#772: Divorce and holiday gift etiquette

Hi Team Awkward

After a couple of years, my sister ‘Kate’ is sadly divorcing her husband ‘Adam’. This is sad and difficult for them both, but ultimately she realised she was no longer in love with him because she still has feelings for an ex (a total Darth unfortunately, this bit is not for the best, but would be a whole other question and not for me to ask). I grew to like Adam a lot, though I can see why he is no longer a good match for my sister.

My mother has emailed me asking what to get him for christmas this year. Aside from the fact that it’s still only October (argh, why) – is this a lovely-gesture-go-ahead situation or very-kind-but-not-appropriate one?

In her email my mother said ‘after all he is still my son-in-law and I’d like to get him something’ along with neutral suggestions for gift cards in places I doubt he shops. Mentioned that she knows Kate is who she ‘should’ ask but also not, because it would obviously be a sore point.

Kate and Adam are not yet divorced, I am unsure about timeline here – surely isn’t the issue though – the fact that they are ending their relationship is. Technically he may be her son-in-law…but? I don’t know. I’m not sure what my ‘but’ actually is.

Possible scripts?
‘I’m sorry I don’t know what the best thing to do it – up to you’ – this feels like a cop-out – and he might end up with unwanted gift.

‘Yes that sounds kind and lovely – but get him a voucher for (shop I know he likes) instead’

Something else?

Because myself and partner had a good relationship with them (hung out as a 4 a few times), we sent them both a graphic novel each and a short note saying we love/care for you etc.

Sister loved hers, but no reply from Adam. I realise that he has many other things on his mind and no acknowledgement is absolutely fine – just made me think even more about the etiquette and if perhaps sending a gift (meant as kindness/distraction) was in fact not appropriate for the situation?

Also – they have no kids. Presumably if they did he would be much more likely to be involved with our family still post-divorce. As that is not the case – what is the etiquette here?

Any help so much appreciated!

Thank you
Etiquette is hard!

Dear Etiquette,

Family feelings and relationships don’t dissolve the second divorce attorneys enter the picture, but I can’t help thinking that your mom is using the imagined ‘need’ to figure out Adam’s holiday gift as a device to get you on Team Let’s All Be Very Concerned About Kate & Adam’s Dying Marriage. She knows she’s not supposed to bug Kate or Adam about it, but she’s fretting about the whole matter, and this Holiday Etiquette Question Trojan Horse is a convenient vehicle to carry all of her feelings up to your ramparts. You do not have to open the gates.

I think some variation of “Mom, that’s a nice gesture but I have no earthly clue” or “If I remember correctly he likes to shop at [store]” or “I know everything is awkward right now and you are nice to think of him. Wish I could help but I just don’t know,” is fine. This isn’t really your issue, your mom is going to fret about it no matter what you say or do, Kate and Adam are going to have weird feelings no matter what your mom does (because divorce is a time of weird feelings and holidays just make everything weirder and more feelings-y). In my opinion it’s 100% okay to dodge a deeper discussion here, and it’s my guess that your mom will send Adam a holiday card and maybe some sort of gift-card for a few years both as a kindness to him and as a passive-aggressive reprimand of Kate and then their relationship will naturally peter out if he does not acknowledge or reciprocate or find some kind of vague family/acquaintance equilibrium if he does. Not knowing the dude, I don’t know how to predict how he’ll react to receiving something from your mom this year, and one person’s kind gesture is another person’s awkward and painful reminder.

Say “not my circus, not my monkeys” and “once a gift is given it’s gone” to your reflection eleven times or until you stop worrying about this.


35 thoughts on “#772: Divorce and holiday gift etiquette

  1. LW, my advice is to be quietly grateful that your question is not “can i mail a live weasel to my soon-to-be-ex-family member under the guise of a christmas present?” It’s a sad and hard and weird situation, but all things considered, a gift card is probably something that in 5 years, will cause Adam to think with mild fondness of his ex-MIL.

    (in case anyone is worried, i have determined that mailing the weasel would be cruel to the weasel.)

    1. I would be delighted to receive a weasel, or even a pine marten, or a relatively well-behaved mink, by mail, as long as it were alive!

      LW, good luck, this sounds like it’s going to be pretty awkward, but I believe in your victory. (I too think maybe the gift card to a store he likes is the best case.)

        1. Weasels are very small, so the postage should be minimal. On the other hand, they are extremely savage so there would probably need to be some kind of hazard insurance….
          *opens email*
          “Dear Royal Mail…”

          1. I don’t know, considering how good they are at tearing through cardboard and all you’d probably have to reinforce the box quite a lot, so the package weight would be significantly increased, raising the price.

        2. I can vouch for the ownership of houseweasels, a.k.a. ferrets. They’re little stubborn too-smart buttheads, but endlessly playful and sweet. I’ve had five so far.

          I’m really a cat person, but the pocket otters will win you over.

          1. Absolutely, ferrets are wonderful creatures. If you get a female though, make sure that she’s spayed – to the best of my knowledge if they go into heat and do not breed, they can suffer hormone issues that can kill them.

      1. Speaking of weasels, martens, AND minks, this remains one of my favorite news stories from my home state: http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2011/06/man_bursts_through_door_with_dead_animal_and_declares_its_not_a_weasel_its_a_marten.html (Spoiler: It turned out to be a mink.)

        In all seriousness, though, I doubt there’s a huge downside to the LW’s mother sending a nice gift card to a story Adam likes. I doubt he’d feel more than a little awkward about it at worst (especially since a gift card is lower stakes than some sort of more personal gift, which could feel more loaded), whereas he could be quite touched, or at least just get a nice thing he was hoping to buy. So if the mother would feel better sending it, I think she can pretty safely send a card, as long as she’s not counting too badly on a response. But I also agree that the LW is perfectly justified in just saying “I don’t know,” if that’s the more comfortable option. (For the record, my friend’s parents sent holiday presents to my friend’s ex-fiance for at least a year or two after they broke up, and he sent thoughtful presents back to them too! The most awkward part about the whole thing was them trying to figure out when it was OK to stop.)

  2. ‘I’m sorry I don’t know what the best thing to do it – up to you’ – this feels like a cop-out – and he might end up with unwanted gift.

    LW, I think it’s really lovely and thoughtful of you to worry about whether not-quite-former brother in law would want a gift and whether it’s a cop-out to tell your mother that you don’t know what the best choice is and I think maybe you’re overthinking things in the exact same way that I’m prone to. Unless you can read minds, there is simply no ideal solution here. And even if you could, people go through a lot of feelings when they get divorced and there’s no guarantee that something that feels like a nice gesture now won’t feel like a painful reminder later or vice versa.

    You really are allowed not to manage your mother’s relationship with her not-quite-former son in law and you really don’t know the ideal answer so it’s not as if you’re withholding information just to be a jerk. If it’s any help, I second the captain’s advice to tell yourself “not my circus, not my monkeys” as many times as you need to.

  3. “not my circus, not my monkeys” …. I love this, great line for all kinds of family Circuses, whether 2 or 3 rings happening simultaneously, and other situations.
    also “once a gift is given it’s gone’…. gosh would so like to implant that meme in the mind of certain in-laws who come over after Christmas to see if the modern art print they gave you is hanging up (when your décor is completely Not modern) or if you’re wearing the pierced earrings, when your ears are Not pierced, or if the massive ugly green ashtray is out, (when no one in the house has ever smoked). The items were contributed to support the local hospice…. So There Ain’t No Use in Lookin’ Fer Them.. hehehe….

    1. Ha, my mother does that. My husband is notoriously difficult to buy presents for and usually just puts things quietly away never to actually use them (he knows exactly what he wants, and as soon as he knows what he wants, he buys it). I’ve told my mother a million times never to give him anything more substantial than gift vouchers, but she persists in asking *me* (not him) where the wallet she got him is (he never carries a wallet), what he thought of the book (not his scene and he always has his own reading list a mile long) or what he’s done with whatever crapnugget she last bought him. They say it’s the thought that counts, but I’d rather be left out of it…

      1. I’ve always interpreted ‘it’s the thought that counts’ as meaning a well-thought-out gift that accurately reflects the person’s interests and desires is more valuable than a more pricey present that isn’t something that person would want.
        If your parents are looking for something to give the person who gets everything they want, you could suggest a charitable donation to his favorite cause, or a nice dinner together out on the town, or something consumable that he has enjoyed in the past, like a soap he likes or a food he enjoys. I used to struggle with finding gifts for people like that, so these are just the solutions that work for me.

  4. LW,
    I have been the Adam in this situation (although it was a much less things-happen situation and a much more he-had-an-affair-and-peaced-out thing). My not-quite-ex MIL gave me a gift, which was very much appreciated with a hug and an extremely sincere “I love you” but also included “we will always love you, but if there is ever a time that you need to distance yourself from us, I completely understand and will love you anyway.” I can’t tell you how much this meant; what a relief it was to know that I could still love and be loved still distance myself for my own health. Best of luck through this tough time. It doesn’t come with an instruction manual, that’s for sure!

    1. I’ve been an ex (though at gf-bf level which is different) and had this kind of gift happen and it also felt really kind and I appreciated it.

  5. Only tangentially related:

    My parents are amicably divorced and used to buy each other Christmas presents which they would exchange on Christmas morning. In retrospect, they were hilariously passive aggressive. My mum used to buy dad pots and pans (“to help you cook more”), and one of those spoons with holes in for pasta (which dad pretended he thought was a backscratcher).

    Dad used to buy mum coal. She can’t drive and has a fireplace so it’s actually a useful gift. But still. The SYMBOLISM was probably not lost on him.

    (These are not sad memories, they are ‘my parents are hilarious weirdos’ memories.)

    1. This is lovely! I have a huge soft spot for amicable “thank God we aren’t married/together any more but that doesn’t mean we can’t be a little bit silly and affectionate” relationships.

  6. My parents used this sort of thing to demonstrate just how wrong they thought my divorce was, and to justify indulging their own inappropriate behavior: “He’ll always be our son,” etc., used as the reason for all sorts of things including letting him vent to them about me. Luckily for all of us, this behavior petered out once they’d adjusted to the fact of the divorce. I don’t know if your parents are the same as mine, but if I were advising my past self, I’d say “Roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders, and wait for it to stop.” For your specific situation, I like the Captain’s plan of saying something that dodges the discussion.

    1. P.S. I do think, though, that it’s okay if your mom sends him a gift. If my ex’s family had sent me a gift that first Christmas, I would have interpreted it as a gesture of goodwill.

    2. oof, I know this one about indulging certain kinds of moral judgement via being demonstratively nice. In my case it was less about “the sanctity of marriage” than playing a particular role: “How divorced people should behave, you are doing it wrong, here is how you do it”. So, a lot of super super kindly and solicitous emails from my mom to my ex, which he enjoyed *immensely* as evidence that even my own family was on his side about how awful I was and how wonderful he was. Although in theory I agree that divorced people are ideally polite to one another, especially when children are involved, and though my own situation has gotten much much closer to that ideal with time, in the immediate raw aftermath of being dumped with a tiny kid having my mom really really hold the line about “we must be nice to your ex at all times, you are really failing at it so we’ll just work extra hard to make up the balance” was devastating. As in your case, this petered out as she accepted the divorce and also started to realize — nope, he just really does not care very much about his kid, your grandkid. His choices are his choices, not an outcome of insufficient cajoling by a compliant wife that can be made up for by a compliant mother in law.

  7. Dear LW,

    “Not my circus, not my monkeys” = brilliant, as is the Captain’s analysis of your mother’s action.

    I’d like to reassure you a little. It was kind of you to give Adam a present. You probably won’t give him anything next year, and that’s fine too.

    As for your mother, yeah, stick to “I don’t know” “Your guess is as good as mine” “Ask Adam”.

    In my less kind moments, I like “ask Adam” best. I think it’s because that hands back the discomfort to get.
    “Oh! I can’t ask him because Reasons that add up to he’s not family and it would hurt Late. Oops!”

    But in my kinder moments, I’d go with, “Sorry, don’t know”

  8. This is tricky to do well. I saw how terrible it could go when my best friend’s incredibly wealthy inlaws sent her a box of dollar store crap as the most passive-aggressive, embarrassing gift they could get away with while still acknowledging that she wasn’t out of their lives yet. In contrast, a gift card to a useful store would be a thoughtful way to show care for someone who is still part of the family.

    1. I was a daughter in law, and while we were married his parents gave me a lot of very obvious “free gift with purchase” sorts of things. Also, I received books that weren’t my sort of thing, but, looked very much like book club books(the sort where they send you things monthly from a category) and it looked a bit like I was getting the rejects without much(any) thought to whether I would like them.
      I was enough of a bookworm that I read the books anyway though I didn’t keep them long. The other stuff, though. They behaved well towards me in person. My husband(their son) was the sort that agonized and planned for Perfectly Chosen Gifts. I didn’t know what to think.

  9. Also saw a friend with kids receive an embarrassing gift from her soon to be ex-in-laws when she brought the grandkids over to them on Christmas afternoon. They had not bought her a gift, the father-in-law rushed into his pantry, grabbed an old platter (it had scratches on it and a chip from the edge) wrapped it up and gave it to her along with some rubbish bags for the car, as a little extra. Ummmm, No. (She would have preferred no gift and actually had not expected any) to that passive-aggressive display. But instead she smiled and said “Thanks”. She is a classy lady.

  10. My mother has stayed in touch with Vader-ex for over a decade. She supported me financially and logistically during the difficult breakup, and has respected my request that he not have my address, e-mail, or phone number. So I remind myself that even though I brought him into the family, I don’t control my family’s feelings towards him. Their relationships are separate from mine.

    A couple I’m friends with had a messy divorce 3 years ago after a 12 year relationship. Their families had already blended too much to separate. Their sibling’s children consider each other cousins, and their parents still hang out and vacation together.
    There were ugly posts on social media about disloyalty and lack of support, until they both accepted it wasn’t about them, and they’d have to find a way to live with seeing each other at holidays.
    It helped a great deal when Friend’s ex m-i-l sent a wedding gift for her marriage to New Husband.

    When you bring someone home for your family to love, sometimes they do even after you don’t.

  11. If Adam’s not likely to take it as passive-aggressive, a gift card to some place that sells general housewares would probably be really useful. Splitting up a shared household tends to leave someone short on forks or in need of a shower curtain.

  12. I think if I felt the need to give a suggestion I would stick to the gift card option. Otherwise, it is indeed not your problem and the best thing you can do for everyone is to not let your mother drag you into the morass or use you for triangulation purposes.

  13. First, absolutely right that you do not have to be involved if you do not want to.

    But it’s also OK if you do. My aunt and uncle threw a party with his ex wife for what would have been my uncle and the ex’s 30th wedding anniversary. They have two daughters together and have always tried to stay on good terms for the girls’ sake and have ended up being friends. My aunt is friends with her husband’s ex and, when my mom moved to the city where aunt and uncle lived, my aunt said, “You have to meet Ex!” Ex came to my cousin’s wedding (half sister to her daughters).

    Anyhow – as long as it would not totally tick off your sister, there is nothing wrong with maintaining the relationship. (And the usual caveats – Adam is not a drug dealer or a murderer or a pedophile or abusive, etc, etc.)

  14. LW I don’t see any problem with your Mom sending Adam a gilt card. It’s not like it comes with a curse binding him to your sister forever. And the Captain is right in the relationships don’t have to end once divorce attorneys are called [unless abuse was involved].

    And Adam is a Big Boy who can Use His Words and say ‘hey no gifts’ or ‘thank you for gifts’ or not say anything at all and throw them in the trash.

    It’s weird sure but I don’t think it’s bad thing to try and show Adam you care. Of course it he asks you to ‘stop’ then stop.

  15. When i got divorced what hurt the most was losing his family. I thought we were friends and was devastated to learn that wasn’t true. Getting a Christmas gift would have helped me feel a lot better. I would have felt that they cared about me as a person even though their son and brother in law no longer wanted to be married to me, our relationships were real.

  16. My impression from your letter is that Kate and Adam are currently still living together. If that’s still the case at Christmas, there’s absolutely no way to make that holiday not awkward, but I would think that excluding him from gift-giving would be a little rude, especially if there’s some kind of in-person get-together.

    If they’re not living together, my advice to your mom would be to do whatever she thinks is best, but to LEAVE KATE OUT OF IT. When I got divorced my mom, who is a generally healthy person emotionally but who tends to filter my major decisions through her own regrets and goals, told me how sad she was that we were breaking up, because she would miss him. And then after I moved out she took him to lunch a few times, and would tell me about it. Your mom can try to have whatever familial relationship with Adam that she wants (no promises that he’ll reciprocate), but she has GOT to draw a boundary about discussing it with Kate.

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