not so much if they’re sober. Ask your partner what their parents enjoy. You could also bring something that reflects the town you live in or the place you grew up in — a solid conversion-starter for a situation that often needs one.

Be A Good Houseguest And A Better Dining Buddy

If you’re staying in someone’s home, you should respect their rules and comfort levels. You might be 35 and four years into living with your partner, but if their mother puts you in the guest room when you visit, it isn’t worth fighting over — stick to a subtle eye roll when nobody’s looking. If it’s so important to you that you and your beloved sleep in the same bed, stay in a local hotel. I say take advantage of a bed to yourself and channel your inner starfish for the weekend.

If you’re meeting over a meal in a restaurant, never assume that someone else is going to pick up the check. Different families have different dynamics about this — and it can get awkward quickly. Bring cash with you so you can offer to leave the tip if your attempt to pay is rebuffed. This is also a useful tactic in case the parent in question suffers from the scourge that is Lousy Tipping Syndrome. If they do insist on picking up the check or have hosted you at home for a meal, don’t forget to write a thank you note! Those hundred words of gratitude can make a lasting impact.

Your partner has hopefully given you a primer on his or her parents, but if not don’t be afraid to ask for one. The intention is (probably) to be in these people’s lives for a long time, so you want to make a good impression.  However, you also want to be yourself— pretending you are someone you aren’t will only backfire.  You don’t want to feel like you are wearing a future-daughter-in-law costume, but maybe instead of wearing your “feminist as fuck” T-shirt  wear one a little more tactful that still represents your views.

Remember, you already have one thing in common with these people; their offspring. Play by the rules, and they’ll love you as much as their kids do.

Julianna Rose Dow is a thank-you note enthusiast working in higher-ed communications and marketing in NYC. She likes puns, telling people what to wear and baking with bourbon. Got a burning etiquette question? Drop her a line here.