Oh, if there were ever a litmus test for whether a new relationship has staying power or not, it comes in the form of Thanksgiving dinner. It takes all the stresses of a vacation, a heated political debate, and holiday traffic, and throws in meddling aunties who like to point out that there haven’t been any babies around in a few years. It’s crowded, it’s loud, it’s warm and stuffy, it never caters to everyone’s dietary needs, and it’s almost impossible to go an hour without waking the beast of differing political opinions.
So how do you armor your fledgling and beautiful relationship so that the only carnage at the end of the meal is a bird carcass? Let’s talk through some dos and don’ts.
DO: Prep your date on the guest list.
More often than not, people like walking into a situation like Thanksgiving dinner with a little background info. Give them the rundown on the guest list—things like how many people will be there, who you especially think they’ll get along with, and roughly how the day will go. If the invite says dinner will be at 2:00, but you know your family well enough to know that you won’t be sitting down to eat until 5:00, point that out too, and maybe pack some car snacks for the drive there.
DON’T: Micromanage your date’s behavior.
Giving your partner a heads-up about sensitive subjects is totally fine; no one wants to ask the wrong question or trigger a weird cousin. But don’t take it too far. If you’re telling them not to do that thing where they make sound effects while they butter their rolls and begging them to take their piercings out, you’re keeping your family from getting to know the person you love. If you want the relationship to last, your family is going to have to get to know your partner (and the two of you as a couple) eventually. Trust that your significant other can navigate the social aspect well enough on their own.
DO: Ask ahead about anything you can help with.
If your parents are hosting and you’re going to be expected to dive in and get to work too, ask what kinds of things need to be done and what your partner can pitch in with. There is nothing more agonizing than being the “extra” and either being unsure about where to step in and offer help, or because you’re a guest, being forbidden from lifting a finger while everyone else pitches in. It’s awkward, and it feels like a test you’re failing. Letting your mom know that your girlfriend enjoys cooking, or that your boyfriend is an expert napkin folder will help your significant other feel included and give them a chance to converse with your family over a shared task.
DON’T: Abandon your date.
Slipping away to help haul in some firewood? Totally cool. Slipping away to play a two-hour game of flag football in the back yard? NOT cool. Leaving your date with a room full of people they don’t know can be agonizing, especially when they’re not comfortable enough to feel at home. Skip the ball game, or if you really want to play, ask your partner to join in, or at least make them a mug of cocoa and ask them to cheer you on for a little bit.
DO: Have a hard-out.
If you’re bringing a new boyfriend or girlfriend over for Thanksgiving for the first time, and this is the first time meeting your extended family, plan a time-frame that allows you to leave earlier than you would if you were flying solo. Excuses are easy—You both want to make sure you have time to visit her grandma, he has to get on the road because it’s a long drive home, etc. If things go great, you can always linger longer. If things go not-so-well, it’s a kindness to the person who may not be used to Uncle Bob’s bad jokes that you don’t sign them up for a long weekend of them.
This list should be a pretty good start for cushioning the blow Thanksgiving dinner can have on a new relationship. I can’t guarantee your date won’t embarrass themselves by spilling wine all over their possible mother-in-law’s new tablecloth, but hopefully by then you’ve told your mom they’re clumsy, and you’ve told your date that your mom gets all her tablecloths on clearance at TJ Maxx anyway. Either way, the best way to ensure that things go smoothly is to remember that your date is in alien territory, and do your best to make them comfortable. The fact that they showed up to spend time with your family for a major holiday speaks volumes toward their effort to get to know you better, and that alone is a pretty great sign.