When birth­day gifts turn into emo­tional black­mail

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360BETS - Tell Me About It is writ­ten by Carolyn Hax of The Washington Post. Her col­umn ap­pears on Tues­day, Thurs­day and Satur­day. E-mail her at tellme@ wash­post.com.

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.

cAroLYN hAX

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