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Meeting the parents

First-time meetings with a significant other’s family don’t have to be as intimidating as it seems

Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro in “Meet the Parents.” McClatchy-Tribune (File McClatchy-Tribune)
Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro in “Meet the Parents.” McClatchy-Tribune (File McClatchy-Tribune)
William Hageman I Chicago Tribune

There’s a scene in the film “Meet the Parents” in which Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), who has brought her boyfriend (Ben Stiller) home to introduce him to her family, asks the poor chump how things are going.

“Oh, great,” he tells her, “considering I desecrated your grandma’s remains, found out you were engaged and had your father ask me to milk him.”

Most first-time meetings with a significant other’s family aren’t nearly that much fun. What they often are is awkward and intimidating.

Set up the visit during the holidays, throw in a few festive cocktails, and never has a four-hour flight out of town looked so good.

But these first meetings need not be painful. It just takes a little planning.

“In most cases in my experience, families are pretty welcoming,” says psychologist Dale Atkins, author of “Sanity Savers: Tips for Women to Live a Balanced Life” (Avon, 2007).

“It’s not that they want to make it difficult; it’s just that they’re different. They’re different from your family.”

Family members might yell when they want to make a point, or they may have a messy house, behaviors you’re not used to.

Atkins says not to judge them or be critical. Remember: These people raised the person you love.

With that as a starting point, here are some other things to consider before that first visit.

Do your homework

When Serena Thomas was going to meet the family of boyfriend Dustin French, she asked him what to expect.

“He told me they were very friendly,” says the 25-year-old publicist from St. Louis. “He mentioned that he had a lot of aunts and they’d all be very chatty and wanting to get to know the new person.”

Not much to go on, but enough to get things off on the right foot. (“And an aunt bought me a beer, so that was good.”)

Any information you can glean beforehand helps.

“Find out as much as you can about the family,” Atkins advises. “Find out where they’re from, what they’re interested in. … Just try to get facts, get information, so you have a basis on which to have a conversation.”

Know what topics are safe and what aren’t. When French was going to meet Thomas’ family, for example, she suggested he rein in his sense of humor, which comes across as serious and escapes many people.

“And I was told not to use any swear words,” he adds.

Atkins says that it’s probably best to avoid lightning-rod topics around the dinner table. But, depending on the personalities involved, controversial subjects can be broached, resulting in a positive experience for both sides.

“You may be able to have some very interesting conversations, and it may be spirited,” she says. “But it always has to be respectful.”

And know ahead of time what is expected of you. Are you supposed to hang out with the relatives nonstop? Or will it be possible to slip away for some personal time – catching up on a little work, going for a walk, grabbing a nap, working out?

A break lets you regroup and will do everyone good. (It’s also an opportunity for you and your intended to gauge how things are going.)

Fitting in

Kristy Archuleta, an assistant professor at the Kansas State University School of Family Studies and Human Services, says the most important thing is to be yourself, and treat the meeting like a job interview.

“You need to be on your best behavior, use your best manners, show respect,” she says. “But part of a good job interview is being yourself.”

So, don’t say things just because you think that’s what people want to hear.

“You don’t want to pretend to be somebody that you’re not,” she says. “If you do end up making this person a lifetime partner, then you don’t want to be stuck with those things you said or did to fit in.

“If you’re a solid Republican and they’re Democrats and you said and did things to fit in politically, then you’re stuck being that way the rest of your life.”

A newcomer should be as kind and empathetic as possible.

“You’d like the people to like you, and you want to try to find something about them that you like,” Atkins says.

A little buttering up won’t hurt, but be sincere. Draw a connection between a mother’s good decorating taste and her child’s sense of style. Tell dad that his son has his smile. Also, parents note how you treat their kid.

“I find that (if) people are enamored of someone’s children, and they compliment that person in front of their parents, it’s really nice,” Atkins says.

Sidestep land mines

Don’t get sucked into family disputes. If mom and dad are squaring off and you get put on the spot with “Well, what do you think?” be diplomatic. Explain that you don’t have enough information to take a side, or say you’d rather not get involved.

And discuss with your beloved which topics you’re comfortable with and to what extent. Get your script straight and know how far to go. When Uncle Ernie starts asking about you setting a wedding date, give him an agreed-upon response.

What if there’s some hostility? You could be the second coming of Cary Grant and these people just won’t like you.

Worse, they’ll start comparing you with a previous beau.

“There’ll be people who say, ‘He’s a nice guy but he’s certainly not as nice as Joe was,’ or something like that,” Atkins says.

“There’s kind of this undercutting (that) you sense. It might not be with words but it’s with attitude or dismissiveness.”

She suggests getting away: taking walks, going to the movies, playing with the little kids in the family – anything that doesn’t require you to be sitting among the group, talking.

Ho ho ho

“The holidays can be a very stressful time anyway because of the busy-ness, trying to get from place to place, trying to make all the events, the cooking,” says Archuleta.

“But it’s often the time when families get together, and if there is tension there in the first place, adding someone else new to the picture might be stressful. It may not be the best time, depending on the family, to introduce somebody for the first time.”

Still, the holiday season presents an opportunity you might not get at other times.

Is there going to be a big dinner? Have your partner find out what you can do, whether it’s making an appetizer, baking cookies or setting the table.

Is there a tree to decorate? Volunteer.

“You’ve got to be on your best behavior,” Archuleta says. “Be helpful, be respectful.”

Of course, that assumes you and the family are like-minded. Atkins tells of a young man who wanted to help in the kitchen, but his girlfriend’s family was old-school; the men watched football and the women handled the meal.

The young man was uncomfortable with the setup, but it was important for him to defer to his hosts.

“He ended up in the living room watching the game while all the women were doing the dishes,” Atkins says. “His girlfriend was OK with it because she knows her family.

“But she did say, ‘This is not the way it’s going to be at our house’ – which, of course, he knew.”

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