You’ve been invited to dinner with your romantic partner’s family. Congratulations! That’s a big step in your relationship, a true victory for you both. But be warned: dinner conversation can be an emotional minefield. One wrong step and BOOM! You find yourself on the hot seat, sweating as you try to explain your ill-placed, misinterpreted or unwelcome remark.
Your Partner’s Family and You
Look at it this way: you may love your partner, spend hours alone together, engage in effortless conversation, cover most topics with ease, but when it comes to someone else’s family, you’re an outsider. They share history, language — even DNA. All this bolsters your newcomer status, leaving you vulnerable and exposed. (In my book, WHEN KIDS CALL THE SHOTS, you'll find more helpful tips for navigating dinners with family.)
No matter what their age, adults tend to slip into their childhood roles when their family gets together for the holidays. In other words, everyone regresses and starts to think with their child-mind. Depending on the nature of your childhood, these throwbacks can be light-hearted fun or a bullet train to Crazy Town. Before taking a stand or stating an opinion, the phrase “Proceed with Caution” should flash in neon lights throughout dinner conversation.
Remember, you’re not privy to family secrets, old grudges, and taboo events that can trigger intense emotional reactions. If you act on the impulse to speak out or defend your position, chances are that you’ll regret it later. If things heat up, take a walk and get some fresh air.
Each family is different. So before you blow extra cash on preemptive therapy sessions, here are ten suggestions to make your visit a successful one. There are obvious topics to avoid, such as politics or pantsuits. Steering clear of these subjects is smart, but knowing what to discuss and how to interact is even more important.
TEN TIPS TO A SUCCESSFUL DINNER
1. Don’t Come Empty-Handed
Call ahead: find out what to bring. A small toy for the kids or flowers paves the way for a smooth and generous entry.
2. Be Well-Rested
Showing up to a dinner gathering sleep deprived or exhausted is a big mistake. Think of family gatherings as preparing for a marathon: you want to be in shape.
3. Lay Off the Booze
4. Have an Escape Plan
Before you arrive, make a plan with your partner. Have a strategy that includes emergency exits, secret calls for help, time-outs. Check in with each other throughout the visit, stay united, and be supportive.
5. Help Out
You’ll score more points doing dishes or clearing a table than trying to impress your in-laws with your knowledge of Wikipedia. Always, always, always help out.
6. Take a Break
Slip away for some fresh air. For longer stays, make sure you exercise or go for a run. It will help your mood, clear your head, and keep you on your toes. As an added bonus, you’ll burn off those extra holiday calories.
7. Avoid Hot Topics
Topics like politics or religion are great for talk shows, but terrible for family dinners. Do not allow yourself to get pulled into those conversations: change the subject to lighter fare.
8. Think Time-Limited
For goodness sake, don’t stay too long! If you do, plan lots of activities, and keep busy. Enough said.
9. Don’t Play Therapist
Dinners are not the time to try to resolve ancient family conflicts. Keep it light: don’t be dragged into family history or unresolved skirmishes from your partner’s past.
10. Skip the Advice
Solicited or unsolicited advice will always backfire. In general, listen more than you talk. People love good listeners and will feel relaxed in your presence.
Stay in the Your Lane
The best advice I can give you? Determine to enjoy yourself no matter what. Find a way to have a good time. Don’t be pulled into emotionally charged conversations or join in the the political blame-game. It may feel satisfying but it’s empty calories at best. Keep your sense of humor, appreciate your partner, and count your blessings. With that spirit, no matter where you are, your night out will be well worth celebrating.
*Copyright Sean Grover