When birthday gifts turn into emotional blackmail
Dear Carolyn: Birthdays and holidays have always been a big deal in my family. Over the years, I have sent my nieces packages and cards for Easter, Valentine’s Day and other minor holidays as well as for Christmas and their birthdays. I’ve also always acknowledged my brother and sister-in-law on their birthdays and Christmas.
These gestures have never been reciprocated. Neither my husband nor I receive as much as a phone call on our birthdays and, worse, neither do our children. To add insult to injury, we rarely receive any thank-yous. I’ve even e-mailed my nieces to see if they’ve received what I’ve sent — no response. My brother and his wife usually respond, but I am tired of doing this.
My nieces are old enough to respond themselves, but I hate to “punish” them by ignoring their birthdays if they’ve never been taught basic etiquette. What should I do?
— Frustrated Gift-Giver
Dear Frustrated Gift-Giver: Please, oh please, cut off the card-and-gift stream, without prejudice.
I will say, unequivocally, this family is in the wrong for not thanking you. You have spent time and money on each of them, which warrants prompt acknowledgment, without exception.
That said, your expenditures seem to have strings attached. You describe marking occasions as “a big deal in my family,” and that’s fine on its face — but your tenacity and frustration betray you as having more than the pleasure of giving in your heart. Instead, you feed off the transaction: You give to others, and receive gifts/cards/calls/gratitude/ approbation in return. When you expect others to complete your happiness transaction — then judge them harshly for failing to do that — it becomes tough to distinguish giving from bullying.
That’s because your brother’s family has no obligation to mark holidays the same way you do. They’re entitled to their own philosophy, which could be, just for example, that card-sending on minor holidays is a crime against trees, that less is more for birthdays, and that gifts are an unwelcome double whammy: stuff they don’t want, plus guilt for not wanting it and/or for wishing Auntie had saved her money.
I will underscore here that none of these erases this family’s obligation to say thanks.
But their obligation doesn’t just begin there. It also ends there. There is no “and worse” when it comes to your children’s birthdays. It would be lovely of your brother to place happy-birthday calls, sure — but he can still enjoy and care about your kids and not even have the birthdays marked on his calendar. He is who he is, and he’s not you.
So back to where I started: If giving to this family brings you pain or frustration, then stop doing it. Framing it as punishment, however, is just another way of viewing them through the lens of your own values. I would argue here for a pragmatism frame: The cards and gifts (as far as you can tell) aren’t having the intended effect, and so it’s time for Plan B.
That Plan B is up to you, but it’s why I included the “without prejudice” qualifier. Allowing that this family has its own, informal ways of showing affection doesn’t guarantee you’ll ever be close, but it leaves the door open to the possibility. Writing everyone off as an ingrate all but slams that door shut.