Like many Canadians, I look forward to heading to cottage country during our short summer months. Summer just doesn’t feel like summer until we’ve done belly flops off a dock or burnt our tongues from charred marshmallows roasted over an open pit. Cottage time is a chance to unplug our devices and find our inner child.
But what about visiting a new partner’s family cottage for the first time, with their mom and/or dad and possibly extended family there? Being miles from civilization, bunked up in close quarters, and having to navigate family landmines you didn’t bury can put even the strongest relationships to the test.
Here are three ways to make sure you don’t get fed to the bears — either by your partner or their parents.
Cottage living requires work. There is always something in need of an emergency repair whether it’s pulling a rusty nail from the dock or clearing the path of roots waiting to be tripped on. Plus, people need to eat and Pizza Pizza doesn’t deliver off the grid. Think of your cottage time as communal living, sort of like on a kibbutz. It may be fine to be a “guest” at your partner’s parents’ place in the city, but not here.
Keep your eyes open for ways to help. If the “mom” is planting a garden, pick up a shovel. If the “dad” is bailing water from the canoe, pick up a pail. Besides being helpful, you will get to know your partner’s parents in an organic way working side-by-side. Shared activities naturally create conversation and connection.
Another great way to pitch in, and endear yourself to your partner’s parents, is to plan ahead to make the weekend as stress-free as possible. For example, why not offer to shop for a meal or two. One always underestimates the amount of food people eat at a cottage (it’s that country air) so if they say “Just bring yourself,” bring “extras” anyway like fruit, wine or dessert.
Do you want to go the extra mile? My older son baked bread to bring to his girlfriend’s family cottage. That homemade touch demonstrated a sincere appreciation in being invited to their cottage. And, yes, he was invited back!
Play by their rules
Every family has their own unwritten rules. Some are strictly enforced, others are laxer. It’s highly unlikely that their beliefs and practices are going to jive 100% with yours. Your visit may require an extra dose of respect, tolerance and flexibility in bending your own rules.
Here are a few common scenarios you may encounter.
- Your partner’s parents are traditional or religious and not comfortable with you sharing a bed with your partner. Don’t make a fuss or send any negative vibes about sleeping in separate rooms. It won’t kill you to sleep apart for a night or two.
- Your partner’s parents have mealtime rituals such as saying “grace” before eating, a practice different than your own spirituality. If you feel you are betraying your own faith, remain respectfully and discreetly silent. Otherwise, join in and experience something new.
- Your partner’s parents eat differently than you. My son is a vegetarian and his girlfriend and family are not. He anticipates that there may not be enough vegetarian options and doesn’t expect them to accommodate his needs. He makes contingency plans like packing things he can eat.
- You find your partner’s parents irritating. Maybe they are loud, have a weird sense of humour, or trample your boundaries by asking too many personal questions. My uncle once gave me invaluable advice about trying to change someone’s personality. There are only three methods: Deep psychoanalysis, religious conversion or a pre-frontal lobotomy. In other words, don’t even try. Remain unfailingly polite and respectful. You can’t pick your family and that includes your partner’s family.
Being at a cottage with your partner and their family is a unique opportunity to engage on many levels and make a positive impression. While it may be tempting to slather on some sunscreen and retreat far away from the parents, it’s probably a better strategy to make an effort to participate in their routine.
While my son endeared himself to his girlfriend’s family by bringing homemade bread, she endeared herself to us on her first visit to the cottage by organizing a charades-like game. Our family is not big on games. But she was able to get us out of our comfort zone and we had some great laughs. More importantly, she demonstrated that she wanted to get to know us better.
Making a positive impression by engaging with your partner’s parents will make your partner’s life so much easier by not having to “defend” you later. You don’t want your partner to receive a phone call after your visit from their mom or dad saying: “Well, I just don’t see what you see in them. But if they make you happy…”
So, what else can you do to make a positive impression? After your visit, write your partner’s parents a nice note — even if you were eaten by black flies, had to sleep in a rickety bunk bed, or it rained the entire visit – thanking them for their hospitality. Not only will you improve your chances of a return visit, you will endear yourself even more. While first impressions matter, last impressions may matter even more.