When Does a Boyfriend or Girlfriend Become Part of the Family?

The social changes of the past few generations have made the question of when (or whether) to include a significant other in a holiday celebration a particularly fraught one—for everyone involved.

Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

It was October 2017, and Alyssa Lucido couldn’t tell who, exactly, was being unreasonable. Her boyfriend of two years, with whom she’d been sharing an apartment in southern Oregon for a few months, had abruptly informed her that he would be taking a multiple-week tropical vacation over Christmas with his parents and older brother. Not only would Lucido and her partner not be spending the holiday together in Oregon as she’d been hoping, but she was also not invited to go on vacation with his family. Her boyfriend seemed to feel bad, she told me, but didn’t feel comfortable requesting that she be invited along.

Lucido was bewildered, her feelings hurt. Her family didn’t usually take long or exotic trips as her boyfriend’s family did, “but to all little events—family dinners, camping—the invitation was always extended to my boyfriend,” she said. Were Lucido’s expectations too high? Was her boyfriend’s family being unwelcoming? Or was her boyfriend not fighting hard enough for her inclusion? When she sought advice on a Reddit message board, some respondents were sympathetic to her notion that, as a cohabiting girlfriend, she should be treated like part of the family and invited along. Several other respondents replied that in their own families, only spouses and soon-to-be spouses were included on family trips. (Lucido, now 21, and her boyfriend parted ways a short time afterward.)

It is a truism among therapists that relationship issues like these—norms around when a significant other will be welcomed into a family, or at what point partners will be expected to prioritize each other’s families alongside or ahead of their own—keep their offices bustling throughout the entire holiday season. Matt Lundquist, a therapist who treats couples and individuals out of his practice in New York City, told me these are common problems among his patients who are in their late 20s and early 30s. Advice columns and online message boards, too, fill up with synopses of similar family-versus-partner sagas during the months in which family celebrations and traditions dictate behaviors. (And even when it’s not “peak season,” so to speak, the San Diego–based marriage and family therapist Jennifer Chappell Marsh told me that about “one out of 10 or so couples” who seek counseling at her office “are trying to navigate the relational tension arising from family inclusion.”)

Underneath the angst, however, lies a uniquely modern phenomenon: Delayed marriage, as well as widespread acceptance of sex, cohabitation, and parenting outside of marriage, have all played a role in making the boundary between “part of the family” and “outsider” unclear. Add in the fact that older relatives, whose ideas of what’s acceptable might date back to an earlier era, often play gatekeeper at family functions, and the end product is a holiday-season headache for a lot of dating and engaged couples. But in many cases, the question of family inclusion is one that stands in for more substantial questions about commitment—and intrafamily dynamics.

The number of people getting worked up over the timing and magnitude of significant others’ family involvement is a testament to just how much finding a mate has changed over the past 100 years. Until the early 20th century, marriages were frequently facilitated or supervised by parents and relatives; in Western countries, for example, “courtship” involved potential husbands visiting the family homes of potential wives, while elsewhere arranged marriages remained the norm. Now that the majority of romantic partnerships in the Western world are formed independently by the participating pair, however, relationships between people’s partners and their families come about much later.

As dating has evolved over the past few generations, so has the process of integrating a significant other into a family. Marriage acted as a firm, dependable boundary between “outside the family” and “in the family” until about the mid-20th century, explains Michelle Janning, a sociology professor at Whitman College who studies family relationships. But because of the past half century’s rise in average age at first marriage, coincident with a societal lurch toward unmarried cohabitation and a rise in unmarried parents, just who is considered a permanent-enough partner to merit inclusion has become blurrier. “We have lost the very clear-cut boundary between ‘not partnered’ and ‘partnered,’” Janning told me. “Marriage is no longer the only institutional framework for people to form families and partnerships.”

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.

Especially during the holiday season, spending time with a partner’s family can be an unappealing prospect simply because it means less time with one’s own. And in that case, Lundquist added, it’s incumbent upon the person whose family is extending the invitation to politely decline on behalf of his or her partner: “Learning how to say, ‘Actually, my partner’s not available this time, but I can’t wait to see you guys in Florida next week,’ and to stand up to and tolerate your family of origin’s disappointment around that, is an important skill in adulting,” he said.

But Lundquist also noted that he would consider a partner’s resistance to attending family events a reason to closely examine the relationship itself. “The first rock I would want to look under as a therapist is, is that saying something problematic about the relationship? Because I think wanting to be included by somebody’s family is really nice,” he said. “The ‘What does it mean that I’m willing to go to Thanksgiving at your stepdad’s house but you’re not willing to do Christmas Eve at my mom’s?’ conversation? That’s mostly about the dynamic between partners.”

When a couple find that their respective families approach their relationship in markedly different ways, or on markedly different timelines, difficult situations and impasses can ensue. In extreme cases, a disagreement over family inclusion can be an opportunity to move on and make a mental note about what to look for in the next partner. After Alyssa Lucido and her boyfriend broke up, for example, her next relationship was with a man whose family flew her out to spend Christmas with them when they’d been dating less than a year, and invited her on vacation with them to New York. She loved “spending time with the family, getting to know them, creating meaningful relationships with them” from an early stage, she said. The juxtaposition of that relationship with the one before it, she told me, confirmed to her that early and frequent family inclusion was “something I value in relationships.”

But for many dating and engaged couples, mismatches in family tradition simply present a problem that needs solving, perhaps with help from a professional. Jennifer Chappell Marsh, the therapist in San Diego, often encourages couples to recognize that neither party is necessarily at fault.

“Let’s say there’s a continuum of comfort with closeness or intimacy, with total enmeshment on the left side and complete detachment on the right side,” she wrote to me in an email. “If you fall just a little to the left, preferring closeness, and your partner falls just a little to the right, valuing independence, then there’s an inherent tension between the level of closeness each person prefers.” In many of these scenarios, she added, “the person who wants closeness will feel insecure and wonder if their partner is really ‘all in.’ The person who prefers more distance will feel pressure and discouraged at their loss of independence, and a sense they cannot make their partner happy.” She encourages couples to speak clearly with each other about what they need to feel secure in the relationship.

Lundquist teaches a similar strategy for de-escalating tension over family inclusion. “The first step of the work is to see if we can transform some bitterness and hurt into curiosity,” he said. So instead of “Why am I not invited to your thing with your dad?” Lundquist often encourages partners to ask each other more open-ended questions: “How’s your relationship been with your dad lately?”

The therapists I spoke with stressed that in many of these cases, no one is truly in the wrong. When couples are angry at each other over the question of family inclusion, it’s often because certain underlying realities of one or both parties’ family lives haven’t been addressed explicitly. When one party feels excluded, Lundquist said, “it shouldn’t be automatically assumed that it’s because the other partner is an asshole.”