Meeting the parents. It’s an awkward, uncomfortable rite of passage; the stuff romantic comedies are made of—though decidedly less funny when it’s happening to you. Bringing home a serious romantic interest for the holidays is stressful enough for heterosexual couples, but it’s the apex of anxiety for many LGBTQ couples, especially those with Christian families. We should know: We went through it ourselves.
Constantino came home to Southern California with David last year to spend Christmas with David’s family. We had only been engaged about seven weeks, and although David’s family had met Constantino before, it was the first time we would see them in person after sharing the news. Members in David’s family held varying opinions about the engagement, and some were struggling to be be supportive. It promised to be a challenging week, but we all got through it with work, love, and grace.
It’s nice not being alone on Christmas, but it’s no cake walk integrating your romantic and familial worlds. If this is your first holiday bringing home someone special, here are some tips that got us through ours.
Respect boundaries (yours and theirs)
One rule made clear to us before we arrived at David’s parents’ house was that we would have to sleep in separate rooms. That was fine with us, mostly because we prefer sleeping in our own beds, and also because we were saving sex until marriage. But even if we had wanted to sleep in the same bed, we agreed that we would obey any reasonable house rules. It was a simple boundary we were willing to respect. We wanted David’s family to be comfortable, and we were willing to compromise to make that happen.
On the other hand, boundaries can also be used to insult and degrade. For example, we have one friend whose mother won’t let his same-sex partner sleep in their home (a standard to which her straight children presumably would not be held). This is a disrespectful boundary that uses hospitality as a weapon and demeans the relationship by suggesting that hosting a child’s partner is somehow being complicit in their “sin.” While it’s important to compromise, it’s also important to establish your own boundaries in advance and hold firm to them when a family member disrespects your relationship.
Focus on commonalities
If you’re visiting a family that is not completely affirming, there’s bound to be tension in the air. Rather than focusing on the things you disagree about, consider engaging in things you have in common. What you want is to build relationship, right? Work to get to know your partner’s family; or if it’s your family, work to build bridges of commonality between your partner and your family. You want your family to get to know and enjoy your partner as a person, not as an issue or as an object of sin. It’s harder to object to someone we like.
Although David’s family had met Constantino a number of times, Constantino had never spent one-on-one time with either of his parents. While we were talking with David’s father last Christmas, David made the (cruel but important) choice to leave the room for a while. It gave Constantino some time to talk with David’s father, and they discovered that Constantino’s brother’s Arab in-laws had similar experiences to David’s father, who grew up in the Middle East. It was a nice connection they might not have otherwise made.
If it feels safe, have “the talk”
It’s all well and good if you can get along at a superficial level during a visit home, but it’s most healthy if a family can address any hurt, discomfort, and disagreement that arises from your relationship. If you and your partner are newly married, engaged, or heading in that direction, it’s important to talk about how the other person will become a permanent fixture in the family and what that will look like for the future. What are people’s expectations? What are their fears?
Throughout our week-long visit, we postponed the topic of our wedding and engagement as long as we could. Perhaps it was because everyone was getting along great, and we didn’t want to disrupt the pleasantness of the holiday. The night before we would fly back home, we knew we had to broach the subject. It would likely be the last time we saw David’s family before the wedding. And so after we had eaten dinner and played a game, when everyone was relaxed, we broached the subject of our future together and what that would look like. It was an uncomfortable conversation, especially because we didn’t know where everyone stood. They were all polite and kind to Constantino, but could they welcome him into the family? It was important to us to set these expectations and agreements with family before we were married.Of course, not every family is willing to have these talks, or has the emotional capacity to do so. Some family members may shut down; others may respond with hostility. Every situation has to be assessed individually. But for us, it was safe to speak frankly in an effort to set the foundation for good relationship. We can’t control the response of others, but we can control our intentionality.
Extend (lots and lots of) grace
When we talked about our upcoming wedding during Christmas last year, not all family members were sure they felt comfortable going. It’s a painful realization, knowing that a family member may be unwilling to support you on your most important day. There were religious objections, but also cultural concerns as well. Some just couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of two men marrying.
It would have been easy to lash out in anger; it may have even been justified. But we saw how this family member’s internal conflict came from a place of concern and fear, not out of hate, and we wanted to honor this person and meet them where they were. We assured them that no one should attend our wedding against their conscience. And although we expressed sadness if anyone chose not to come, it was important to lovingly convey that we would never hold it against them. This allowed them to process their feelings freely, and not only did they end up coming to the wedding, they played a key role.
It can be hard to know where the line is between extending grace and suffering maltreatment. That comes, we think, from the heart of a person. Family members who cannot treat you or your partner civilly do not deserve to have your company.
Every family is different. Some parents will never allow an LGBTQ partner to step foot under their roof; others will exuberantly welcome their child’s partner without a second thought. Fortunately for us, David has a family that chooses to love first and work out disagreements after. It’s that approach we try to take to all of our relationships, especially the difficult ones. When you love each other first, it makes the details so much easier to work out.
This year, we’re looking forward to spending our first Christmas together as a married couple, and our first one with Constantino as an official member of the family. And yeah, when we fly down to California to visit, we will be sleeping in separate rooms again—not because we’ve been asked to do so, but because (have we mentioned?) we really hate having to share a bed.
Image adapted from a photo by June Marie, used through Flickr Creative Commons.