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Baltimore living columnist Ellen Fishel.
Baltimore living columnist Ellen Fishel. (Jeffrey F. Bill, Baltimore Sun)

Introducing your significant other to your family is an inherently anxiety-producing situation.

Even if you're generally confident that things will go well, it's hard to stop the nightmare scenarios from popping up in your head. What if my dad gets all weird and protective? What if my boyfriend makes a really dumb joke? What if my extremely unpredictable little brother makes some awkward sex-related comment?

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Meeting the parents makes for a classic sitcom situation (or maybe a funny movie followed by two much less funny sequels). But no one really talks about the challenge lurking ahead in the shadows: the extended family.

Meeting the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins is its own beast. It seems inherently less stressful, but because you likely see them much less, each interaction carries more weight. Plus, as the pool of relatives widens, the chances of running into a wild-card character increases.

Luckily, four of my 15 cousins decided to get married in the span of a year. Weddings are the perfect place to introduce your significant other to your family, because everyone is drunk and riding a romance high. Plus, all eyes are on a couple that isn't you.

(The only downside: If you ever break up, that boyfriend/girlfriend will be forever seared into a wedding photo album. But there are so many other potential disasters, you can't waste time worrying about that.)

So my boyfriend has been to three Irwin cousin weddings (one to go), and each time he seems to be more seamlessly woven into my mom's large, loud and insanely fun Catholic family.

My dad's side of the family — Jewish, small and more subdued — took a little more finesse. Many of them live in different cities, and there weren't any events popping up that would make for a natural first meeting. Plus, having this whole new thing called "work" made it hard for me and Tim to find any extra time to get away (especially with all these weddings filling our schedule).

But I knew that my grandma and great-grandma were eager to spend some time with their favorite (OK, only) great-granddaughter — oh yeah, and meet my boyfriend, too.

So we set aside a weekend and booked a flight to Cleveland. I wasn't too apprehensive about the meeting, even though Tim isn't the lawyer/doctor-to-be that all Jewish grandmas not-so secretly hope their grandchildren end up with. (Thanks, Mom, for breaking the goy barrier in the family!) I was more worried about Tim resenting me for dragging him to Cleveland in the middle of January.

But luckily, things went over smoothly. I learned that what booze and weddings are to meeting the cousins, food is to meeting the Jewish grandparents. We broke the ice over bagels and cream cheese, and Tim definitely won bonus points for being "a good eater." My grandma even promised to make him her famous brisket next time we were in town — a clear sign that he won her over.

My amazingly with-it 99-year-old great-grandmother was even easier to please. She was just happy that I'm not doomed to end up a spinster and that I'm skinny now.

Although to be fair, Tim could have gone on an offensive tirade and it wouldn't have made a difference, because she probably wouldn't have heard him.

The only thing that would have made the weekend better is if my grandpa were still alive to take part in it. I'm sure he would have embraced Tim, too. But his memory also reminded me why it's important to go through this stressful "meet the family" process.

It's easy, when you're far away and swept up into your new adult responsibilities, to grow distant from your loved ones back home. It's important to set aside time to reconnect, as many awkward bumps you may hit along the way.

Ellen Fishel's column appears regularly in b.

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