Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

When It's Time to "Meet the Family"

Meeting your partner's family can be anxiety-producing... and for good reason.

For many couples, this holiday season will mark an important relationship milestone.  People will get engaged, go on first dates, celebrate weddings or anniversaries, decide to break-up, decide to re-commit. Of the many noteworthy events that create a relationship history, one stands out as particularly likely during the holidays. New couples get ready because you’re about to meet the family.

People worry about meeting their significant others’ families, and, well, they probably should.  A first impression, after all, is a lasting impression, potentially shaping the quality of future interactions (Rabin & Schrag, 1999). For example, in the first few moments of your introduction, if your future in-laws laugh and think you have a good sense of humor, they may very well think you have good sense of humor for years and years to come, interpreting even somewhat lackluster remarks as more evidence that you are indeed witty, funny, or clever. This is all happening, by the way, regardless of whether you really do have a good sense of humor (or not). Substitute the belief that you have a good sense of humor with the idea that you are forgetful, snobby, overly-sensitive, or judgmental and you can see the problem of a sticky first impression. Your best bet? Make sure your significant other has primed his or her parents with hints of your many admirable traits. This will help lay the groundwork for a positive impression.

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If you aren’t feeling nervous yet, consider this: How favorably your girlfriend or boyfriend’s family evaluates you (and they are evaluating you!) matters not only for the ease of future family get-togethers, but also for the well-being of your own relationship.  While in some cultures parents are expected to play an active, even deterministic role in the selection of their children’s romantic partners (Buunk, Park, & Duncan, 2010), in modern mainstream America, the idea that parents affect the quality of a romantic relationship may seem strange at first (“Isn’t our relationship just about us?”). Evidence suggests, however, that even when partners choose each other, romantic relationships exist within an elaborate social system (Berschied, 1999), and different forces within this system can help (or hurt!) relationship success. 

Does this means that Great Aunt Linda’s impression of your new crush may actually affect the trajectory of your relationship? Maybe. It depends on how close and important she is to you or your partner. Generally speaking, when your parents gush about the new person you’re dating, that’s good for the health and stability of your relationship. Your own parents’ approval of your partner tends to predict how much love, satisfaction, and commitment you feel in your relationship, and your partner’s parents’ approval of you does the same for your partner (Sprecher & Felmlee, 1992).  Over time, fluctuations in relationship support from family (and friends) tend to correspond with changes in the level of love, satisfaction, and commitment within your own relationship. Perhaps having family and friends validate and encourage your relationship helps your relationship, and when their subtle (or overt) approval wanes, perhaps your uncertainty increases. People sometimes actively try to influence your relationship, behaving in ways consistent with how much they approval of your relationship (Sprecher, 2011). So the people who like your partner and your relationship are finding ways to support it, while those who don’t might be looking for ways to infer. Since your significant other’s social network is exerting their influence also, best to make a good first impression when you’re introduced to the relatives.

If the prospect of meeting your partner’s family now seems incredibly intimidating, take comfort in the idea that a “meet the parents” event is, in and of itself, a good sign for your relationship.  Both men and women introduce their dating partners to parents when they are ready to gain their parent’s approval and want to signal to their partner that they are serious about the relationship (Fisher & Salmon, 2013). The real concern seems to be if your partner does not want you to meet his or her parents. The top reasons behind hiding a partner from parents include fearing that parents will disapprove and not wanting to be serious with the partner.

                                                                                                                 

Berscheid, E. (1999). The greening of relationship science. American Psychologist, 54(4), 260-266.

Buunk, A. P., Park, J. H., & Duncan, L. A. (2010). Cultural variation in parental influence on mate choice. Cross-Cultural Research, 44(1), 23-40.

Fisher, M. L., & Salmon, C. (2013). Mom, dad, meet my mate: An evolutionary perspective on the introduction of parents and mates. Journal of Family Studies, 1649-1671.

Rabin, M., & Schrag, J. L. (1999). First impressions matter: A model of confirmatory bias. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114(1), 37-82.

Sprecher, S. (2011). The influence of social networks on romantic relationships: Through the lens of the social network. Personal Relationships, 18(4), 630-644.

Sprecher, S., & Felmlee, D. (1992). The influence of parents and friends on the quality and stability of romantic relationships: A three-wave longitudinal investigation. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 888-900.

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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