Behind Enemy Lines


The first time I met the parents of one of my girlfriends was my freshman year of college. I’d been dating this girl for a few months, and at the end of winter break, I swung by her house so we could head back to school together.

As I rang the doorbell, a surge of nerves rushed over me. What if her parents didn’t like me? What if I put my foot in my mouth? What if her father showed me his gun and knife collection?

Fortunately, none of the above happened. When her dad finally appeared, I looked him in the eye, gave him a firm handshake and told him how nice it was to meet him. And after a little bit of small talk, my girlfriend and I got in the car and drove away.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I thought to myself.

But last year, when my current girlfriend invited me to go home with her for the holidays, I knew it would take more than good manners to get through the trip unscathed.

While I had previously met her parents when they’d been in town visiting, this was a whole new ballgame. Venturing across the country, staying in their house, on their turf, I was going to be a continent away from my comfort zone. It was one thing to project a façade of normalcy over a two-hour dinner, as I’d done before…it was an entirely different challenge to maintain it for five straight days.

And there was a lot at stake for me. When you get into your late twenties and early thirties, relationships are no longer about football games and fraternity formals. There are playoff implications, and you only bring somebody home with you if there’s a chance for bigger and better things. This was an audition to see if I could fit into this family.

But as I boarded that westbound plane, I was terrified my fortunes would go the way of Gaylord Focker.

Fast-forward 12 months, and the holidays are approaching once again. And I’m sure there are guys out there now who share the same fears that I had then.

So ladies, if your significant other will be accompanying you on your travels this holiday season, here are some suggestions to help you help him navigate this tricky road home…

Knowledge is Power

From a young age, guys are taught that we’re supposed to know things; that we’re supposed to be educated and articulate and well-informed about the world around us. That expectation can weigh on us, and a lack of knowledge breeds a lack of confidence.

So as you look forward to your upcoming trip, think of yourself as a political operative who’s preparing her candidate – your significant other – for a successful campaign push. Give him a cheat-sheet version of what he’s walking into. Connect the branches of your family tree. Point out who he might bond with. Warn him of who he should avoid.

And if your relatives enjoy talking about, say, politics, and your boyfriend gets his news from ESPN (like I do), let him know beforehand, so he can DVR Sportscenter and brush up on some CNN.

These Four Walls

I spent some of the longest mornings of my life in the guest room of my girlfriend’s parents’ house. Worried of impolitely sleeping too late, I woke up earlier than usual, but I wasn’t about to get out of bed. I didn’t know who else was awake, and I wasn’t going to risk forcing someone besides my girlfriend to entertain me or chance using the wrong remote to turn on the TV. So I embraced my solitary confinement and waited for my girlfriend to parole me.

This type of staring-at-the-ceiling situation can be avoided, though, by giving your significant other a ballpark wakeup time. And if you promise that you’ll come get him up at the absolute appropriate hour, he’ll be able to rest in peace.

Cover Me

Men are a lot like children. We’re loud. We’re inappropriate. We struggle to do simple things for ourselves. We’re happiest just playing or watching some kind of game.

And if you take your eyes off of us, even for a split-second, we can get into serious trouble.

That’s why when we’re hanging out with your family, you have to be conscious of our whereabouts at all times. It may be a comfortable environment for you, but it’s a battlefield for us. We don’t know from which direction we’re going to get hit from next. Who’s going to rope us into an awkward conversation? Who’s going to grill us on our career? Who’s going to press us for an Estimated Time of Proposal?

It’s a war out there, and you are our biggest – and possibly only – ally. So it’s important that you always remember this immortal truth from the movie Top Gun:

You never, never leave your wingman.

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Comedian Chris Rock once said that a father’s number one job in raising a daughter is to keep her off the stripper pole. If he can’t do that, then he has failed as a dad, and he is deservingly sentenced to a lifetime of revolting visual images gyrating through his head.

And few things are more disturbing to a man than the thought of a female relative engaging in any type of provocative or amorous activity. Want to make your boyfriend’s stomach turn? Suggest that his mother did NOT give him life through Immaculate Conception.

With that in mind, limit the public displays of affection around your family. It’s not what your father (or brother or uncle or grandfather) want to see, and because of that, those exhibitions make us uncomfortable.

So kissing is completely out of the question. Holding hands should probably be avoided. Even putting your head on our shoulder is pushing it.

If you really want to show you care, shake our hand and sit on the other couch.

Always Be Closing

When searching for a job, people typically focus on the interview – the one time you can state your case with the decision-makers right there in front of you. But there’s another part of the process that too often gets overlooked that can help seal the deal:

The follow up.

It’s your chance to convey what you took away from the meeting, to reiterate your message, to show just how much you want to continue the relationship.

This same opportunity will present itself once the holidays are over. During my visit last year, my girlfriend’s father and I discussed a particular book over dinner one night. So when I got home, I sent him a copy. It was a small gesture that not only expressed my gratitude, but also demonstrated that I had actually paid attention to our conversations.

So before your significant other spends all of his money on first-impression flowers, suggest that he save a few bucks for later. Getting off on the right foot is important, but a thoughtful thank-you gift might keep the bloom on his rose a little while longer.

And who knows…it might even get him invited back next year.

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