Thanksgiving is a time for food, angry arguments about the television, and petrified new partners to be put under scrutiny from relations for the first time. It's an ideal time to introduce your new relationship to the family; less full-on cheery than Christmas, less time-intensive than an entire summer vacation. But it can still be full of pitfalls — if you don't play your cards right. You do not want to end up with a broken relationship, a throughly annoyed family, and/or a desire to sulk in the bathroom for the entire occasion like you did when you were 13.
Fortunately, there are common-sense ways to prevent this. A lot of them are based on decent communication, but you also have to think a little like Olivia Pope: you're giving a debrief on a potentially volatile, unknown situation, and they require information to help them survive it (and, horror of horrors, actually have fun). What do they need to know to avoid the land mines? The political squabbles? The being-cornered-by-a-protective-older-brother occasions? Hell, at least Christmas has gifts to distract everybody. All you've got to hide behind at Thanksgiving is a mountain of food.
Follow this guide, though, and the new partner you bring home for the holidays will escape unscathed. And if you do have a massive blow-up, try to keep it down; think arguments in the garden, not throwing cutlery at his or her head. Ready? Let's do this.
1. Prep Them On Family Gossip
Many an awkward moment can be avoided if you just give your dearly beloved a Sparknotes on the general family dynamic. Even if you think your nuclear family is perfectly serene (lucky you), dig deep to think of things that might appear as fault lines, or old history that shouldn't be raised. If two siblings have only recently started talking after years apart, or if somebody had a miscarriage or a medical problem, let them know so they don't end up red-faced. Any basic family tree (second wives, whose children are whose) should also contain a primer of emotional roots and painful spots.
2. Know What Their Expectations Are
Funnily enough, one of the things that can be left on the wayside when integrating a new member into your family's holidays is what they think is going to happen. It's not just about making sure the family doesn't hate them, or worrying that your entire clan looks like well-concealed lunatics; it's about giving them a holiday experience, too. If they're expecting a chill time, a full-on family fiesta, or something else, it's good to know what they think holidays actually are. That way you can avoid disappointment later on.
3. Integrate Them Into Rituals
You and your dad always go off to cook the stuffing? Your sisters always squabble over who peels the potatoes before developing a system? Rituals are one of the most comforting parts of any holiday season, but they can also be highly alienating to outsiders.
Don't feel torn: just get them involved. Assign them tasks, get them to pick out the DVDs or hold the knife when you carve the turkey. Just make sure they feel as if they're a part of the process, not an add-on that can be discarded.
4. Give Them Personal Space
Christmas at my in-laws' is one of the best parts of my year. (They do full-on Dickensian madness. There are multiple carol services.) But, particularly as a partner with an introverted streak, I need time on my own to recuperate from all the yo-ho-ho and fa-la-la family time. There are times when it's OK to leave your partner on their own, or with low-maintenance family members, to chill out; check in with them on how they're feeling socially and work out a schedule to help out.
5. Mention Taboo Topics Beforehand
This is not a Chevy Chase movie. You don't actually want somebody throwing the pumpkin pie at your face. Introducing a partner into the mix can tempt family members to test their "theories," restart old arguments, and generally have an excuse to rehash years-old debates. Not that many need much encouragement.
If there's a red-flag topic that will end in plate-throwing (abortion, mashed potato recipes, whatever), give your partner a heads-up, and tell them what arguments they should stay out of if they flare up.
6. Don't Be A Self-Absorbed Unit
Holiday smooches may seem like the best smooches, but it'll likely strike your family as highly antisocial if you're spending all your time together rather than trying to participate in the rest of the occasion. This, of course, depends on the family; some parents would much rather you just wandered off on your own together and came back for dinner. But be sensitive to feelings; you're probably going to have to do some compromising between everybody's needs, so try to balance your time well.
7. Encourage Them To Offer Help
It's basic good manners, but some people forget it. What bits of the process do your family genuinely want help with, where will they accept help, and where do they sincerely want you to get out of their way? Are they going to say "no, of course not" to an offer to assist and then bitch that nobody's helping them? Get this straight with your partner before charging them with peeling the carrots.
8. Make Dietary Restrictions Known Well Ahead Of Time
Rookie error: not telling anybody at home that a partner is vegetarian, vegan, allergic, has something that will interfere in the meal, or is generally not an omnivorous garbage truck. Similarly, if your family operates purely gluten-free or in some other fashion, let your partner know ahead of time. The earlier everybody knows, the easier it is to prepare your own side dishes, bring your own preparations, or whatever it takes to get everybody well-fed and happy. No stress on Thanksgiving trying to whip up an extra gravy.
9. Be Aware Of Regressing
It's very possible that you're one person with your partner, and another one entirely around your family. It's a fundamental element of group social dynamics, and the pull of old patterns of behavior can be pretty strong. This is fine in a lot of ways; there's no point pretending you're a super-hip Brooklynite when he's going to see the My Little Pony stuff on your childhood shelves.
Seeing a person's past and roots is a classic way of deepening a relationship. But if your family life is full of bad emotional habits, or you just revert to being an angsty teenager, be aware of it. Try to call on what you've learned since you moved out. Even if they're having the same argument about your fringe that they've been having since 1997, you don't have to say the same things in response. And your partner can be a reminder of who you are now.
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