Being in a relationship is wonderful this time of year… that is, just as long as you don’t buy an inappropriately priced gift (or introduce your date to your family too soon, or leave your partner stranded at the company Christmas party while you’re schmoozing it up with the boss). What we’re trying to say is, being in a relationship can be wonderful this time of year, provided your actions are appropriate given the amount of time you’ve been seeing each other. So before you start planning your first kiss under the mistletoe this year, here are some rules to remember at all stages of your relationship. Whether you’re on your third date or in your third year of being happily attached to your partner, these tips will help you avoid potential etiquette blunders so you can spread your holiday cheer as a couple all the way into the New Year.
Scenario #1: You’ve been dating each other for a few weeks
What kind of gift to give: DON’T get your date a lavish present — no matter how well-intentioned the gesture, it could send your budding relationship straight into a nosedive instead. “I had a nice first date with a guy a couple of weeks before Christmas,” remembers Alix Edmondson of Atlanta, GA. “On our second date, he handed me a Tiffany necklace. It was beautiful, but it was too much, too soon. I never went out with him again because I was so freaked out.”
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DO use this opportunity to show you’re deeply attracted to this person — and have been paying attention to his/her tastes. “A guy I’d been dating on and off gave me these Sour Skittles I’d wanted and a CD of a song I’d heard on the radio and liked,” recalls New Yorker Reesa Toppel. “It was small, but thoughtful.”
Family matters: DON’T bring your date home for the holidays. “That’s like saying, ‘I want you to be a more permanent part of my life,’” points out Maria Shaw, author of Soul Mates & Hot Dates. If that’s not something you’re comfortable with this early in the game, avoid home-based family functions.
DON’T dish any personal details about your date to friends or coworkers who ask, “So, what’s up with you two?” Instead, say: “It’s really too soon to tell, but I’m sure I’ll have a better sense of where things are headed soon.” Promising an update later down the road will keep you from looking rude while also warding off any foot-in-mouth moments.
Scenario #2: You’ve been dating for a while, but aren’t exclusive yet
What kind of gift to give: DON’T ask, “Should we get each other gifts?” That’s practically a euphemism for asking, “Are we exclusive yet?” But you also don’t want to leave it up to chance, since one of you could end up with something gorgeous from Nordstrom, while the other gets something garish from WalMart.
DO inform your date, “I got you a small token for the holidays — it’s no big deal, it’s just something that’ll make you smile.” That way, your sweetie will have a chance to reciprocate without feeling pressured to get something big (and potentially budget-busting) in return.
Family matters: DO invite your date to a small part of your family’s seasonal celebration — i.e., just for pumpkin pie or appetizers in front of the fireplace. Puhn suggests telling your not-yet-significant other something like, “I’m going to my parents’ house for dinner, and I thought it might be nice if you came over for dessert. It would be a good way to meet everyone without getting stuck there all night.” That way, you seem like you’re being considerate of your date’s time rather than cagey about commitment.
DON’T get angry with any family members for thinking you two are already in a committed relationship. “Taking someone to meet your family implies that you’re exclusive,” points out Puhn. If your aunt and uncle pointedly ask, “So, tell me about the two of you,” Puhn suggests that you “comment on something obvious, like, ‘Well, we’re eating pumpkin pie and enjoying the holidays with you!’ They’ll get the message.”
Your socializing strategy: DO keep your eye on your date at your buddy’s white elephant gift exchange or office holiday party. Yes, your love interest might know some people at this point, but since your relationship status is still uncertain, he or she might feel uneasy mingling solo. “It’s your job to walk around with your date and make introductions,” says Puhn, “and not leave his or her side until your sweetie’s feeling comfortable.”
DON’T fill your date in on certain friends’ histories, like the fact that your college buddy Jack always tells weird stories about his ferret after too much eggnog. “You never know how people are going to mix,” says Puhn, so don’t close any conversational doors for your date before he or she gets there by natural progression. For all you know, an ice-breaking conversation with ferret-crazy Jack might be just what he or she needs to lighten up the mood after a stressful day at work.
Scenario #3: You’re in a committed relationship
What kind of gift to give: DON’T buy something for yourself disguised as a present for your partner. Women, that means no tickets to a musical he hates, no gift certificates for a couples’ massage, and no trips to bed-and-breakfast spots in the countryside. Men, that means no gadgets you wish she had at her place, tickets to sporting events or subscriptions to Maxim.
DO make your gift something personal that shows you’ve been listening to what he or she has mentioned liking in past conversations. Case in point: When my friend Rachel Harrison received a crystal dolphin while spending her second Christmas with her boyfriend, she was infuriated — mostly because “I’d never once mentioned that I liked dolphins,” she explains. “I think he just thought that all women must like that sort of thing.”
Family matters: DON’T hang out with your family non-stop. If the two of you will be spending a significant amount of time with your relatives (read: overnight), devise an escape route so your significant other isn’t buried too long in unfamiliar territory. Go for a walk around the neighborhood or skip out for some hot chocolate to refresh yourselves away from the family.
DO take pains to impress mom. If you’re going to your date’s house, be sure you’re in the good graces of the most important person there: the family matriarch. “The problem isn’t whether the family approves of you, it’s whether the mother does,” says Shaw. One easy tactic: help set the table and clean up afterward. “It’s an amazing thing for parents to see someone offering to help,” says Puhn, “especially if you’re a man.”
Your socializing strategy: DO team up with your date to bring something to any holiday get-together. That way, you and your partner will be on equal footing, and nobody will relegate either one of you to “arm candy” status.
DO leave when your date says that he or she wants to go home. Socializing is a lot more exhausting for an outsider amongst the in-crowd, because no matter how long you’ve been seeing each other, these are still your friends. Exit when your date starts looking tired, and he or she will be more enthused to head to your next party when asked to accompany you — which, given that this is the holiday season, could happen as soon as tomorrow.