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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Meeting the Parents

Quick Access:
Questions and Answers About Meeting the Parents

This set of questions comes from a recent interview I did for a student majoring in journalism at Drake University. The student journalist was interested in an issue that’s common for many college students. Actually, it’s an issue of relevance to anyone seeking an enduring relationship – the issue of meeting the parents. The questions were clearly skewed from the perspective of the boyfriend meeting the girlfriend’s parents. I understand this perspective all too well! I’d love to hear from the ladies out there who have funny or informative stories about their first meeting with a partner’s parents. Send me your stories now for inclusion in a later article.


Is there a proper time frame in the relationship to meet her parents? Is it ever too early or too late?

The secret to relationships is managing expectations. With that in mind, there’s definitely a proper time to meet her parents. It boils down to understanding what it means to her when this step is taken, and that’ll only be known when the couple talks ahead of time about what expectations follow from meeting the parents. For example, meeting the parents may imply to a man that the relationship is taking a serious step; that it signals a new level of commitment. However, to the woman, it may be a trivial event with no special expectations for the relationship. Thus, any fears the guy had would be grounded in his mind, rather than hers. The couple should understand what it means to them both when they decide to meet each other’s parents. The time is right when they both have the same expectations. Therefore, it really can never be too early or late. It needs be when the time is right for them personally.

What should a guy wear? What kind of body language should he exhibit?

Make no mistake here… parents – and especially fathers – regard their daughters as princesses. They want to know the boyfriend does too. You might feel more comfortable and “yourself” in a tattered tee shirt and well worn jeans, but it’s better to take the occasion more seriously than that. After all, you wouldn’t wear that outfit to face a judge in court, so don’t wear it when you face the judges at the family get together. Dress well and appropriate to the particular event where you meet the parents, for example a holiday dinner in winter versus a summer family picnic. Parents want to see that you can offer their princess economic security and emotional security. Be conservative and don’t exhibit body language that can be construed as defensive or possessive:

  1. Poor eye contact
  2. Short answers to questions or not talking at all
  3. Tightness, e.g., crossed arms all the time
  4. Constantly clinging to the girlfriend like a security blanket or someone with a lustful attitude

Rather, one should convey these types of body signals:

  1. Good eye contact
  2. Smile and let them know you are enjoying the experience
  3. Openness to questions
  4. Asking questions of others and showing genuine interest in learning about the family
  5. Reserved physicality toward to the girlfriend, e.g., just hold hands and no major kissing

Some say chivalry is dead. How much importance do her parents put on doing the little things like opening the door for your girlfriend, pulling her chair out for her, etc.?

It matters, and it matters big. Again, parents want to see that a boyfriend treats her the way the parents envision her – as the most special person in the world. However, don’t go overboard and act like a starry-eyed puppy following aimlessly along with the daughter’s every movement. Simply show respect to the daughter in what you say and do around her.

What types of topics should you talk to her parents about? How does a guy work to break that ice?

The best way to break the ice is to a two-prong approach. First, bring a gift (what I call a “peace offering”) to the get together that everyone will enjoy. Have your girlfriend tell you what this should be – such as a particular bottle of wine, some flowers or photographs of you two that the parents can show their friends. Bringing a personalized gift does several important things – it implicitly tells the parents (and the wider family) that you are not selfish, that you and your girlfriend have taken time to talk about her family and their preferences and it helps diffuse attention away from you and puts it back on the family. It also gives you something to talk about from the start – which is often the most awkward moment. The next tactic is to ask her parents and the family good open-ended questions. Again, this diverts attention away from you – which will help you feel less self-conscious and it shows the parents an appreciation and interest in her family.

Meeting her parents can be about walking a fine line. How does a guy stride that line between confidence and arrogance or politeness vs. desperation to gain her parent’s approval?

The boyfriend should show respect towards the parents, but not cower in their presence. Remember that the parents are also apprehensive as well. This is not a job interview – you have the girlfriend so already have the job so to speak. This should be an opportunity for the boyfriend to get to know her parents and allow them to get to know you. It’s a sharing experience, as opposed to an audition. With that mindset, don’t think of it as “gaining the parent’s approval.” The only approval you truly need is the approval of the girlfriend.

What are some of the most common and worse mistakes a guy will make when meeting her parents? How does he atone for his wrong-doings (if at all)?

The biggest mistakes in my view are:

  1. The boyfriend doesn’t do his homework ahead of time to understand what this step means to the girlfriend and her family. He may assume it’s a major event, when it’s not. People make bad mistakes when they assume things versus getting the facts.
  2. The boyfriend doesn’t convey respect to the family by abiding by the family’s household rules.  If they expect guests to remove their shoes, then take your shoes off even though you may not do this yourself at home.
  3. The boyfriend shows too much physical affection to the daughter. Couples being overly “into each other” is awkward for everyone who has to watch, even more so for the parents!
  4. The boyfriend doesn’t engage the family by staying too close to the daughter at all times or by constantly referring to inside jokes between the boyfriend and girlfriend. The boyfriend should not act in excusive ways like this, but rather strive to be inclusive of everyone at the get together.
  5. The boyfriend doesn’t exhibit pride for himself. Your job, background or future plans may not be what the parents envisioned for their princess, but most people respond well to someone with a strong self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

In summary, keep these important tips in mind:

  1. Have your girlfriend educate you on what to expect and the personalities of those attending. This allows you to prepare and not be caught off guard.
  2. You and your girlfriend agree ahead of time on two different but subtle signals that will notify her when you need her (i) to intervene or join an awkward conversation to take heat off you and (ii) when you need her to take a break with you from the family or to indicate when you want to leave.
  3. Finally, the boyfriend is a guest in the parent’s home. Strive to be as flexible and accommodating as possible. Remember that this experience is also for the girlfriend, so do what you can to make her comfortable and proud of you.

Related Links:
» Meeting the Parents Cartoon
» Top 10 Things Not to Say When Meeting the Parents

> - The best approach to find the one. <

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