Sex & Relationships

I'm Going to the Cottage With His Family. Help!

Our hella smart sex and relationship columnist, Kate Carraway, to the rescue

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I’m going to the cottage with my boyfriend (and some of his family members!) for the first time. I want to have a good time because it’s the only vacation either of us gets this summer, but I need to make a good impression on his family. I’m freaked out!

My version of “there are only two kinds of people in the world” goes like this: “there are only two kinds of people in the world: givers and takers.” It is the natural inclination of givers, when faced with a choice, to do the right thing, to offer more of themselves, even when it’s invisible, and even when it’s kind of a bummer. It is the natural inclination of a taker to see how much they can get, or get away with, to use those moments of invisible morality to their own advantage, to slide a moment or an opportunity to their own side, to “get mine,” hoping or not caring who notices. I think parents and their influence are mostly responsible for whatever side you’re on, but whateves: my point is that givers give, and takers take, and there is never a more apparent demonstration of what side you’re on—in this case, to your boyfriend, and to your boyfriend’s family—than when you’re visiting someone’s cottage or vacation home.

At every turn, you want to anticipate and think about your behaviour. If you are new to cottage-ing generally, understand there is an additional, sunscreen-sticky layer of manners and respect that attends a cottage visit, especially when you’re the (probably serious?) girlfriend of the kid. (If you are, instead, some fly-by-night Rayanne Graff-style guest, then you’ll be understood as a temporary amusement, not a real contender for future cottage custodianship.) Visiting someone’s cottage is not like showing up at a hotel, where you throw your bags kind of wherever and flop around on the weird bed and make fun of everything; it’s not even like visiting your boyfriend’s family’s regular home. Many cottages are hella old, have quirks in the plumbing and electricity (if they have any of either), and are sacred places, especially if the cottage has been in the family for a while. Also, your boyfriend’s fam will be on vacation, too, and will be participating in their many comfy and beloved rituals of cottaging. Being a guest in this very particular scenario that calls for like a 25 to 50 percent increase in your attention to your own behavioural choices, and who they serve.

The good news is that the bar is actually pretty low; anyone who has a cottage knows that most city folks show up and immediately do everything wrong. (Here are some of the things my otherwise very smart, polite and well-meaning but cottage-stupid friends have done at my family’s lake house: arrived without any books or magazines, and then gave us surprise-eyes at the idea of no TV or internet; left the bar-be-que gas-tank on for a full day and night; burned a hole into the credenza; attempted to take the good boat out without permission—look, I don’t even have permission—or a sense of how one might, in fact, turn on and then maneuver a boat; opted to lay on the couch reading a book instead of helping me clean up and close out on a Sunday night; drove their non-4WD-enabled baby sedans down a driveway pitched in such a way that they couldn’t drive back up, despite multiple explicit emailed and oral instructions about that driveway; arrived curiously light on wine but abundant in complaints about the wine running out; probably more.) You know? There are so many ways to be a dick in life, almost incidentally, and many more up north.

The first thing you’ll want to do is quiz your bf on the conditions at the cottage as they pertain to your physical and emotional peccadillos. Limit any potential issues. I bring my own pillows, sheets, blankets and blow-up mattress—yep—to other people’s cottages because sleeping among even a tiny puff of old cottage dust takes me to some special dimension of allergies. Get clear instructions on what to bring and follow it closely, especially as they relate to bedding, clothes, food and water. Ask if you and dude can shop for and cook a meal for everyone. Bring something to wear over your pajamas in the morning in case it is a housecoats-household. Bring the bathing suit you want to wear, and another full-coverage suit that hides your worst tattoos, and has no interest in flattering your breast composition or back-cakes. All of this will ensure that you, and your body in various unusual states of boyfriend-family-exposure, are as comfortable as possible.

Don’t have sex in the cottage. Typically they’re small rooms with thin, un-winterized walls, and the beds will be squeaky, and you and your boyfriend will be covered in fleece and pine needles and sand anyway, right? Instead, plan for time alone, maybe even in advance: drive to a nearby beach, take a long walk and just, like, make out in a tree, kayak to an island and spend a couple hours with a cooler bag and wireless iPhone speakers. You’ll get your romancey summer fun in, and you’ll give the fam a break from flexing their best manners all day around a semi-stranger (you).

Bring a meaningful present for your hosts: alcohol, of course, and as much food as you can pack (fruit, desserts, fancy pop, the more interesting of the chips and pretzels from Whole Foods), but also something like a book or a fun toy-thing for the water or some cool summer-food-themed kitchen device. Most people don’t do this. Ask, when you arrive and at every meal, what you can do to help; assume the mantel of a cottage soldier who isn’t going to make a BFD about it. Cottages involve more clean-up than usual, because you can’t leave half a watermelon to rot for two weeks, so make sure you and your boyfriend are taking active, contributory roles in the whole thing, and are there as helpers and not just John and His Sex Guest.

Manners are about making other people feel comfortable, and about putting those feelings of comfort ahead of your own. (This stops short when it comes to, say, accommodating someone else’s casual bigotry.) That is really your first job, and if you’re not a committed giver in this scenario, you’ll have alienated everyone without necessarily meaning to. Otherwise, though, fun it up: follow your boyfriend’s lead about rules, like, if no one suggests using the neighbour’s water trampoline, don’t scramble up on it. Ask him what he likes to do when he’s up there, and do it. Say thank you to his family; say you’re excited to be there. Thank them for being givers, too.

More great advice from Kate:
I’m in Love… But I Think My Single Friends Hate Me
Is Long Distance a Dealbreaker?
When Do I Need to Disclose My Dismal $$$ Sitch?
How Can I Curb My Tinder-Rejection Sads?
When Should My Guy & I Talk “Numbers”?
Can We Be FWB When He Wants More?
Is It Ever OK to Date a Friend’s Ex?
How Do I Get Over a Guy?
Why Aren’t I More Obsessed With My BF?