On the banks of the Amazon River, where I recently visited, it’s hard to know that Christmas is coming. The weather remains a temperate 80 degrees every day of the year. The residents who put up Christmas decorations leave them up all year round. The chickens in the yard are often tethered to a tree that wears its ornaments. Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall. Without a calendar and without the media, December 25th could come and go and many would never know the day is fraught with meaning.
In America, however, the holidays are days that demand exceptional treatment. On these exceptional days we generally try to spend them with exceptional people, doing exceptional things. On Thanksgiving, for example, we feast like we do on no other day of the year. On Christmas, we give presents unlike those we give on any other day of the year.
Likewise, we are more concerned about whom we spend these exceptional days with. Divorced parents fight legal battles over who “gets the kids” on the holidays. Adult children may travel great distances to make certain they are with the right people on the holidays. Individuals with no family to join on the holidays frequently dread the date on the calendar.
Because we associate exceptional days with exceptional company, it seldom goes unnoticed when somebody new joins our holiday gathering.
Hilarious movies depict daughters bringing a boyfriend home for the holidays. The prospect of meeting the newcomer prompts speculation and gossip well in advance of his arrival. Families go to great lengths to impress the anticipated guest. Everybody seems eager to meet and size-up this stranger their daughter is bringing home.
Meet the Parents
When a newcomer joins a family gathering the old-timers generally assume there’s a pretty good reason. It is practically impossible for a son or daughter to invite somebody to a significant family gathering and pretend the guest is not significant. If a young lady brings a boy home for Christmas and insists he is “just a friend that didn’t have anyplace else to go for the holidays,” the guest had better spend as much time playing video games with her brothers as he does sitting with her in front of the fireplace or everyone will see right through that story.
The fact is, when somebody new joins a significant family gathering, it is hard not to wonder if they won’t soon become part of the family. Is Sister serious with this guy? Will he give her a ring for Christmas? Will there be wedding bells in the Spring?
Girls often bring their boyfriends home to meet the family when the relationship becomes serious enough that she wants her family’s approval. The same proves true for a boy who brings his girlfriend home to meet the family. As the relationship progresses the girl wants to make sure her family likes the boyfriend, as much as the boyfriend wants to make sure he likes the family. If they are going to join lives and become part of the same family, everybody prays for compatibility.
Introducing a Significant Other to the family can prove exceedingly wise in making big relationship decisions. Research has shown that some of the best judges of whether or not a couple will succeed in a marriage are the existing family members. Because we love our family members we want the very best for them, and we definitely want them to marry a person that will make them happy.
Sending an Unintentional Message
Because a non-family member showing up at a family event implies so much about the relationship that prompted the invitation, parents and children alike will want to be extremely careful about whom they invite to what.
Sometimes Mom and Dad become too eager to meet the Significant Others their children are dating. Mom might insist that her daughter bring her boyfriend home for the holidays, because Mom is ready to meet him. Mom wants to make certain this boy is good enough for her daughter. Mom believes that the sooner she can meet the boy, the sooner she can prevent a disaster, or propel a commitment (depending on how well she likes the young man).
Because of her own anxiety about her children’s choices, a concerned Mom might persuade her children to bring a boyfriend home for the holidays when the relationship truly hasn’t progressed to the point where it is appropriate to meet the parents. Because the relationship is still in its nascent stage, meeting the parents might actually affect the relationship adversely.
Parents who are eager for their son or daughter to settle down might put pressure on their child by inviting the Significant Other to the family gathering. The pressure they apply to the relationship could lead to a premature commitment, which may not be appropriate if the couple has not truly determined their compatibility. Relationships that progress too fast may not have the foundation necessary to endure the load they will eventually bear.
When I work with couples, I give them the same advice I learned as a scuba diver, “Don’t ascend any faster than your bubbles.” In other words, take the relationship slow, spend some time at each level, look for signs of compatibility, and don’t progress until the pressure has had a chance to equalize.
Conversely, parents who instigate a holiday invitation and then decide they disapprove of the relationship may also find their interference backfires. Perhaps it could have been a good relationship if given time. Or perhaps the young lovers will turn the relationship into something it’s not just to prove they have their agency.
An adult child who is pursuing a relationship with a significant other is usually the best one to determine if an invitation to a holiday event is or is not timely. Your own children will know when it’s time to bring their significant other home to meet the parents. When they take this brave step, they are indicating they are ready for some input from those they love and trust. Most parents know that the answer to the question, “When do we tell our children about the birds and the bees?” is, “When they ask.” Likewise, the right time to give our opinion about an adult child’s relationship is, “When they ask.”
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Jacksonville, Florida and the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance available at www.amazon.com