The question of a significant other’s place within a family might be a fraught question at any point in the year. But welcoming someone into a family holiday celebration can mean bringing that person quite a long way—as Janning put it, “the more mobile we are, the more likely we are to meet people from far away and partner with them,” and a visit for an afternoon from a partner who lives across town “is a very different story from someone who stays overnight.” The latter scenario forces everyone involved to confront the (sometimes profoundly uncomfortable) question of whether the unmarried couple will sleep together or in separate bedrooms.
To some parents, unmarried adult children sharing bedrooms with their significant other is a nonissue, hardly rivaling, say, the controversy over canned or fresh cranberry sauce on the list of holiday stressors. But to other parents, it can be troubling—sometimes because of their own moral convictions, or because it may make other family members who are visiting uncomfortable. “Maybe you bring a partner home and you want to stay in the same bed because that’s what you do in your everyday life,” Janning said, but what your parents and grandparents think, and even maybe your parents’ perception of what your grandparents think, will all play a role in deciding whether that’s allowed.
Ultimately, many families treat the granting of privileges like holiday inclusion and bedroom sharing as an approval of the relationship. It’s kind of like when partners have a “define the relationship”—or “DTR”—conversation, Janning added, but this time it’s the entire family deciding whether to officially recognize it. “This is the DTR in the family, and a couple probably doesn’t want anybody else involved, but by virtue of [the couple] having to go to their house, they have to be involved,” she said. “That is not an easy situation for couples to be in—or for their parents, or other family members.”
Lundquist, the therapist in New York, agreed, and went on to say that people can find their own relationships with their relatives changed or even strained when they bring a partner home. “Bringing a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a new partner around, it’s a way that our families see us more clearly, in ways that they have perhaps been reluctant to see us when it’s just us. A parent might say to their daughter, ‘Okay, I get it. You date girls.’ But then it’s like, ‘Oh, this is your partner who you’re bringing to Grandma’s house with you? I guess you’re serious about the dating-girls thing.’ Or even, ‘Wow. You’re really assertive in your relationship with that person. We’re not used to thinking of you as assertive,’” he said. “It can be a referendum on how seriously your family is willing to take you.”
Feeling excluded by a partner’s family, Lundquist said, tends to cause wounded feelings in a relationship more than feeling over-included does—but every so often, partners do balk at the idea of being treated as part of the family.