When my oldest cousin Laura brought her then boyfriend (now husband) to Christmas Eve dinner for the first time, we sat him down, gathered around the table and each wrote our "yes" or "no" vote down on paper to determine whether or not he was worthy of dating her. We put them all into a hat and read out the answers one by one — to his face.
This has since become a Christmas tradition in our family, and as such, has deterred me from ever jumping the gun on introducing a significant other to my family unless I'm absolutely sure he's worth it.
But even if your family isn't as intense as mine, figuring out the right time to introduce your love interest to your family and friends is never easy. Doing it too soon could be off-putting; doing it too late can make the person you're with feel like you're not that serious about your relationship. Not doing it at all? That's what we call pocketing.
Pocketing goes beyond avoiding the dreaded meet the parents moment. As psychologist and life coach Ana Jovanovic explains, you're hidden from view in virtually all aspects. "Pocketing is a situation where a person you're dating avoids or hesitates to introduce you to their friends, family or other people they know, in-person or on social media, even though you've been going out for a while. Your relationship seems non-existent to the public eye," she says.
It can be a tricky thing to detect, but as Rachel Perlstein, licensed clinical social worker practicing in New York and Los Angeles, points out, one key difference between waiting for the right time and being pocketed is transparency.
"When you are focused on building a relationship with a new partner, your intention is usually to wait until you know the person well enough on an individual basis, and like them enough to decide you want to bring this person into your social and familial life," she says. "Pacing and awaiting the right time to offer an introduction is truly about bringing you and partner closer. Pocketing comes with the intention of hiding away the person you're dating. Oftentimes the pocketer does not want their partner to meet friends and family; it's a way of creating space and distance in the relationship."
Why do people pocket their significant others?
No matter what your family situation is like, that underlying fear that the person you think is so great may not jive with your family (or potentially worse, your family may not approve of them) can be overwhelming enough that avoiding those introductions all together feels like the best solution.
There's also the possibility that the person you've been dating hasn't been entirely truthful and may be keeping you away from friends and family in order to protect the image he or she has created. "Once the person they are dating meets the friends and family, the facade they worked hard to build will collapse and leave the other person disappointed," says Jovanovic. "By not introducing the person they're dating to others, they are protecting the fragile image of themselves that attracted the person in the first place."
This can also extend to what the person's family or friend group are really like. "They may be ashamed of their family and friends and may feel that if their date was to meet them, they would think less of them," says Jovanovic. "This is especially true in cases where there is an educational gap, or big socio-economic or cultural differences."
If the person you're dating has been particularly vigilant about not making your presence known on social media, there's also a chance he or she might be hiding you from someone else — whether it's an ex, someone else they're seeing or a friend they hope to date at some point. "Information tends to travel fast, so they’d rather not risk sharing it with anyone," says Jovanovic.
How to tell if you're being pocketed
If you think you might be pocketed in your relationship, here are a few signs Jovanovic says to look out for.
- He or she never makes plans with other people. Your date avoids inviting you to anything that involves his or her friends or family, and never talks about wanting to organize something with them that includes you.
- They make excuses why you can’t meet their friends and family. Any time talk of meeting the people in their life comes up, there's an excuse as to why you can't. "There’s always an emergency to attend to, a reason for which now is not a good time or the promise of meeting them soon that they never go back to," says Jovanovic.
- You meet at secluded, discrete places. He or she never wants to hang out in their own neighborhood. Or near their office. Or at an event where a ton of people will be. "You don’t meet at places where you have a high chance of running into someone they know," says Jovanovic. "In most cases, they prefer meeting you in your or their apartment."
- They don’t talk much about people in their social circle. You never hear about their friends, which Jovanovic says is by design. "They avoid sharing information about their friends and family. It is as if they don’t want to prompt you to ask: 'So, when will I meet them?'"
- You’re nowhere to be found on their social media. The secrecy goes beyond not wanting to be in a Facebook relationship, or posting photos of the two of you. "The posts you leave on their timeline, the pictures you tag them on or the comments you leave seem to magically disappear from their profile," says Jovanovic. "They don’t post on your profile or leave any clues that you are dating on theirs."
- If you run into someone they know, you are never properly introduced. You're always referred to as a friend or even just your first name. "They usually won’t hug or kiss you in front of others, so they don’t signal that you’re actually dating," says Jovanovic.
- Their friends and family have never heard about you. If you've been dating for months and no one in his or her life knows about you, it's a bad sign. "It's not only that you haven't met any of their friends or family members, but they don't know that you exist," says Jovanovic.
What to do if you're being pocketed
If you suspect you're being pocketed, Perlstein says the key is to communicate effectively, and do your best to not become confrontational immediately.
"Strike up a conversation with your new partner about how you're feeling and get curious," Perlstein says. "Give the person an opportunity to talk with you about why you've yet to meet their friends and family. It's possible that they are not pocketing you, but their time frame works different from yours, you have different expectations about what a relationship looks like, and/or you're both viewing the relationship differently."
It can be a scary question to ask, but having an honest conversation about where the person you're dating thinks this is headed will also be key. "Ask follow up questions about what the person's intentions are and express your wants and needs," Perlstein says. If it sounds like the person is seeing the relationship moving in a similar manner, ask to meet their friends and/or family or discuss a time frame around this."
This may be the conversation that prompts the person you're dating to tell you about the family issues that he or she has been trying to keep you away from, which can feel like a relief for both of you to have out in the open. Though it may take longer than you'd like, this can be a great first step toward finding the right time and environment for you to be introduced.
There's also the possibility that the pocketer will come clean about his or her true intentions for the relationship, which may not be in line with what you want. "If a person is not capable of providing what you need in the moment, walk away knowing that this was not the right fit for you," says Perlstein. "Being pocketed is not about the pocketee, but truly the pocketer. This will leave you in a great position to date and meet someone else who will not demonstrate the same bad behavior."
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