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Family and relationships: It's a potent combination at any time of year. But during the holidays -- when expectations are high, history runs deep, and people who live happily apart all year are suddenly thrown together for hours or even days -- tensions can really skyrocket. Whether or not you've already met your significant other's family, becoming part of their holiday traditions is new -- and potentially volatile -- territory. But with a little preparation, you can easily get through it â€¦ and maybe even win some coveted brownie points. Herewith, our survival tips for dealing with this most precarious time of year.
Tip No. 1: Talk to your girlfriend in advance.
Sari Eckler Cooper, a psychotherapist and sex therapist, recommends you get your ducks in a row well before the visit. Ask your girlfriend which family members you're likely to connect with, who you might want to keep a distance from, and what topics are off limits (like that estranged uncle in Chile). Discuss family traditions in order to avoid major surprises, and plan tactics for impressing her relatives. If they're into singing carols, for instance, learn the tune to at least one -- and don't be shy about humming it.
Tip No. 2: Arm yourself with gifts.
Don't neglect to bring a thoughtful host gift. As soon as you step in the door, give your host or hostess an ornament, holiday cookies or flowers to set a positive tone from the outset. Whether you bring additional presents has everything to do with what her family does on the holidays (which, again, means talking to your girlfriend). Is there a major gift-opening ritual? If so, are all her relatives bringing you a little something? Or is it just her parents, who've got a more substantial present in the works? Your girlfriend can let you know what level of gifts to expect, and from whom, without ruining the surprise. Then prepare to come bearing the same level of gifts in exchange.
Tip No. 3: "Jingle" rhymes with "mingle."
The most crucial part, of course, is the gathering itself. Even if you've gotten the total scoop from your girlfriend and have hunted down the perfect presents, it's normal to be a little nervous. But don't let your anxiety get the best of you. "A lot of guys freak out when they go to these family gatherings and glue themselves to the girlfriend because it's comfortable," says Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of The Art of Charm, a company that teaches men social skills. "But it's only comfortable for you." No one's going to hurt you; it's a family gathering, after all. And she'll probably find it annoying if she has to babysit you. As Harbinger puts it: "How would you feel if she followed you around during your family party and wouldn't talk to any of your relatives? You'd be embarrassed."
The easiest people to mingle with are the oldest and youngest relatives, says Cooper. "Children tend to be the most open to visitors and to having fun," she explains, "and the adults will appreciate getting a break from them." The elderly family members might not have the energy to run around in the yard with you, but they sure can talk a blue streak. "Try asking how they celebrated the holidays as a child or what their favorite holiday was," recommends Cooper.
Tip No. 4: Lend a helping hand.
It is that do-good time of year, right? Aside from talking, a great way to interact is to help out with chores. It's a sign to her relatives that they don't have to treat you like a guest, and you'll fit in with the family all the more easily. If you offer to give a hand in the kitchen and get turned down, suggest a quick run to the store to grab the buttermilk they forgot to buy. Or ask Mama G to show you how she makes her cookies so chewy. Whether she tells you or prefers to keep it her little secret, chances are she'll have a soft spot for you forever.