#884: “Christmas In July”

Dear Captain & Crew,

This is a question about Xmas boundaries + the ever-awkward subject of money. I know, it’s completely ridiculous to be worrying about Xmas in July… I don’t want to think about Xmas before Turkey Day! However, Husband’s family starts planning Xmas far in advance, and they’ve started poking us about Xmas plans alread. Cue holiday anxiety!

After a blow-up at Xmas time 5 years ago by MIL (who is generally very sweet and kind), I have become very anxious about holiday plans with Husband’s mother and his extended family. MIL insists on spending waaaaay too much money on us, especially at Xmas time. For last year’s extended family visit, MIL bought our plane tickets ($2K+) before I’d agreed to the dates, paid for the rental car Husband and I used ($500+), insisted on paying for all the meals, and bought everyone a ton of gifts.

MIL’s trend of insisting on covering all expenses makes me very uncomfortable and anxious. 3 years ago, we all agreed on a Secret-Santa arrangement for Husband’s family, and set a spending limit of $40. Although MIL agreed, she bought gifts for everyone and blew right past the $40 spending limit per person.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with how much money MIL is spending on me. While it’s her money (and her choice to spend it), I really dislike how she insists on paying for everything whenever we see her. I really want to speak up about it. However, because of my own “I want them to like me!” issues, I feel like my mouth is glued shut & can’t speak up in the moment. I also know that my Husband really doesn’t want me to “rock the boat” by contradicting his mother.

I’m reaching my wits’ end in this situation, and I’m hoping you can offer me some scripts. I want to find my voice again and have agency in this relationship.

My questions:
1) After setting spending-limit boundaries in advance, how do I enforce those boundaries in the moment when everyone (but me) is all “yay, gifts!” on Xmas day?

2) If I can’t speak up to MIL in the moment about #1, what can I say to her after the fact to gently+firmly express that all the money she’s spending on me is making me really really uncomfortable?

3) What can I say when we go out to eat and MIL insists on paying? (Saying “we’ll get the next one” doesn’t work because she stubbornly insists on paying at every meal).

4) What do I say to Husband when he pressures me to keep quiet about Xmas/general over-spending?

Stressing and Exhausted about the Holidays Months in Advance (DAMMIT)

(she/her pronouns)

Hi Stressing,

I’m sorry, I don’t have good answers or scripts to your specific questions. You are already doing & saying the right things. I think your best choices going forward are:

Go. And go knowing what you’re in for, including too much money spent on you, awkward gifts, & her picking up every check. Go wholeheartedly and try to enjoy what there is to enjoy about your in-laws and the way they celebrate. After this many years, you are not going to change your Mother-In-Law. She already knows how you feel. You can refuse to accept the gifts, fight every restaurant check, make a point, etc. but she is still gonna roll how she rolls. Choose your battles (like, making travel arrangements around YOUR schedule). Let your husband take the lead in all interactions, bring a really good book with you, stick to your own spending limits, and peace out of looking for middle ground where there is none. When you feel uncomfortable, go for a walk or go to bed early to read or go to the movies by yourself for a little while and give yourself some space.


Don’t go. Celebrate the holidays your way, according to your preferences & values. Create a holiday tradition of your own with just you and your husband. Be low-key and thrifty and quiet and relaxed. Visit your In-Laws another, less-gifty time of year. In the meantime, let the guilt-trips and the “It just won’t be Christmas without you!” furor and the prospect of too-expensive gifts sent in the mail wash over you for the next half a year.

My recommendation would be “Go sometimes as a gift to your spouse, don’t go sometimes as a gift to your own well-being.” Reminding yourself that it’s a choice will hopefully give you more feeling of control. You went last year, so this seems like a good year to respond to the questions about your plans with “We’re planning to stay put this year and do Christmas with y’all every other year.” This is your husband’s family, yes? Then let him be the one to deliver the news and sail his non-rocky vessel through the guilt-storms.

P.S. “It’s July, I haven’t decided yet/I’ll let you know when that changes” is a perfectly fine answer to all winter holiday inquiries btw. Leave out “It’s fucking July, WTF fam?” part for best results. 🙂



135 thoughts on “#884: “Christmas In July”

  1. Amazingly, this is about the third post in a month where someone’s asked the same question I once wrote in but didn’t make it. Maybe I’m a crappy letter writer 🙂 and I’m sorry LW, I have nothing to add except that this looks really useful advice for my own VERY similar situation and I’m going to use it. Thanks Captain.

  2. Addressing just the paying for meals part:
    Ho, boy. I know this one. My parents did it to me for a while post-grad school- they insisted on paying for everything when we got together. It had been the family pattern because I was a poor grad school student. Then I graduated, got a “career” job and also got engaged to someone who made good money. The first few times my parents came out to visit after all those changes, they insisted on paying for everything. Thankfully, my dad realized that the message he was sending by not letting us pay was “you are still a child” and apologized. Now on family vacations, we all take turns: dad, brother, now husband and I all pay for at least one meal. And Mom buys groceries so it all works out.

    If you still want to try one more time to ask mother in law to help you pay, I think it might be worth doing, IF she has the capacity to be reasonable. I don’t have a read on that, but here would a script you could use: “MIL, I love you and all the things you do for us. But when you insist on paying for everything, I am uncomfortable. I like being able to contribute to family dinners and get-together. Can you agree to let us pay for one meal this trip?” It puts the focus on your feelings, acknowledges her hard work and love and sets a low bar (one meal). Don’t feel obligated to try, but if she can at all be reasonable it might be worth it. But you are the best judge.

    If she can’t be reasonable, I love the idea of opting out for your sanity. I hate flying at xmas and have started to just say no to traveling at that time of year because I am so unhappy about traveling, it ruins the holiday for me.

    1. I have a thing where other people paying for my stuff (like restaurant bills) makes me VERY uncomfortable if they don’t reciprocate, because it was strongly drummed into me during my childhood that everyone should be treated fairly and equally (our parents spent the same TO THE PENNY on Christmas and birthday presents for me and my brothers). So I had that talk with my FIL, who always refuses to let me pay for anything. Even the time when I had to bring work to their house and I’d stupidly forgotten my laptop charger and had to buy a new (ridiculously expensive) one, I almost fought with him at the checkout over who was paying. He’d already been kind enough to drive me to a big computer store, something my own parents would never have done.

      I tried to have the same conversation with him, because I also felt I was being treated as a child. It didn’t work. He was all, “I’m your host when you stay at my house, so I pay for everything.” Until one day they came to stay at our house and he came up with a different reason to pay for everything.

      Eventually I told my husband I was really struggling to deal with a level of generosity that allowed me no opportunity for reciprocation. He told me that FIL had practically nothing while growing up, his family were so desperately poor, and now he was reasonably well off as an adult, it was really important to him to make sure people he loved had everything they needed.

      Dunno if something like that would help the LW if she had a chat with her husband about the reasons why MIL is like that, but that + Captain’s “let it go” advice does help me.

      1. Hi, LW here. Your comment really resonated with me, and helped me dig into some of the deeper reasons that my MIL’s spending bothers me so much. One part of it is the reciprocity… it makes the relationship feel very uneven to me. Although MIL never uses her spending as “proof” that we owe her X & Y favors (i.e. there are no strings attached to these gifts), I feel icky about being in her debt (for something I don’t even want!) and like she’s trying waaaay too hard. Even though I know this isn’t her intention, it feels like she’s trying to buy her way into my heart.

        Another part is that it feels infantilizing. Husband has a very lucrative job and is quite successful. We’re in our 30’s, and every time she insists on paying it feels like she’s saying “you kids can’t afford this, but I THE PARENT will cover everything for you.”

        Your comment about your FIL’s background also made me reflect on my MIL’s background. She didn’t grow up poor, but hit hard times abruptly when she and her husband split up and she was suddenly a single mom raising two kids with almost no employment history. She struggled to make ends meet until after both kids graduated college, and I know she frequently had to rely on significant financial support from her father (who was quite wealthy). After her father died, she received a substantial inheritance, and suddenly was well-off and no longer had to work her grueling job. She’d had the habit of buying too many Xmas gifts before then (they were just cheaper than the type we receive now), but I think that this sudden income boost + the death of her father made her want to assume the benefactor role. Now she can buy all the stuff she wanted to before (but couldn’t afford), and I think she sees it as her duty to support the family (i.e. her kids + me), so she takes every opportunity to do so.

        It still icks me out a lot (I’ll talk about my response about her assuming a mothering roles in comments lower down), but when I think about it in that sense, it makes the “benevolence” a little easier to swallow. And Captain’s “let it go” advice, while difficult for me, is I think the best way to handle this situation.

        1. One of the things I have learned in life is that (for the most part) people’s behavior isn’t about /you/ – it’s about /them/, which is what these two comments remind me of. From your letter and this comment, it is clear to me that it this overgenerous tendency is something that is coming from within your MIL, which is hers to change or not.

          On the bright side, that means she is not doing her behavior /at you/, nor is she using it as a manipulation tactic, so I second the Captain’s advice to try to enjoy it and work on managing your anxiety around it. My guess is that it will always make you a little bit uncomfortable, but it should not be so bad that it is ruining your summer!

          [For perspective, my mother is one of the debt-creating gift-givers, so allowing her to pay for things or buy too many presents is not a good idea because she will hold it over your head with stuff like, “I give you so much and you are never grateful!!!” So like you, LW, I am also a bit uncomfortable when others are what I consider overly generous because I worry about the motivation behind it. But when I have determined that the other person is just generous, I just say, “you didn’t have to!” and “thank you!” and try to appreciate their generosity with grace. It’s definitely a learned skill!]

        2. Hi Rage Cat, I just noticed some other possible reasons for your MIL’s behaviour that suggest themselves from your comments. As well as the control/mother role/infantalization issues, she could also be doing this in response to anxieties of her own:

          – she could be trying to make up for the divorce and difficult time in your husband’s younger years when money was tighter, either out of feelings of guilt or embarrassment
          – having received a lot of help from her wealthy father in her middle stage of life, she might want to pay this forward, or even just believe that this is ‘normal’
          – she might not want to seem selfish about not sharing her inheritance
          – she might want to make things seem equal between your husband and his sibling, either so husband’s sibling doesn’t feel bad about currently needing financial support, or because MIL believes that treating them equally means giving the same amount rather than giving according to each of their needs

          Of course none of that makes it ok that she is disregarding your boundaries and making you uncomfortable, and nor does it mean she is not also being controlling or inappropriate. But I thought I’d throw these out there in case reframing her motives helps you feel better in those times when you decide it’s best to bite your tongue and graciously accept the gifts. (my partner has controlling parents and we’re finding that a mix of having a good rant about how awful the behaviour is, mixed with more compassionate talks remind him that they are trying to help in their way, is helping him stay sane but keep interactions with them from really blowing up.)

        3. Do you think you could help her channel that energy towards people who would really appreciate a benefactor? Paying off people’s Christmas tabs at the local toystore, giving to a local charity that provides hospitalised children with Christmas presents, that sort of thing? Buying someone groceries online who is struggling to make their rent?

    2. This may not be all that useful to LW, but would it help to “pay back” some of MIL’s generousness in alternative ways? Instead of going out to eat and having MIL refuse to let anyone else pay, maybe you could volunteer to cook dinner at home one night? If you’re actually staying with your in-laws, maybe helping with the house work a bit?

      I can’t honestly tell from your letter if MIL is just overly generous or if she’s using this as a way of staying the “top dog” in the family. Obviously if it’s the latter, then it’s a whole different story. But if the only thing she’d really guilty of is being a hopelessly generous gift giver, then maybe some of the “alternative” pay back methods are worth a try, especially if they might make you feel better about the whole thing.

      When I was a broke student, many times people would help me out/feed me/etc., and me being me, I found it distinctly uncomfortable. However, I also learned that doing something as simple as volunteering to load the dishwasher could earn me the undying gratitude of whoever it was just fed me.

      Like I said, this may not be the situation at all. But if it seems like it might help, give it a shot. And on a side note, take it from someone whose holidays were ruined year after year by her sibling: There is nothing wrong with staying home, especially in the name of sanity maintenance. Nothing.

  3. Hi LW! My big question to you is: do these “gifts” come with strings attached, is or is MIL just trying to foot the bill while genuinely not expecting anything in return?

    Having come from a family with manipulative people where gifts like this were about (a) creating obligation and/or (b) performing for others what a “good” person you were (regardless of whether the “gift” was something the recipient even needed or wanted), I developed a really viscerally negative reaction to having people pick up tabs, give me things, or offer favors. However, in more recent years, I’ve also come to understand the root of those feelings, that it’s not ALWAYS that fucked up, and that I do genuinely deserve to have people I like do nice things for me when there’s no ulterior motive involved. Sometimes, letting a friend or family member do something for you can even be a way of doing them a favor, especially if they’re worried about shared activities being a financial burden on you. (Or, if you’re also financially successful, if they worry about being able to contribute to your life in a meaningful and impactful way.)

    If MIL is the “genuinely being nice” type instead of the “being manipulative” type (especially if she’s not putting herself in financial hardship by doing so), you may want to consider just letting her treat you and letting your brain gradually learn that even though the situation sets off all the alarm bells you may have developed based on mistreatment in the past, it’s not inherently a bad thing if the person’s intentions really are good.

    The good thing about your MIL’s actions is that they are of financial benefit to you, and the bad thing is that they make you feel bad anyway, so examining why they make you feel bad is gonna be helpful when figuring out a way to resolve the problem. Obviously this advice is dependent on your reaction being a result of having been manipulated in the past. If it’s just a personal preference, then it’s not gonna help with the fact that your MIL just repeatedly trounces all over your boundaries, even though it’s in a “helpful” way.

    1. Yeah, I can see how this would feel like a power play. The thing is that this is a relationship with a MIL. This isn’t a relationship that can really be negotiated as you would with an immediate family member or a friend. Some people just can’t step out of the role of being a parent and won’t notice the infantilizing effect this has on others. This is the DH’s fight should he choose to accept it.

      1. LW here. The gifts she gives are the “no strings” kind, and I don’t think she’s consciously trying to make a power play with these moves. However, I think she subconsciously wants to be the head of the family… as I mentioned in an above comment, her father died a few years ago (he was very wealthy), and left her a significant amount of money. She’s now well-off and able to buy whatever she wants, something that in the years before his death wasn’t really possible… she lived the lower-middle class lifestyle of a single parent with two kids to provide for.

        I think she (might) see it as her role to assume the Head of the Family status (she is the oldest of 3 kids). I also think that she’s so thrilled to have the resources to buy whatever she wants that she tends to go overboard now.

        I also think that she doesn’t see how infantilizing her actions are. She wants to provide for the rest of the family (including me), and doesn’t consider that it grates against our (“the kids”) desire to be seen as autonomous adults.

        Ultimately, I don’t think anything will change (i.e. DH doesn’t want to put up a fight). It will change my strategies around eating out / dining in with her, because her “generosity” makes me feel very guilty (one of the MANY things it makes me feel).

        1. Of all the possible motivations she could have, I do think this is the best. She has money, now, and wants to share it, because “WHEEEE!” Frankly, I would probably do the same thing (though after reading this, I hope I wouldn’t push boundaries, should it ever come up that way). About five years ago, I had the opportunity to host my mother on a vacation to Disney World, and I told her, “Mom, this is my chance to take care of YOU, so I’m paying and that’s all there is to it.” She let me (usually she’d be wanting to pay), and it was GLORIOUS! I can’t do that, now, but I totally get the feeling of it, and want very much to be in a position to share with my family that way, again. And yes, I do recognize my personal bias in judging this “the best” motivation for over-generous behavior.

          On the plus side, since there are no strings attached, if you decide to ramp up your own “services,” in a response (doing more of those kind little things, like helping with the dishes, or giving the toilet a quick wipe-down with a bleach-wipe, or reading aloud to her or bringing her a plate of cookies), it will be a gift from you, and not bought-and-paid-for.

          Another plus is that she’s giving your children (I didn’t see – do you have kids?) an up-close and personal example of generosity for them to emulate. Of course, she’s also giving them an up-close and personal example of pushing boundaries. So, you know, use this as a teaching opportunity, as you will.

          OH! I just had an idea! Why don’t you ask her what she used to do, when she was the single mother with two kids to provide for? Maybe you can take a small opportunity to recreate something they used to do together, like a special (inexpensive) picnic in the park, or games night. You can make it special for her, without spending a lot of money, and show her that her son and you really do appreciate everything she’s done in the past, and that those inexpensive times were wonderful memories that he cherishes, and that you want to emulate.

          She might be dealing with her own guilt about having not given her children everything, when they were children, and be trying to make up for it now. If you can alleviate that guilt, it might tone down the giving now.

          Good luck, LW. It’s so hard maneuvering through a minefield of emotions, in any circumstances, but it’s harder when you truly do know that the person just wants to share the love, but their love language grates on your nerves. I think it’s easier when your antagonist is actually mean. You don’t mind hurting them, back. It’s much harder to stand up against a giant Woobie.

    2. That was my thought. My grandparents are incredibly generous…to their grandkids. But I grew up watching them “help out” my parents with various things and then literally charge interest on the borrowed money. The first time my former in-laws wanted to help us out with rent or something (my ex and I were just out of college and hadn’t found our feet yet), I was really, really uncomfortable about it, until I realized that a.) they didn’t expect anything back, and b.) even if they had, they weren’t going to be dicks about it. That’s just not who they are.

      So, to the LW, I want to say that your anxiety and discomfort are real and you shouldn’t just “get over it.” But as long as your only problem with your MIL is the fact of her spending money, and not her attitude around doing so, it might help your anxiety a little bit to try and frame her spending as something that she does because it makes her happy to treat you. (Of course, it’s possible that she’s really horrible and manipulative about it and that part didn’t make it into your letter, in which case ignore.)

    3. Yes, my thoughts exactly!
      For perspective – I came from a family where NOTHING was bought without some kind of strings attached.

      I now only buy people things with no strings attached. Usually for no reason as well.

      I was absolutely ASTONISHED (& looking for the catch) that my in-laws not only merrily insisted on paying for everything but genuinely didn’t want anything back. They thought I was lovely for trying for reciprocation but put their foot down on me paying for them – they said it didn’t make sense that people who already had everything they wanted in life would accept a gift from someone who didn’t own a car, or home etc (they didn’t explicitly say this, they said this in an extremely polite, gentle “life goals” terminology).

      If I were the one with money, I would most likely be spending it on my family. I would find it hard to leave someone out even if they had voiced discomfort, because I would not want to make it look like I loved other family members more…. and I know that yes, this is materialistic and capitalistic expression of love/concern, but there it is nonetheless. I’m aware of it but not sure I wish to un-internalise it, especially being told I wasn’t worth buying presents for growing up. I generally can’t afford to treat people to nice things, but if I could? I would.

      1. I also have to say that while sometimes money and gift is loaded with manipulative expectations – it can also be loaded with other issues, that aren’t necessarily so negative. My father is Christian/mother is Jewish and we were raised entirely in the Jewish tradition. While my dad was fine leaving behind Christian traditions, the one he really wanted to hold onto was giving gifts around Christmas. The act of gift giving and what that meant for the family was really important to him in ways beyond the strictly monetary. So the way my parents celebrate Hanukkah is heavy on gift giving, but it’s centered on a lot of aspects of my father’s childhood and traditions that he wanted to bring to his nuclear family.

        Now I know other people experience holidays differently and feel differently around gifts – but to approach my parents about how they gift give around Hanukkah would likely be heard as far more offensive than intended.

        I will also say that there’s not one event in the calendar that my mother doesn’t start planning a year out. Dishes for Thanksgiving are being cleaned, and she has her calendar for next year out – I kid you not. So while I get that this would seem intense and invasive for many an outsider, it doesn’t truly read that way in the family.

        As I’ve mentioned below, my mom has her own serious issues with money – and it has required a conscious act on my part to not let it motivate or influence me while still being appreciative. But not all of the issues synced to money necessarily are.

    4. In my head I have written letters like this a million and one times about my own mother – and while it can be really odd and fraught, there is also the point of realizing where you can disengage.

      My mother has serious issues with money. It makes her feel like people are controlling her, it’s her way of showing love and promises (even if it’s money she doesn’t have to spend and then will later retract the gift/promise and say she never said that), it’s a whole host of complex issues that really color all interactions with her.

      While this is definitely tough on me, I’ve also learned that no matter what boundaries I do set – I’m not going to change her relationship to money. My mom still insists on paying for my brother, myself, and whomever we’re dating on vacation. However, she’ll also bring up how much everything costs, which restaurants are or are not expensive, etc. This isn’t repetitive, but it will happen. On the flip side, when my brother and his girlfriend (both very well employed) treated my parents to one dinner on vacation, my mom fussed the entire time on how expensive the place was, snapped at my dad for ordering food that was too pricey, etc.

      Over the years, it’s definitely given me issues – but I’ve also realized that these are huge issues that clearly my mom battles and while I can address certain money adjacent issues and boundaries with my mom – my mom isn’t changing. The reality is that my mom doesn’t intend for this to be manipulative or cruel, but it’s her issues that she’s clearly not addressing.

      Regarding all of this, I think that the Captain has given good options, to either go and accept the gifts or pass some years.

    5. I second this, even if the MIL isn’t being “nice” but is being harmless (to me). My ex’s mother was seriously into spending tons of money on me and treating everywhere we went and buying lavish gifts, not to be controlling, but because she loved showing off how rich she and her new husband were. She talked about the price of EVERYTHING and bragged about how much her curtain rod cost ($35,000 — NO KIDDING–it was from endangered wood from the Amazon) and her car and her clothes and so showering us with stuff was just part of that. It was gross, but there were no strings attached and there was no obligation to reciprocate in kind, so I just let it go. I returned or exchanged the stuff she got me that I didn’t like, and I made the wallet-feint when we were out so she could shoo my hand away from my purse, and it saved me a LOT of agita so I was fresh for the “when are you going to quit your job and have babies” conversation.

      1. ‘the “when are you going to quit your job and have babies” conversation.’

        My go-to answer to any “When are you going to ____” (insert activity that is MY business, and not theirs) is “Three o’clock!”

        The look on their face is priceless, and it shuts them right up. Usually. If it doesn’t shut them up, and they keep pressing, I shrug my shoulders, smile, and say, “Ask an impertinent question, get an impertinent answer.” Then change the subject.

        Fortunately, people don’t ask me those questions so much, anymore. One of the benefits of age, I suppose. Or maybe the word got out that I don’t DO those arguments.

  4. LW, I’m confused about where all of this anxiety is coming from. When your MIL spends lavishly on you, what are your thoughts driving the anxiety? That she’ll expect you to up your gift spending? That she’ll expect more time and energy from you and your husband in return? That you’ll have to spend your whole trip finding new ways to thank her? If she’s otherwise fun to spend time with, just accept that treating you makes her happy and enjoy it!

    1. This was my thought. If there are strings attached to the gifts, or you feel that she is building up a situation where you are increasingly in ‘debt’ to her and she’s going to call in the debt at some point (not necessarily financially), then address that. If you’re concerned for her long-term financial stability (ie, you’re afraid, she’s spending lavishly now but will run out of money and you’ll have to clean up the resulting mess), address that. If you’re feeling guilt tripped into spending more on other people than you want to, then address that.

      If it’s just that her lavish spending makes you uncomfortable, but you don’t think it’s going to fall back on you (either in terms of ‘owing’ her or in terms of having to clean up her financial mess in the future), then I think it’s a case for accepting that this is how she chooses to spend her money, and that’s her right. It’s your right to refuse to gift (although do be aware that this can be a bit of a nuclear option in most families, and is best saved for cases where one of the situations above are in play–gifts with strings, offensive gifts, etc.), but you can’t really set a boundary with her about how she spends her own money.

      Paying for dinner you can sometimes get around by arranging in advance to pay for the party, although that requires that your husband be on board. But there’s really no workaround for gifts. If the gift is sufficiently offensive or problematic that it’s worth dropping the I-can’t-accept-this bomb, then you can do that, but otherwise, you’re basically stuck with the fact that she gets to choose how to spend her own money.

      1. ‘…but you don’t think it’s going to fall back on you (either in terms of ‘owing’ her or in terms of having to clean up her financial mess in the future)’

        Good caveat. I’ve just moved to a country where a parents’ debts are passed on to their children if they die insolvent. My partner’s parents are terrible with spending/wasting large amounts of money and when I found out about the debt laws here, it makes the whole situation shift from one of ‘well, I wouldn’t run my shit like that but they’re adults who can do what they like with their own money/credit’, to one of ‘how are they paying for all this? Is it on credit? holy crap are we going to have to pick up the check?’

    2. I’m wondering this too.

      My in-laws are very well off and generous. We did refuse their money to help with our wedding because we knew it would come with strings attached – but beyond that they have never made demands or excessively guilted us. My MIL loves to buy lavish Christmas gifts, we went on a very nice vacation with them that they paid for the bulk of, things we could never reciprocate without going into debt. They don’t expect us to try. We do buy gifts at the level we can afford, we do pay for dinner occasionally, but for them it’s really just a matter of “we want to do nice things for our family and we can afford it.”

      So if there’s guilt or some sort of expectation involved, then OK, I get it. But if they really just want to be nice and can afford it … try to take a deep breath and let go of the guilt and anxiety.

    3. Hi, LW here. Well, the Xmas Anxiety Picture is actually very complex, and the lavish gift-giving is one side of it. I focused on that piece for my letter, due to the 450-word limit. Be prepared for a long-ass comment. 😉

      Full disclosure: I deal with severe anxiety, which I’m in therapy for, and have many healthy coping mechanisms to help manage it.

      As I briefly mentioned in my letter, several years back MIL blew up at us on Xmas. Basically, we had a very sick pet who needed immediate medical treatment (like, if we leave him at home to go visit, he’ll be dead by the time we get back). Both Husband and I felt very guilty about needing to reschedule, but he made the call to deliver the news. She went off on him (which I could clearly hear sitting nearby), going on about how he didn’t appreciate her and that we shouldn’t even bother getting together at all. She hang up and wouldn’t answer his calls afterward. Instead, we called his sibling (who lives with MIL) to find out what was really going on (she felt neglected, she didn’t see us as often as she wanted to, etc). I should note that MIL and sibling live within a couple hours’ drive, so seeing them is an all-day ordeal , but is relatively easy.

      After checking our pet into the emergency vet clinic, we drove up anyway, and she apologized, and it was all very awkward. I’ve never really forgiven her for what happened, even though I know there were mitigating factors (chronic pain, lethargic retirement, missing her kids, etc). I realized yesterday that my anger at her is because she attacked the person who I care the most about in the world (Husband), and if she was going to attack him in a rage (her son who she supposedly loves a lot) then I couldn’t trust her to be a reasonable person who will speak out before she blows up.

      In general, MIL is a wonderfully sweet person when she’s not stressed out and anxious. But I don’t trust her to be a nice person if she’s stressed/anxious/in pain.

      Fast-forward to last Xmas: we flew (with MIL and Husband’s sibling) to see extended family for a week. This was a trip I was badgered into (I’m in a very competitive, very difficult college program, and this trip was after my first exhausting quarter), and I got the flu the day before we left. MIL hates flying, and was very on edge and bitchy from when we landed until we got to the In-Laws’ house. She simmered down somewhat, and was much more pleasant for most of the trip. On the way back, the bitching, grumpy, biting-comments et all returned with a vengeance. We had a very tense moment in the airport when we’d grabbed a bite when the check came, and I grabbed for it… MIL was very intimidating with her presence and increasingly angry insistence that she should be the one to cover the whole bill (after $2500+ being spent by her on stuff for Husband and I). She concluded the argument in a huff by saying “I’m your mother and you have to do what I tell you.” And grabbing the slip from my hand.

      So, I have all this anxiety about Xmas with MIL now because the occasion is so emotionally-charged and I’ve come to expect her to react badly no matter what. The gift-giving itself doesn’t come with strings attached, but it does have a negative impact on myself and Husband. Husband gets EXTREMELY anxious before every Xmas visit because he has no idea how many gifts to buy. He desperately wants to keep the scales balanced (even though she tips them out of whack every time without fail). Often he’ll think he needs to get 3 – 5 things per person, and will do all the mental math of “is $60 enough? Maybe $70? Is $75 for 4 gifts good enough?” etc. In addition, December is the busiest month for Husband’s job, and so he’ll often pass his holiday-gift-buying responsibilities + anxiety on to me to help manage it.

      There’s another aspect of the gift-giving from MIL that I think is rubbing me the wrong way. In my family, we highly value independence, hard-work, and self-sufficiency. Until I had been with Husband for a number of years, I was wildly uncomfortable accepting financial assistance from him, even when I really needed it. In my mind, the only people it is acceptable to receive money from are my parents, and only then until I can carry my own weight. My parents have been really great about this, esp. as I get older… we split the bill much more often, and take turns treating each other. It feels like they’re acknowledging that I am an adult and peer.

      So, when MIL insists on buying everything, and very rarely allows us to cover the tab (maybe 1 out of 30 or 40 times), it feels like several things are happening:
      1 – she’s denying that we are adults who can pay our way
      2 – she’s not allowing us to participate in the relationship on equal terms
      3 – she’s saying to me “I am your mother, and it’s my job to pay for you.”

      The last is, I think, the main reason I feel so icky/guilty/uncomfortable/anxious/angry about the lavish gifts & spending. I have a wonderful Mother who I really respect and who raised me well and cared for me. When MIL does this money thing, it feels like she’s trying to push into a role already filled by someone I care about. When she said (above) “I’m your mother and you have to do what I tell you” I wanted to yell back “well, you’re not MY damn mother!” I keep thinking back to the analogy Captain Awkward used about kids of parents who get new partners after breaking up with the kid’s original parents: a cat, hiding under a chest of drawers, growling, who very much DOES NOT WANT YOUR AFFECTION. I want MIL to treat me as an autonomous adult (which I am) and a peer, not as her new adopted child (which is how she thinks of it, probably).

      I know that I need to reframe this all in my mind because this woman isn’t going anywhere… and I will try to re-tell the story of the gift/money giving from MIL as “she wants to give me these things because it makes her happy”. I think CA’s advice is spot-on, although it’s a bit tough to swallow. I’ll respond with more detail to the original post.

      1. One other thing it might be helpful to put in the mix is love languages, or however you want to think about them? Both getting a slightly clearer vision of your own values/style, as well as putting your MIL’s actions in that context? Your family, it sounds like, has a pretty clear way of communicating love and respect and it is in part about not taking people for granted by making sure you work hard and only take what you need, and being a person who earns respect by being independent, and I’m sure many other things it’s not possible to glean here. And it sounds like it’s very important to you to achieve a status that your family placed a lot of value on – an independent, responsible adult who makes her own way in the world and is seen as such. MIL’s love language sounds a lot like my family’s, which is gift giving and acts of service with almost no talking. But those aren’t universal? So within your value set and communication style, your MIL’s actions would mean some specific, crappy things – I think you said somewhere below that paying for things is infantalizing, but I think that’s super family dynamic-specific. Adulthood, for example, is not that big a deal in my family. Like, we’re all independent self supporting adults now but I don’t think it’s ever been important to us or our family as a source of pride or a landmark? So gift giving and support doesn’t come in that framework/carry that weight. For us being people who show up/support/care for is a big marker of character, and so my parents offer support/gifts that I read/feel are messages that I’ll never be alone and am loved. Getting gifts is sometimes an affirmation that they’re proud and happy about the adulthood things I’m doing, and especially when I’m home to visit I get gifts that are too much or unnecessary but are a way of communicating “I love you so much and I’m glad you’re here even though I’m making that hard to see sometimes because I never talk about it and I’m a bit prickly.” Bending over backwards to see the other person’s side can be the beginning of bad, boundary pushing things, but keeping your last paragraph in mind it might be helpful to think a little about love languages and communication styles given hers is so different from yours? A lot of caring gets left in the chasms between communication styles in relationships, I think. Or worse, it leaves like a gesture of love and lands as an insult.
        In terms of things that are squarely in your control in the relationship it might also be worth pondering what your ideal future relationship with her is? I don’t know that she really is your peer, or that that’s a realistic outcome for the best possible version of this relationship it sounds like you’re going to have to negotiate for a long time. She’s not someone you’d be friends with if you had the choice, and though you’re both adults, your lives are in different places and spaces and stages. Is there space to be close to her in a way that does not affect the role of your mother in your life, or is that not a possibility for you? It’s sort of hard to tell from shorter descriptions whether she imagines herself taking up all the maternal space in your life (bad) or whether she imagines being a mother figure and you feel like that is a space reserved for one and it is occupied (possibly reworkable if you thought it would be nice)? Given who she is and who you are, what does the best version of this look like?

        1. Aww, thanks! Yes, the pet was (and is) fine, it was just a stomach bug that made it so he was so nauseous that he couldn’t eat or drink water. The latter was the real danger; he was very dehydrated, and it doesn’t take small animals very long to die from dehydration! But our vet was fabulous and made sure he got plenty of fluids and once the nausea passed he turned back into his regular “I’ll eat whatever you put in front of me” self. 🙂

      2. OK, so I’m reading these things all out of order, because my browser is screwy, and keeps popping to the top of the page. I just saw this (after having commented elsewhere).

        I see where you’re coming from, and admire your self-sufficient spirit, and the desire to keep the relationship balanced. Good for you! I wish more people had the self-sufficient attitude!

        I also see something, that maybe you don’t, in your description of your mother in law. You see, I suffer from chronic pain, as well, and this really popped out to me.

        YMMV, but my opinion is that when she is in pain, she spends more, because it gives her an endorphin boost. Generosity gives us “warm fuzzy” feelings, right? Well, that actually can have a positive effect on our bodies when we are in pain. Likewise, if she’s feeling anxious and stressed about things that she cannot control, she reaches for something she CAN control: money.

        That “I’m your mother” statement seemed to me to be a symptom of panic, actually. She needed to control SOMETHING, and needed an excuse to do it. The fact that she wasn’t allowed to control this thing at first had her scrambling, and she went there.

        I could be wrong, and be interpreting it according to my own lens, of course. Still, it’s something to consider.

        I recommend using your words and asking her about it, during some un-stressful time. If you know that she’s doing this to fulfill a real, personal need of her own, you might find yourself more easily able to accept these gifts from her, because in doing so, you are literally helping her feel better, physically. Your acceptance of her gifts can be your gift to her. And if you both know that, then she will be able to acknowledge your acceptance as your gift to her, and it will be warm fuzzies all around.

        Is your pet OK now? I sure hope so! WOW! No wonder there was a blow-out! You were hit with conflict, including cultural expectation of “happy families at holidays” at an EXTREMELY stressful and painful and gut-wrenching time, and the feces hit the fan. She was feeling her own stresses, at the same time, and … Yeah, that’s messed up.

        I thought, earlier, when I posted down below, that you might have kids. I think, now, that you don’t. Sorry about making that assumption. My nephew’s coming over today, and I have kids on the brain.

  5. A good approach will depend on why you’re anxious about Ml’s big spending. Do you feel infantilized because of it? ML may be in the “You’ll always be my children” mindset and taking care of you makes her feel good. Try gently explaining that sometimes it makes you feel good to take care of her. Do you worry that oyu’re taking advantage of her, or that later she’ll feel that you did? Again, try laying it out that way. My family has similar problems with my grandmother, while being reluctant to spend money on herself she really likes to take care of others (especially family), but as she’s gotten older and frailer sometimes she worries about people taking advantage of her. So when she decides to foot a big expense that she doesn’t need to for us, we gently explain that we appreciate it, but want to make sure she has that money for herself later in case she needs it.

    This might not work, especially if ML’s gifting is not generous, but a way to hold something over on others. But the best way to at least explain your own anxiety and get some understanding and wiggle room for that, if nothing else, is to explain your motivation/emotions. I know it’s a bit counter-intuitive to the whole ‘set a boundary and keep it’ bit.

  6. You say your husband doesn’t want to rock the boat, but it’s his mother. It’s really up to him to deal with him. One thing you could insist on is to book the flight and pay for it yourself. Do it early, say in October, then announce that you’ve already got it booked and she doesn’t need to do a thing. That way, at least all you have to deal with is the gifts. If you have to do it without telling him, so be it.

    1. LW here. Yeah, I’ve realized after the trip that I have to be much more strategic about planning the big trips to see the whole family. In the future, we will absolutely be the ones to buy the tickets (by asking “what dates will you (MIL) be there? We need to check our schedules first”. At least this year we managed to book the hotel before she took care of that too!

      It should be noted that going to see MIL and Husband’s sibling involves just a 2+ hour car ride. The plane trip this year was unique because we were visiting extended family.

      1. Strategic ticket-buying: For some reason this reminded me of my sister’s late husband.

        He was a hoarder, and on trash day, would literally go through the trash can and remove stuff she had put in there. The only way she could get ALL the trash out of the house was to sneak around the neighborhood, and put it in other people’s trash cans, when he wasn’t looking.

        People are weird, I tells ya’. WEIRD.

        On the plus side, reading things like Captain Awkward makes me see just how common the weirdness is (I was about to say, “normal,” but no. Perhaps “average.” Or “ubiquitous”?), and that makes me feel better about the weirdness in my own family. We’re weird, but not the drastic outliers I once thought.

  7. I don’t have any advice, but oh, I can relate! My late mother in law always wanted to pay for everything (and usually did, because it was almost impossible to stop her). There can be lots of different reasons behind wanting to throw money at family and it can definitely come from a place of love, but in MIL’s case there was also a hefty dose of “I want to control everything!”, because whenever her plans didn’t work for us she’d play the “well I’m paying for it” card and end the discussion, to the point when I was always wary of saying yes to her because we usually never knew quite what strings were attached to her generosity until it was too late.

    LW, I hope this isn’t your MIL, but if it is: it might not feel that way, but seriously, it is ALWAYS ok to say no! (And if this isn’t your MIL, it’s always ok to say no too 🙂 )

  8. This sounds complicated. You’ve got an MiL who blew up at you five years ago at Christmas (what was that about?); you’ve got the same MiL lavishly spending on you and your husband (and everyone else) and making your travel arrangements without asking; you’ve got a husband (her son) who doesn’t want you to “rock the boat.”

    Financial steamrolling, things like not splitting the check and purchasing extravagant gifts, are ways of publicly dominating the recipient, making them an inferior and a dependent. Your unease hints that you understand this, and I am sure your MiL and her family do as well on some level. The meals and gifts require everyone to be grateful to her for things which perhaps they didn’t ask for and which perhaps they do not want. (You don’t address the desirability or suitability of the gifts, but paying for your travel is obviously a way of forcing you to attend.) Forcing you to accept the things you don’t want makes it much harder for you to say that you are not receiving the things you do want (consideration, respect for your desire not to have gifts, less pressure, whatever).

    If your husband does not have your back and is not willing to take your side on the family holiday questions, I suggest that you start discussing it with him that way. You need his support in this so that you know you have it in other stuff that really matters. If you don’t want to go, you have to tell him so. If he pushes back and tells you it’s not so bad and you’re making a big deal out of how his mom always is, she doesn’t mean any harm, maybe some professional counselling, for you as a couple and for you alone, to work out the dynamic there would be helpful.

    I do think that every other year at Family Christmas is enough, especially if air travel is involved. Holiday period travel has become extra horrible, and not wanting to deal with it is a reason not to do it. If you do go, well, I’m just going to close by saying that I have “forgotten” gifts I didn’t want, in the past.

    1. LW here. I address the Xmas blow-up further up in the comments (see the big brick of a reply to postmenlikedoctors for details).

      Although I think that MIL’s motivations are mostly benign, but there may be a controlling aspect as well. In my reply referenced above, I noted that MIL came into a big inheritance when her wealthy father died, and as the oldest I think she may see herself as the head of the family: responsible for financially supporting the next generation of the family (as her father did). This door swings two ways: on one hand, you’re responsible and giving; on the other hand, you’re dominating and controlling. She’s largely not controlling, but I do think she has some control issues around money that she’s not aware of.

      Every year I’ve broached the topic of “let’s just do one gift each” or “how about a secret-Santa” with Husband, and the pushback is always about timing. Because I’ve been in school for awhile, it’s hard for me to think about Xmas/holiday planning before Thanksgiving. So after Thanksgiving I broach it, and he always says it’s too late: “Mom’s [MIL] already bought us presents”, “we don’t have time to change the plan now, how about next year”, etc. Sometimes these were legit complaints, sometimes not. Either way, it’s exhausting trying to change a family tradition when all other members are stubborn to maintain things as they are. Sigh.

      But these last several years have taught me that I can get Husband on board if I discuss it early enough. This year, after I wrote in, I told him that under no circumstances would we be flying anywhere for the next two Xmases (i.e. before I graduate). However, MIL and Husband’s sibling live close enough that we’ll always see them on Xmas, just a few hours away by car. So I don’t have the choice to not go. My plan from now on is to follow CA’s advice with my own tweaking:

      1 – Make a short (3-4) item Xmas list for MIL to use on Amazon.
      2 – Acknowledge that MIL will buy me a bunch of additional stuff I don’t want or need.
      3 – On the day of the visit, smile and thank her in the moment.
      4 – Schedule a self-care day for myself afterward (say, a massage and lunch out just for me)
      5 – Go to Goodwill to donate the items MIL gave that I don’t want, so at least someone will get some good use out of them.

      As for the whole air travel at Xmas time: SERIOUSLY, SCREW THAT. It’s so exhausting and not worth it. In the future, I’m going to suggest that we visit extended family during the Spring or Summer instead… if MIL really wants to do Xmas with extended family, she’s welcome to it.

      1. That looks like an excellent plan! Especially the bit about visiting the extended family on off-times. Seriously, plane travel these days? BLEECCCHHHH! I hates it, like Gollum hates a Bagginses. And it’s ten times worse at holidays.

        Mind you, it’s worth it, for people you love. Doesn’t mean you should volunteer to do it, if it’s not necessary. And having a spring or summer visit is better for logistical reasons, as well. Weather, alone, makes it better. Cheaper flights and hotels, if you’re traveling off season, makes it better. So much less stress, because you’re not dealing with holiday expectations! Seriously, there are so many reasons to do the extended family visits any time other than “the holiday season.”

        If they plan that early, maybe make the suggestion now, rather than “in the future,” and see if you can’t start a new tradition. Do you have Spring Break? Sounds like an excellent time to visit the relatives.

  9. In my experience, people who engage in aggressive generosity are coming from one of the following places:

    1. They’re saving up for an “after all I’ve done for you” gotcha.
    2. They’re rolling over to expose their neck making it clear that you’re perpetually better and they’re bad, and they hope that if they give you enough you won’t hurt them.
    3. They’re perpetuating roles that extend way beyond what it seems, i.e. They’re the parent, and you’re the always incompetent cute little girl (head pat) who will never grow up to make money and become independent. Or in this case, it’s your husband who must stay a little boy in their mind.
    4. They feel guilty and are trying to make up for it.

    I don’t know enough in this case to say which one your mother-in-law is going for, but if I had to put my money somewhere, I’d go with door #3. I do know that truly generous considerate people think about whether they’re making the targets of their generosity uncomfortable. She does this with the whole family? That takes some of the pressure off. You might say when you realize that she’s far exceeded the $40 rule, “Wait, I thought we agreed on $40, and we followed the rules. What’s going on?” Everyone else is still going yay, and when you open your (aggressively generous) gift, you say, “Gosh, there’s a choice between accepting this and going back on the agreed on rules. What’s the point of agreeing to a $40 limit secret santa if you’re going to disregard it immediately?” Then m-i-l says something that will clue you into one of the 4 possibilities above by saying

    1. Don’t be ridiculous; you’ll pay me back someday.
    2. It gives me so much happiness. Please take this. I insist. No really. (And if you do something for her; she pays you back 10x over.)
    3. I know you’ve had a rough year with that (cute) job you do.
    4. Please accept the gift. It would make me feel so much better if you would.

    1. Hm. I think those four things can certainly be in play, but I have also known people who just really, REALLY like to buy gifts. Often they’re people for whom financial hardship isn’t a question, and so they may not ‘get’ why someone would want to set a spending limit in the first place–so they might agree to it, but think it’s a sort of face-saving non-rule rather than something genuinely binding.

      I say this because my grandmother was like that. She loved, loved, loved to shop and was quite well off (the rest of the family very much was not). I think she gave us extravagant gifts because a) she enjoyed the shopping, b) she enjoyed shopping for someone else, and was bored/tired of shopping just for herself, and c) she took a lot of pleasure in picking out the perfect thing. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay to break a spending agreement, but I really don’t think it was a trap, a gotcha, or a matter of control or guilt. I think she just… really enjoyed it, and gave expensive gifts semi-accidentally in the same way that I might start out embroidering a small thing for a friend and then lose track of everything in my enthusiasm and make a whole needlepoint table runner depicting an elaborate scene from Dragon Age semi-by-accident.

      But your test is still probably a good one! Had you asked my grandmother that, I think she would have answered with something like:

      5. Oh, I didn’t realize–it was just so perfect for you, I couldn’t resist! I had so much fun looking for the right present.

      1. Yeah. Additionally, sometimes it can be more of a burden/effort for someone with plenty of spare money to try and stay within a certain limit – I definitely used to ‘overgift’, usually because it was very important to get the ‘right’ gift, and that everyone got equal gifts, so I’d end up buying another to make up for the first, and then another for someone else to balance out.

        But also because it was fun, and not having to worry about the cost too much made it a lot *more* fun to go ‘that looks neat! I’ll get that!’. Now I don’t have a lot of spare spending money, it’s a LOT more stressful to gift shop – not because I feel like my smaller gifts are less ‘worth’ it, but because a smaller budget makes it harder to find exactly the right thing and I can’t just buy six small things to make up for none of them being ‘just right’.

        Also I grew up as the eldest one who ‘saved’ and ‘had a job’ so it was instilled in me that I should always pay for/offer money to my siblings if we were in a position where they might have to pay so I’m always keenly aware of trying to figure out if I should pay or not.

        It’s mostly tied to relative income levels (actually, no, not *income* – *disposable income* which is NOT the same thing; I feel impelled to buy things for the family guy friend with a full time job and a kid and a mortgage but not for the student friend with a part time job who lives at home) – $10 to me is usually going to be worth a lot more, or a lot less, than it is to the other person, so I feel guilty/compelled/uncomfortable/uncaring depending on the relative monetary status and a lot more strongly definite that I should pay, or not pay, or not care, or be paid for.

        Paying for people who are putting themselves out/inconvenienced (e.g. by coming to visit! that’s always expensive, and I get the benefit without having to pay for the travel) feels like I’m not taking advantage of them and am taking care of them. And it’s a way to show I appreciate them, and make sure that I’m repaying them with money to even out the other ways they’re paying/benefiting me (without just handing them a cheque, which would be crass. But often it’s MUCH easier to pay for dinner than to worry about whether the night out was ‘worth’ it to them).

        ….money stuff is always complicated, but basically, some people just like to throw money at small inconveniences to make things generally easier all around and enjoy being in a position to be able to do that – either for personal status or because they enjoy being useful/making someone else’s day a little better.

        And some people Just Want To Pay for family/guests, especially if they’re older/richer/the host. And the value of money is relative. While some things are objectively ‘big’ expenses, the same amount of money can be weighted very differently against stuff like ‘I enjoy your company’ and ‘this removes my personal worry about… [fairness/your finances]’ and ‘the niggling worry that the cheaper gift isn’t quite right’.

        (E.g. My Granny: It took a sustained campaign of jumping on buses/to tills ahead of her – once I realised she was sneakily sneaking ahead to pay for me, repeatedly calling it out, and finally, deliberately leaving a stash of money under my pillow when I left after my first trip with a note that ‘this was about what she spent on me’ (kinda nuclear, but it worked, and I know she needed the money! Otherwise it could have been pretty rude), for my grandmother to stop paying for Literally Everything and move me into the ‘well, I guess you have enough of an income and move too fast to preempt my attempts to spend money I can’t afford on you so I’ll save the effort and just ask you to let me pay occasionally’. And from everyone else in the family I was getting ‘don’t let her pay for anything, she’s putting you up and has no money’!

        She has No Money and I had enough pay for a trip round the entire world to visit her, but a) I had Spent Money to visit her already! and b) she wanted to be able to indulge her grandkid, and this was very very strong and made her very happy and would have been completely fine… IF she could afford it. Which she couldn’t.

        These days we have a compromise where she’s allowed to pay for special treats and things, but not *bus fares* and groceries and stuff).

        1. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I think true generosity can’t exist. I make a distinction between aggressive generosity that makes other people uncomfortable and true generosity which is genuinely happily appreciated. My comment above is directed to those situations where giving the most becomes a competition with the winner smugly delighting in their opponent’s defeat. The LW wrote of a situation in which everyone agrees on a $40 limit secret santa arrangement. That sounds to me like a great way to even things out and make sure everyone can share in the delight of giving and getting without feeling uncomfortable. Then the m-i-l breaks the agreed-on rules. She must know she’s making people uncomfortable. She’s doing something for herself at others’ expense. If she really had her children and their spouse’s best interests at heart, she’d listen when they make it clear how uncomfortable they are with her pressing expensive gifts on them. Buying airline tickets without even first getting the go-ahead as to dates and whether they want to come? That’s not generous; it’s controlling, and by calling it “aggressive generosity” I was hoping I could help the LW see her m-i-l’s actions for what they are.

          1. Oh, yes, the ‘aggressive’ part is definitely an important distinction. But it can be very hard to define whether someone’s overspending is aggressive or not unless all the *other* reasons overspending makes someone anxious have been considered.

        2. You know, thank you for articulating this. I have A LOT of anxiety around gift giving, and it translates into the kind of overgifting you describe. If I decide, for example, that $40 is a reasonable amount to spend on a gift, I’ll spend $80 by the time I’m done, because to me, that $40 is just for the item. There’s tax and gift wrap and a card and a fancy pen to address the card, and if I split the $40 over two items, well, two $25 items is *like* one $40 item, right? And if I do that, I have to get a third, smaller gift to “make up” for the fact that I’m giving two “lesser” gifts. Even if I find a single item for $40, shouldn’t I throw in some fancy candies to ease the disappointment they are bound to feel when they open the disappointing gift I’ve given them?! If I ever give you a gift, I will assure you before you open it that it’s totally fine if you want to return or exchange or regift it, and it really, really is. I really, really just want you to be happy. 🙂

          Thank god for gift receipts. Thank god for gift cards.

          1. Yes! I don’t do it so much anymore because I’m consciously stepping on it, and it was getting ridiculous – multiple Christmases where I was giving twice as many gifts. Once I figured out a lot of it was massive rejection sensitivity (rejection sensitive dysphoria) so if it didn’t get the perfect genuine happy response, I Had Failed, combined with ADHD (so a) I buy super expensive random thing for person A just because it’s perfect/I get excited about it, and then have to even it all out, and b) if *I’m* bored with the gift, which happened very quickly, then the gift is boring, so I need to find something else as well).

            Noticing each of those specific things made it a LOT easier to disengage my self worth from the gifts I was giving and scale back appropriately. I was also noticing ongoing discomfort/startlement from people because I was *way* overgifting, so I’ve tried to recalibrate so I only overgift when I genuinely want to give them the thing and they are more than a casual acquaintance.

          2. ….*sigh* hit post too soon.

            The other aspect of ADHD was the executive dysfunction. I literally couldn’t choose between different gifts, I was just super good at organising them into piles and would spend ages making sure the piles were even.

      2. Yes, there’s a whole branch of my family who are like this! Every Christmas for the past several years we’ve set limits on spending and set up an exchange where each person is supposed to just get gifts for one other person… and every time, they blow past all the limits and get gifts for everyone anyway. And it’s because they’re genuinely nice, generous people who happen to be well-off and love to make you happy by giving you something you like! And they genuinely don’t expect me to reciprocate in kind because they know I don’t have much money. As far as they’re concerned, they can afford it and it makes them happy to make me happy, so why not?

        What probably doesn’t occur to them is that it makes me feel bad when they shower me with gifts when I can’t afford to give them anything in return. Showing up with one little gift when everyone else is handing out piles of them just reminds me that I can’t afford to be as generous as I would like. It makes me feel less like an adult who has worthwhile things to contribute and more like a child who can’t be expected to be held to the same gift-giving standards as everyone else.

        My family want to make me happy by giving me a bunch of gifts… but I would actually be happier if it was closer to an equal exchange, because it’s empowering to feel like I can pull my own weight and contribute about as much as everyone else is. But I know how happy it makes them to give gifts, so I guess the best I can do is just happily accept what they give me and hope that someday I’ll be able to afford to give them gifts that will make them happy too.

          1. I say that based on your description of your particular family, by the way. That wasn’t meant as a blanket statement about all over-generous people.

      3. My dad is like this. He was poor as a child and through various life events that I won’t go into here, he is now very well off. It simply delights him to be able to host us as his vacation house, buy the groceries, pick up the tab when we have dinner, and buy wonderful things for the grandkids that we otherwise might not be able to afford.

        And he is genuinely a wonderful person who loves us and expects nothing in return. He actually just is that generous.

        On the other hand, if we said, “we can’t come for christmas this year” or “we aren’t comfortable with this XXX expensive thing you just bought grandkid” he would LISTEN and would DO WHAT MADE US HAPPY.

        I can’t tell if the LW’s MIL is like my dad or if there are hidden strings. I also would like to know a lot more about the spouse’s attitude too.

        Honestly my dad is not trying to control me or infantilize me. He treats me like an adult and is proud of my career, etc. He just loves to shower us with stuff when he can. That’s really all there is to it. I feel very lucky about it all too.

        But the key here is that the LW’s MIL doesn’t seem to listen or pay attention to her concerns. That is a bad sign, to me.

        1. My dad too. He doesn’t talk about his childhood much, but it’s become more and more obvious to me as I’ve grown up that one of the reasons he delights in giving/holidays/helping out is because he finally has the resources to do what he wished someone would do for him as a kid. He wants to give give give to me, and loves when he can get me just the thing I need. (Hi there new fridge for my house I just moved into, where did you come from?)

          If MiL is well-meaning – if she’s just over-enthusiastic about PRESENTS! – then you might have success asking her to find some very specific widget or oddity. Like, “I’m having the hardest time finding a set of cyan teapot polishers that will fit in a breadbox, can you help? It would be the perfect gift for Spouse” might be a channel to direct all her enthusiasm, rather than just plain old spending.

          If there’s something more dysfunctional going on, the conversations you have with your spouse are one thing, but I think he’s the one who’s going to have to at least open the floor with MiL. I’m not sure what the blowup you reference was about, but it suggests that hard conversations are going to be fraught regardless. If you can get on the same page with your spouse, you’ll be able to present a united voice when you turn down the massive over-giving.

      4. Seconding Turtle Candle (awesome name!)

        In my mum’s side of the family they come from a place of having nothing. As in my granddad going poaching for rabbits so his family had something to eat kind of nothing. His mum was a single mother of around 10 kids.
        So when family is round it goes them grey joy to use what little moneyed now have to spend on them. Often it’s more than we know they can afford but really all you can do is hie a fond tut an accept it and thank them because it comes from a good place and there are no strings attached.

        Similarly my mum and dad had nothing so when the wealthier other set of grandparents died and they inherited it meant that they could live without a mortgage – a HUGE thing. So again their being able to spend money to care for their family is very symbolic and bring them great joy – it doesn’t infantilise necessarily, it’s jut a gesture of care. Luckily with my parents I can do the gesture back in little ways like buying a breakfast or coffees for them one on one but they wouldn’t dream of letting us pay for a meal.

        It depends basically. You know our MIL, but as the captain says it may be worth just accepting it

      5. Yep, my mom is your grandmother. She genuinely enjoys finding the perfect gift, as well as ‘a silly thing just for fun’, and then multiply that by a bajillion. There are no strings attached, she just enjoys the hunt, and it’s her way of showing love.

        Me, I like presents. I like getting things. I like saving my own money. I am ok with my mom giving me silly things just for fun, and I am ok with accepting things I won’t use and then dropping them at Goodwill.

        BUT my partner feels very uncomfortable receiving gifts. It stresses him out trying to find the perfect gift in turn (even if reciprocation is not expected), he’s fairly minimalist and utilitarian so he doesn’t want things ‘just for fun’, and he’s worried he won’t be able to adequately and politely express gratefulness for a gift for which he is not actually grateful, and then continue to do so over the years with more and more gifts. He’s a worrier, so thinking about it just invokes a cycle of more worry.

        I have explained all this to my mom, but she just can’t stop herself. She’s always finding little things when she’s out shopping. I have tried giving her a list of things I know he will use, but she can’t resist going off list. And fundamentally, she just can’t understand not wanting gifts, and doesn’t get the recipient’s anxiety at receiving them. I think that’s the crux of it; genuine gift-givers simply can’t wrap their minds around not wanting a gift.

        So last Christmas we committed the ultimate faux-pas of giving back gifts. I handled it, because she’s my mom. I said something along the lines of “Thank you so much, he appreciates the spirit in which this was given, but he just won’t use it, and as we have minimal space in our luggage, we’re going to give it back.” And although she had previously explicitly TOLD US she is perfectly fine with this, and put on a “ok, that’s perfectly fine!” face in the moment, I know she was sad.

        But! I think she learned the lesson. She sent him only one thing for his birthday. Yes, it was a not-entirely useful thing, but at least it wasn’t five not-entirely useful things!

    2. My uncle gives us all a really very generous gift every Christmas, and writes ‘no present please’ on the card that accompanies it.
      In his case, it’s not coming from any of the places you list: he worked in tax, and – while he has never directly said this to us, from something my dad once said – we don’t have to pay tax on these presents, plus we got the money when we had growing families and needed it most, while had he just saved it, to leave us each a lump sum on his death, neither of those things would apply.
      So, in his case, it’s just prudent generosity – and perhaps an instance of the idea of social banking – you get from your older relatives (at weddings, at Christmas,when moving house – whatever) and then when you become the older financially stable relative you give generously in your turn – the generation that has the money supports the generation starting out. It evens out in the end. You get, you give.
      (I don’t mean to suggest that the MIL is right to ignore agreed spending limits etc., but I don’t think generous inter-generational giving necessarily comes from an unkind or unwise place.)

      1. This was my parents’ reason for expensive gifts / paying for most meals. I think it helped a lot to have the reason out in the open.

    3. LW here; this is so accurate!

      I think the situation here is door #3. I feel like she really has a hard time stepping outside of the “Mother-provider” role. She now knows that Husband has a very lucrative career (he finally disclosed his salary after the plane-ticket incident this year), but I doubt anything will change. She’s definitely struggled with the fact that her kids are adults. Also, the dynamic is awkward because Husband is successful and self-sustaining, but Husband’s sibling still lives at home and is unemployed.

      I also think that MIL is trying too hard to establish a bond between us, via money. As in: “See how I provide for you and cover your every expense and get you all these neat things that you probably need? I’m like your mother and I’ll take good care of you!” I don’t think she considered how offensive it is to me that she’s trying to step into the role of Mother-provider when I already have a mother who I respect and love a great deal more (and who I think did a better job raising me that MIL would have). And I don’t think it’s done with malice. Rather, she loves her son, and she thinks I’m cool, and she wants to make sure I know that she cares about me and that I’m part of the family.

      So, maybe it’s 3 & 4: one, she thinks of us as “kids” (despite knowledge to the contrary), and two, she feels guilty. I don’t know WHY she feels guilty, but I definitely get the guilt+anxiety vibe from her a lot. There’s skeletons in their closet from early in Husband’s life which I won’t disclose, but I think the guilt leftover from that period still plays a role, ESPECIALLY around the emotionally-charged time of year that is Xmas.

      1. Hello Rage Cat– I’m lost in the threading so I’m putting my comment here after reading the whole thread. First I want to note that when I’ve said that some people give gifts with strings attached, the strings don’t have to be ones where you use the gift in a certain way or that you pay back in a certain way. The strings can be that you’ll feel a certain way towards her. My take-away from this whole thing is that whatever you decide to do or say, you can do it or say it secure that her aggressive gift giving is about her, not about you. She’s acting in a way that answers to her issues, or she’s doing it for her own happiness without regard for you and your discomfort. Once you know that, you can relax.

  10. I have a rather fraught relationship with my in-laws as well, and some of that centers around boundaries and the lack thereof. There is also frequently the pressure to visit more often than we do, or for longer than we do, and there’s a constant push-pull. My parents are actually the ones to spend money on us, generally when we need something, but more frequently having to do with buying us meals out. I think it stresses my husband out, but for them, it’s because they didn’t have a lot of money while I was growing up, and they believe i that their blessings ought to be shared with family, friends, and strangers alike.

    So, I’d offer this:

    1. I don’t know why your MIL spending a ton of money on you guys makes you anxious. You have a right to your feelings for sure, but it might help to determine WHY it makes you anxious. Is she expecting something in return? Do you have anxiety around spending a lot of money because it feels foreign to you, or maybe wasteful? All of these things are valid, but if she’s just doing it out of the goodness of her heart and because this is how she shows love, then maybe see if you can accept it. (Especially if you wouldn’t be able to visit them at all/as often if she didn’t pay.)

    2. Don’t spend every holiday with them. We go every other year, and we try to see my parents and his on occasions that aren’t holidays. “I hate traveling around the holidays” is perfectly valid, and you can offer to go earlier or later, which might nip the gift giving in the bud. If she’s okay with surprises, and/or you have an ally who lives close, you could make a surprise trip, which would get neatly around her paying for you to come, and potentially any extravagant gifts.

    3. Is there something you could do for her that would show that you care about her, but would also reflect your values? Is there something you could make for her? Could you offer to cook a special meal while you’re visiting, and pay for all the groceries? I’ve recognized that my MIL is very anxious about us visiting/enjoying her company/etc. She’s fine in small doses, and I think she senses that I don’t exactly love hanging out with her, so she tries even harder. When I can do something like bring her homemade goodies, or show her affection in a way that feels good to me, it helps us connect.

    It’s a fact of life that your MIL is going to be in your life for as long as your husband is, and as long as she’s alive. If she’s not abusive or a terrible person otherwise, finding a way to live with her quirks will only help you in the long run. Good luck.

    1. ‘She’s fine in small doses, and I think she senses that I don’t exactly love hanging out with her, so she tries even harder’

      Yeah that’s me and my MIL

  11. I dunno. It seems like the whole “Christmas in July” thing is meant to make the MIL sound crazy and neurotic. Like a typical awful MIL (booo! family sucks!). But… the tickets are $2k+ to fly. When I lived that far away from my family, I actually did book tickets for Christmas pretty early in the year. Maybe August or September pretty much. And if my family visited me, they also wanted to know so they could budget their own vacations accordingly. That meant that sometimes *gasp* we discussed end of year plans in July. So… I don’t know that raising the question of holidays this early makes her sound bad, if that was the intent.

    1. The part where she books a $2000 holiday for them before they agree or decide on dates is pretty off putting… It basically forces them to attend on her schedule without creating a massive expensive drama of attempted ticket refunds/rescheduling.

      1. I tend to agree with Anisoptera on this one. The bit that set my hackles up the most was that the MIL bought the tickets *before* they had agreed or decided on dates was the issue. It’s one thing to figure out plans early because you have to plan vacation times/tickets are cheaper that way/etc., it’s another to go buy tickets when the people you’re buying them for have not yet said that they’re coming. Especially tickets for a plane trip that are not interchangeable (I could see the MIL saying, “Hey, it would be fun to go see this play but they’ll be sold out by the time we decide if we want to go, so I’ll buy X number of tickets and then if I guessed wrong I can give/resell the others.”).

      2. Yeah, that is definitely a move that made me feel uncomfortable. I wonder where the husband was on that one, since LW wrote “before I had agreed to the dates”. Did they mean “before we had agreed to dates”, or was LW negotiating with husband, and husband was communicating with MIL, and that’s how the tickets got booked without LW’s okay?

        (My ex used to do stuff like that a lot. He hated talking to his mum so he’d just OKAY, FINE and sign me up to stuff I didn’t agree to, and then make me feel obligated to go along, and then use me as a buffer between him and his mum. Idk why he didn’t just… not go hang with his mum, rather than put all of that energy into dragging me along? He probably thought that there would be less repercussions to rocking my boat, than rocking the boat his mum was in.)

    2. Yeah, my culturally Jewish family isn’t into Christmas, but we are into family vacations. Since the two-week period around Christmas and New Year’s is one of very few times where the whole fam is guaranteed to be free of work obligations, that’s usually when we try to book our all-ages and -accommodations-friendly trips: cruises, island resort destinations, etc. And in the years when we go all out and do one of those, we have to start planning in *March*, because sorting out lodging and plane tickets for 11+ people, several of whom are coming from all across the country, is no breezy endeavor.

      That said, since it sounds like the LW’s Christmas takes place at the same place (the MIL’s) every year, I’m somewhat baffled as to why the details need to be planned out five months in advance. When my ex and I were still together, we didn’t usually make holiday arrangements to visit his parents’ place one big, rectangular, flying-preferred state away until mid-November, at the earliest. That MIL is already putting the pressure on this far ahead of schedule makes me…curious.

      1. The LW mentions $2000 tickets – that’s an international flight I’m thinking and I would be booking it at least 6 months out too – the prices on those can go up wildly closer to the date, especially a popular travel date like the days around xmas… Even for a domestic flight (in Australia – dunno about elsewhere) I would book an smash flight a good 3 months out, just because the cheap tickets are all gone if you leave it later. :-/

        1. I guess I read the price as covering both LW’s and husband’s tickets, and where I am (landlocked US), domestic plane tickets at that time of year can absolutely top $1000/person. :/ It sounds from the other comments LW made that this particular set of Christmas plans could be more like the international clusterfuck my family sets up every couple years, though!

          1. Either way though, the way I read it was that the problem was the MiL booking them *without checking with LW* that the dates were OK.

    3. The belief the holiday needs to be arranged early could just be a clashing family culture issue. I visit my parents in the Southern Hemisphere each Christmas and we start talking about dates in February/March. It’s just the way my family are. Of course, the ‘booking dates without checking’ thing is still off.

    4. Yeah. the presumption of booking the flights without consultation is off, but the time of booking isn’t.

      With flights being so expensive, and with jobs only giving so many vacation days, it makes sense to plan these things far in advance.When I was a student it was different, as you never knew when your exams would be, but now? I know I’m going to be taking the week of Christmas off every year (in fact, my company recently instituted a policy requiring it), so I could probably make plans and book flights in January if I really wanted to.

  12. Sometimes, as in my father’s case, spending money is a way to make up for not spending time, effort or energy on your family. Money is easy. Time, effort and energy are much more demanding.

  13. Well this is rather timely LW, because I’ve been absolutely going out of my mind due to this kind of gifting/hospitality as I’m right now in the country of my Grandparents’ birth with my mother and people are insisting on paying for everything in ways that have become excruciatingly uncomfortable.

    It started out reasonable – my mum has hosted many of these people in Australia (where I also live usually) and so they want to return the favour. But I’ve never done anything for any of them and am starting to feel horribly guilty – I wish I could just buy people dinner sometimes you know, to thank them? But more than that, there are other problems such as wages being lower here, so my Australian income goes a long way, and I often casually just choose things to buy because they’re so cheap but then my relatives insist on footing the bill and I feel horribly guilty when I realise It’s way less affordable for them – it’s kind of partly ruining my holiday because I feel like I can’t just stop places and eat food or whatever without it being a big financial deal for someone else, rather than a trivial cost for me to pay for everyone. But it’s worse than that – at one point I was in a shop and picked up something relatively expensive for myself, and a relative insisted on buying it for me. She went way waaaay past ignoring a polite “oh no you shouldn’t” and physically shoved me out of the way while I said “NO” really loudly and firmly to the point that the shop keeper was startled – it crossed a line of consent, basically. It was weird and horrible. It was expensive by local standards and I was extremely clear that this wasn’t a polite demurment (is that a word?) on my part. And that’s when I realised that beyond a certain point excessive gifts and generosity become a kind of unpleasant form of control. You don’t get to decide to spend money any more. You’re forced to involve someone else in every single calculation about whether you want to buy something because you know by picking it up you’re causing them to buy it for you. You have no control about how indebted you are.

    Obligation is a weird and tricky thing. I’m coasting on my mother’s generosity to these people, and it really doesn’t sit well with me. Meanwhile, I don’t want to be so deeply indebted to people I don’t know very well and couldn’t host in my tiny flat anyway and maybe don’t want to feel obliged to hang out with lots if they visit Australia. And I also want to enjoy my holiday, but because of all this generosity I can’t suggest anything, choose anything, buy anything or have any kind of control without feeling guilty and selfish. I can’t reciprocate. I’m horribly uncomfortable. I feel like people have crossed the line between generosity and consent and it’s icky. Meanwhile, my mother has a shouting match every time it comes time to pay for anything because she’s trying to pay for stuff too (she had the same non-optional generosity habit).

    If this sounds more like ranting than advice I guess my excuse is it’s coming up to the end of week three of this and yesterday someone yelled at me for leaving them a small card and a box of chocolates in thanks for letting me stay in their house for a week.

    Basically, I get why you find that situation so uncomfortable. I can’t see a way to escape it other than not engaging with it at all. Certainly I will never come here and stay with relatives again – it will be hotels and doing my own thing. I think I wanted to comment mainly because I want people who do this kind of enforced, total, brutal “generosity” that a) it’s nice to consider the wishes of your guests sometimes and treat consent like a real thing, even if you’re trying to do them a favour, and b) to understand that if you don’t allow some reciprocity it all feels horribly uncomfortable after a while – you’re not making your guest happy, you’re making them miserably guilty.

    And this is all without considering the manipulation game this sometimes is (my mother certainly likes to create a sense of obligation and to control stuff, and she’ll remind you of everything she’s done for you if you try to go against her wishes at a later date). LW if your mother in law is doing this I would lean strongly towards not going.

    1. I suffer a similar situation when I go back to the Land of My Ancestors (from Australia, where I live); I resolve this problem by forcing them to take a red packet loaded with cash before I run through immigration and they can’t give it back. After a lifetime, I’ve realised this is the only way I can deal with my family (and associated) feeling compelled to pay for my everything. They will yell, but there’s nothing I can do with that, and it allows me to comfortably let them spend the money they think is necessary. (I think, for what it’s worth, for where I’m from – the cash works better than leaving a small gift. I’ve not really interrogated why.)

      1. This made me laugh a lot, and then I got onto the flight home and didn’t reply for 3 days. I think it would be the only solution! I would be afraid to try it though because what if they tried to chase me through customs to give it back to me and then we were all tackled by security and I was thrown off my flight and all sorts of nightmares ensued…? Like I don’t think they would, but what if they did? They would probably just mail it back to me anyway. Heh.

    2. I have a much milder version of this. I have someone I love in another country that I visit on a semi-regular basis that won’t let me pay for anything either. While we haven’t had the same power struggles you’ve referred to (they have been able to afford it, and we have a much closer relationship so it’s not quite as weird, plus they’ve repeatedly pointed out that they are paying much less for my food/souvenirs/etc than I did for my plane ticket and they haven’t come to visit me where I live so this is their way of making things reciprocal), I finally decided that on my next visit I need to set up a time to go see part of the country by myself so I can take care of some of those expenses and therefore be able to buy random trinkets or desserts or whatever without worrying about someone else having to do it.

    3. It might (or might not …) help to invent a list of people at home who you need to buy presents for, and say that you’re buying trinket X for one of them, instead of for yourself. They may be prepared to let you pay for your gifts to other people. You could even make that the purpose of going shopping – “oooh, I must just drop into the gift shop and see if I can find a gift for my friend Cathy.”

      1. Yeah I sort of started doing this – I was also buying presents for people back home and they did mostly leave those alone. Although even that was weird. The item we *really* fought over me buying for myself was a hat, and I wanted it for camping purposes, then later I was looking at a different hat for a friend and the person who bought me the first hat literally walked up to me and asked me how often I was planning to go to a place I mentioned I’d done a lot of cold weather camping in and if I really needed more hats. It was…weird. Like, if you don’t agree with my purchases, don’t try to pay for them! But once I explained it was for someone else the problem went away. I’m not sure I understand the logic in insisting on paying for stuff for people while also passive-aggressively hinting that the purchases are frivolous and excessive. But yes, your plan is a good one.

    4. LW here; your story of the situation with your relative forcefully paying for something for you when you really just wanted to get it for yourself really resonated with me. I tell a story in a brick of a reply to postmenlikedoctors (above) about having this really, REALLY tense moment of fighting over the check with my MIL and Husband at a restaurant. We were in the airport waiting for our flight, decided to get a meal (which I didn’t expect MIL and Husband’s sibling to join us for, but they tagged along). Husband and I bought some pricier beers and nice plates, thinking we’d pay for our bit (“Go Dutch”) or cover the bill. Our purchases were easily twice what MIL and sibling’s were.

      The check comes, I grab it immediately, and she gets more and more demanding about the check. She was clearly angry and I’m sitting there holding the paper, thinking “I could just put it on my card”. Finally, she says loudly “I’m your mother and you have to do what I say” and stares me down, then grabs the bill. I was so floored by the huge emotional response to a $60 dinner bill. I think about that every time I see her now… why so much drama because we want to pick up the check now and then?

      Now I know I just won’t try… it’ll be less exhausting for me, and in the future we’ll eat in and cook to avoid all this pointless drama. It sucks because we live in a city with a ton of great places to eat that I’d love to treat them to… but I know she won’t stand for it. Sigh.

      1. I can imagine how that might make you feel. I can’t even stand my OWN mother infantilising me with “I’m your mother, do as I say” (which she does a lot and which makes me so angry) let alone someone else’s.

      2. Oh yeah, the genuinely upsetting level of drama is super weird, I know people who are all “so just let them pay for everything and enjoy saving the money, win!” but I think those people don’t get just how much of a really weird, upsetting power-play this can be. In many ways it robs you of the ability to reciprocate in a normal social manner and leaves you indebted in ways you didn’t want and didn’t agree to. And it abuses a weird corner of the social contract, where it would seem really weird and ungrateful to make a big fuss about being mad at someone for being too generous, but it really is boundary-ignoring behaviour once you cross out of polite refusal and into genuine argument territory. It hands over so much control of everything too, like you say, you wouldn’t have treated yourself to so much expensive stuff if you knew someone was paying. One day on my holiday we didn’t eat lunch at all because our hosts thought the places we looked at while out and about were too expensive but wouldn’t let us pay for it and we felt like we couldn’t insist we eat at them because they wouldn’t let us pay… We had dinner at 10pm that night. I’m…not at my best when I have low blood sugar and am already stressed out of my brain… :-O It sucked so badly. I did insist after that point because I hadn’t realised until then that no lunch at all was one of the possible consequences of trying to be polite!

        I suppose the core advice of Captain Awkward applies here. They’re the ones abusing the social contract and making it super weird, and I think we struggle to actually kick off the real fight because for various reasons doing so would be wildly impolitic (e.g. Living in someone’s house for free in a foreign country, or in your case not wanting to throw a hand grenade into your husband’s relationship with his mother while also feeling obliged by all the hospitality to keep the peace). The only real solution available is to actually not go and stay with such people at all.

    5. From my own experience, this looks to me like a serious case of culture clash. What you view as rude might very well be their culture’s version of polite behavior, while they are thinking you are the rude one.

      My father once told me about a country (and now I can’t remember which one it is, except east Asian, somewhere), where the cultural norm is to be EXTREMELY careful about complimenting people’s possessions (such as “Nice painting you have there,”) because the rule of etiquette requires them to give it to you. People can really abuse it. He said the best thing, in that case, is to compliment the person’s taste. (“What good taste in paintings you have!”) They can’t give you their taste. (Please note – this was decades ago, and the cultural norms might have changed since then, and I really can’t say where it was).

      He said it happened to him, and he was gobsmacked and guilty, because the people were not well off. He was just there on a business trip, and went to the local branch of the church (it’s a global religion), and someone there invited him for dinner after services, and these complete strangers started pushing gifts on him, every time he complimented something, and Dad’s the type who carefully compliments people’s homes, because generally, pointing out that this thing or that thing that they chose compliments their taste and intellect, and he had to completely change his whole way of thinking about pleasing people.

      When we traveled, he made it a point to look up things like this, and gave us kids lots of warnings about the different cultural norms, and to respect them. Also, to admit when we were coming from our own cultural norm, and say, “Whoops! We’re in Rome. We should do as the Romans do.”

      Note, when we were in Germany, the specific compliments of this or that in their homes (particularly complimenting the workmanship, and knowing something of the history of the piece/artisan/style of artwork) became once again the go-to behavior for him, and pleased our German friends very much, indeed. Totally different culture.

      Perhaps you could explain to them that where you come from, it is traditional for guests on long visits to host the hosts, at least once a week, and to provide host gifts, as well. Bonus, if you can find some etiquette book or website, which will confirm this for them. Then, you can apologize for breaking their culture norm, and explain that it came from a good place in your heart, and a misunderstanding.

      Of course, if it is not a cultural thing, but just how this family rolls, then you’re kind of stuck.

      Good luck!

  14. I’m a little confused on your answer Captain. You said that the OP is doing and saying everything possible already, but the OP hasn’t done or said anything except to her husband (the MIL’s blow-up seems to have precipitated the anxiety, not a time where the OP indicated it existed). Are you saying that your answer is really the only two options or that these are options after you’ve exhausted all others. And if the latter’s the case, what would you do, when you just encounter this problem?

    1. My understanding is that LW/Husband/MIL have had arguments about spending/gifts/setting limits on gifts/paying for restaurants in the past (leading to a big blow-up a few years ago) and it hasn’t really changed anything – For example, MIL agreed to the $40 limit and then bulldozes past it as it suits her. They offer to pay, and it gets swatted down.

      My answer is that these are the best two options I can see: Go (imagine yourself as a tourist in an alien land if it helps) and let the husband take the lead on how celebrations happen with his family-of-origin, or don’t go/celebrate how you want to. I think it will be a waste of time & energy to try to get Mother-In-Law to understand or change her behavior around gift-giving, especially since talking about it in the past has led to blow-ups. As always, advice is just my opinion and you should choose your battles. If it’s worth it to you to make a stand by refusing a gift/taking a stand every time, then by all means do it! It might change incrementally over time. For me it wouldn’t, and I don’t think there are magic scripts that make it so.

      Do you have suggestions that you think will work? I bet the LW will find them useful.

  15. To the op: The best way to counter this is to make the money your MIL is spending overtly against your enjoyment.

    Plane ticket: “It’s really nice of you to offer, but I actually really enjoy spending the time looking up flights!” If she already booked the flights, “I’m sorry, I don’t know that our schedules will allow this date and time. I’ll let you know when we’re coming when I’ve booked the tickets okay?” (This second option means that a) she can’t know your schedules and b) your husband can’t tell her your schedules. b) might be difficult if your husband doesn’t like conflict with his mother.)

    Meals: Tell the waiter beforehand to split your meal from the check (not every restaurant let’s you do this however). Then if your MIL says something, “I know it’s kinda quirky, but I really like having my own check.” Make the waiter hand the separate check directly to you. (If your husband is cool with letting his mother pay, let him be cool with it with his own dinner).

    Gifts: When the spending limit comes up – “I really like having the spending limit. It’s enjoyable to be challenged to find an interesting gift for people on a limit and I really enjoy seeing what interesting things all of you can find on that limit.” This indicates what you like about the limit and what will please you with the gifts.

    If you MIL comes with a guilt-trip (“Oh make a lady happy by letting her buy something for you”) then turn it back. (“Oh you treat us so well all the time, I know you won’t mind if I just enjoy doing this for myself”)

    Mind you, all of these options might also make you anxious because sometimes the rejection will be really obvious (like with meals), so weigh your comfort with that anxiousness with your anxiousness with your MIL paying. And these aren’t guaranteed to stop your MIL. But if it doesn’t, take comfort that MIL’s giving is really not about you at all.

    That said, have you ever ask her why she likes giving like this? If you are truly curious when you ask, you could learn something about your MIL that might help you understand her and make you more comfortable.

    1. I agree with all of this. I recommend that the OP doesn’t deploy all of it at once, though–pick through the most important ones, leave the ones that aren’t so bad, and work around the stuff that can be worked around. There are a couple of reasons–less chance for “she’s changing EVERYTHING” means less chance of resistance, more chance of other family members backing you up (“Mom, it’s *one* meal” versus “Why won’t you let Mom be herself?”), and you can gather information based on how the first attempt went and proceed accordingly.

      Personally, I’d take the hard line on the plane tickets, because no one is setting my schedule for me. As in, I will literally let those seats go unused if she pulls that again. For gifts, I’d employ a workaround: “So, sibs, Secret Santa for everyone except MIL this year, right? You know she can’t help spoiling us all.” I’d give her a gift at or under the agreed limit and accept her gifts that blow that limit, and would *not* feel bad about following the rules. I’d let her buy most of the meals, maybe sneaking my credit card to the waiter for one or bringing in doughnuts one morning. (You might have your hard lines and acceptances in different places, no problem.)

      All this can be handled in a cheerful way. You’re not mad, you’re just doing things that make you happy, and it’s no skin off your nose if someone wants to waste money on plane tickets. If she goes ballistic because she doesn’t get to set your schedule, she’s clearly in the wrong, and your husband should see that. If he doesn’t, you don’t have a MIL/money problem, you have a marriage problem. There’s avoiding unnecessary boat-rocking, and there’s scolding the person who’s repairing the cracked hull for making too much noise.

  16. LW, as the Jewish-atheist ex of an only child whose mother loooooooooved Christmas, I can attest to the joys of saying, “Nah, we’re good this year,” every so often. Hell, the last year I was with him, I headed off the stressing at the pass by telling him, “Give them my best when you go. You know. By yourself.” Now, seeing as how even the prospect of a blissfully boyfriend-and-in-law Christmas wasn’t enough for me to stomach the thought of having any further non-boyfriend-free time (I dumped him two weeks before the big day), I can see how you might be opposed to the thought of separate holidays on a visceral is-our-marriage-okay level. If the prospect of you opting out, with or without your husband, starts seeming like the only logical way for you to avoid pulling out your hair every single year, it might be time to dig a little deeper into the source of tension between you, your husband, and his mother (mostly between your husband and his mother…my ex MIL was an intimidating woman, and I can see *why* my ex was disinclined to rock his own family boat, but I didn’t appreciate that his tiptoeing frequently left me perched precariously on the edge of the boat with no life preservers in reach). But as the Captain suggested, even having “no thanks, enjoy the festivities for us!” in your back pocket is a wonderfully liberating feeling.

    You may be leery of noping out without an insurmountable excuse for doing so, and that, too, I can understand. Because of my aforementioned (lack of) familial religious beliefs meaning that I frequently had no family obligations of my own (and also because I was in my early to mid-twenties and hadn’t yet learned that the excuseless no was an option), I didn’t feel comfortable sending my warmest holiday greetings from afar until I had been hired as a ski instructor in my own home state and would need to start work the day after Christmas due to the 26th starting the single busiest week in the whole season. Hopefully you, armed with scripts in a way I desperately wish I had been pre-breakup, will be able to repeat lines about travel aggravations and starting your own traditions while keeping in the back of your mind, “Not wanting to is reason enough not to.”

  17. I can feel this as the child of, and parent of the only grandchildren of, someone who adores showering gifts and HAS to Cover All The Expenses. I am a person who chooses to live frugally so I can have the simple lifestyle and time with my family that this allows. Yes, it bugs me when the kids have more presents at Christmas than they have the energy to open. Yes, it makes me sad when I can see that a treasured toy I got them at a thrift store becomes less valued when Grandma runs out and buys them 10 new ones. Yes, I feel as if she doesn’t see me as an adult when she always gets the check, and asks me if I’m doing alright financially. Yes, the quantity of stuff sometimes overwhelms my small home and I often resent the extra work it creates. BUT I generally let it go. Here’s why:
    She is my mother and not my MIL. I knew her when she was a teen mom who had no choice but to let other people, usually her abusive dad who expressed his ‘love’ with money, ‘cover all the expenses’ so we could eat and have a roof over our heads. I knew her all the years when she was trying to support a family with a GED and a die-hard work ethic. She has told me some of the things she had to go through, and all the people that told her she was worthless and that her life was ruined.
    So now that she’s made it financially, I get why she’s done letting anyone else pick up the check. I get why she might get a deep satisfaction out of buying someone else’s groceries. Maybe at some level she feels like SHE won’t be worthy of being called an adult until she pays off some ‘debt’ she incurred as a teenager and young adult. (I have a feeling my grandparent’s ‘help’ came with lots of strings and manipulation.)
    So that’s how I deal. I also set some boundaries which she mostly tries to respect. I try to remember that my being a card-carrying adult is not decided by her actions or feelings, nor is she ever likely to see me as a peer since we are a generation apart and she is my parent, and that’s really OK. I never ask her for anything other than her time, so then I can see anything financial she showers on me or the kids as her choice with her money, and not as me being a dependent. I thank her sincerely for everything like it was a nice surprise, and not like something she might ever do again. I take every opportunity to help her with errands or chores, since she does allow me to reciprocate in that way. (Though she often offers me ’gas’ money. *sigh*) There’s worse problems.

    1. I was thinking about this, and it reminds me a lot of my Extremely Generous Grandmother–I mentioned her above, but she was well-off and LOVED to pay for everything, and to give extravagant presents.

      In her case, I don’t think there was anything manipulative going on with it. It was three things. One, she had been poor when she was younger, and had been helped by other generous people who she had never been able to repay directly; she felt called to pass along the generosity. (She also gave to charity and helped strangers, so it wasn’t just us–she housed a young woman at her church who was fleeing a domestic abuser and her daughter for a year and a half, for instance. But she especially liked paying forward to her family.) Two, she just plain loved shopping and buying things, and even more so if they were for others. Three, she had a lot of money that was going to come to us after she passed away, and she, as she said, wanted the fun of seeing us enjoy it while she was alive.

      What my parents did was partly to accept that this was just how she was, and it wasn’t likely to change. But where they couldn’t do that, instead of rejecting the gifts, they did some judicious redirecting.

      So for instance, my parents didn’t like my brother and me to get too many gifts. Some, yes, of course, but not huge piles. For my dad, this was about not buying into consumerism too much at too early an age. For my mom, it was quite simply about not letting our bedrooms get out of control with piles and piles of ignored toys and clothes we never wore and so on. So instead of telling her not to buy us things, they redirected: when asked what we wanted, my mom would give one or two things, and then propose an experience or similar, something she found less objectionable than huge piles of STUFF. The trick was that she was genuinely excited about her proposal. Rather than, “I guess, if you have to spend the money, you could do X,” she’d say, “You know what they’d love? Tickets to the Nutcracker/to spend the day in Boston with you/horseback riding lessons. That would be so exciting for them because [reasons].”

      (She also often suggested books, but generally she’d say “They’d love to go to a bookstore with you and pick out a few things,” because even at that young age she knew that suggesting specific book titles for me was difficult!)

      And it wasn’t even a lie. I only remember a few specific Christmas toys from my childhood (my Samantha doll, and the My Little Pony with the flutter wings–everything else is more or less a blur). But I definitely remember the year I was eight and my grandmother took me to dinner–just like a grown up, all dressed up!–just the two of us, and then to the theater to see a musical of the Bremen Town Musicians. And I remember the year I was twelve and my grandmother paid for my horseback riding lessons, which we couldn’t afford on our own.

      Those are examples for children, but I think it’s extensible to adults–you just have to think about whether there is anything you’d be happy with her paying for.

      Now, none of this applies if you think she’s using the money in a manipulative way–if you think she’s tallying up the sum and will present you with an (emotional) bill to pay at the end, of if you think it’s a guilt trip or a way of strongarming you into trips you don’t want, or etc. But if none of that seems applicable, if it’s just that she’s generous in ways that make you uncomfortable… it might be helpful to see if you can think of ways that she could be generous that you would be comfortable with. Maybe there’s some charity that you and she both support that you could ask for a donation in your name; maybe Christmas tickets seem fraught but a random lower-key trip in May, you wouldn’t so much mind. Maybe you don’t like the STUFF but would be okay with her paying for you to go to [event]. Whatever. But if you can redirect her, that may be way less fraught than outright rejection.

      1. I agree with this 100%. I, personally, got tired of huge piles of STUFF at Christmas (mostly stuff I don’t need / won’t use) so I started asking for dinners at nice restaurants and experiences. Now every year I get to see a Broadway play, have “gift certificates” to my favorite restaurants and go to AHL games because I’d rather have those than another book (although I do love a good book). I can also “cash in” the money those experiences cost for something else. This year there were no Broadway plays that I wanted to see so I “traded” those for tickets to see my favorite NHL team play. 🙂

    2. LW here. This statement is so perfect I’m going to write it down and carry it in my pocket:

      “I try to remember that my being a card-carrying adult is not decided by her actions or feelings, nor is she ever likely to see me as a peer since we are a generation apart […] and that’s really OK.”

      Since MIL is not my parent I think there is a big part of my psyche that is screaming “She’s not allowed to parent meeeeee!”. But I really love what you said, and like the idea of reminding myself that she is choosing to do X thing, and I am exercising my adult muscles by letting her do that thing and not letting it affect how I feel.

      Thank you!

  18. Dear LW:

    I think the Captain is correct about the two best solutions to Christmas.

    I don’t think the underlying problem is your mother-in-law, however. I think the problem is that your husband has you running interference with his mother, and you feel neglected and unprotected. So in answer to your third question, maybe you say something like:

    Husband, I have tried being quiet and reasonable about Christmas extravaganzas, and I get no traction. I have a miserable, anxious time at Christmas, and I feel like your only concern is placating your mother.

    I can’t handle the strain anymore. This year, and any year we go to your mother’s, I need you to do all Christmas related planning.

    You will talk to your mother and arrange any cost limits with relatives. Also, buy gifts.

    Next year, we’ll host.

    Good luck, and Jedi hugs if you want them.

    1. That is a good point. One of my favorite marriage advice books talked about how if you are married, your new family unit is you and your spouse, and that needs to take priority over your old family unit of parents/siblings. Not that you cut them out of your life (assuming a healthy relationship, etc.), or ignore them, BUT if there is something your MIL is doing that is regularly making you uncomfortable and she is not willing to listen to you when you try to explain this to her, then no matter how much your husband dislikes it, it’s his job to back you up.

      1. Yep. Even though it’s difficult for many women to back out of the Social Director role, it’s oh-so-important to do so when coping with in-laws.

    2. I think getting the husband to do gift stuff is a good idea. Maybe LW could make a list of all the things that make them anxious, and reassign some of the duties? Of course, giving control to someone else (especially someone who maybe isn’t going to put your wants and needs first) is not known to lessen anxiety.

      Is it the duties of the visit (like buying presents, being sociable) that cause anxiety, or that you’re trying to have boundaries and they’re getting crossed all the time? Because if it’s the latter there might have to be some more assertions in that script. Like, “I need to be able to refuse going to dinner because it stresses me out every time, and you need to support me in that choice”.

      1. I think it’s important to avoid making lists or otherwise participating when you’re trying to remove yourself from an onerous task.

        So in this case, I wouldn’t give Husband assignments. That would leave the overall responsibility on me! Instead, I’d wipe the whole holiday off my mental slate and repeat “Husband is handling it, ask him” to anyone with Christmas issues. To Husband, I’d say a lot of “I am sure you will solve this. I am not doing Christmas work.”

    3. LW here.

      This is so perfect, and exactly correct. I had already decided to do some of this, but I think you’re spot on. It’s Husband’s job from now on to do all Xmas planning / gift-buying for his side. I will set date-specific boundaries (since I’m in school and my calendar is pretty rigid), but I’m done with doing all the pre-Xmas stress tasks, the during-Xmas stress tasks, and the post-Xmas stress tasks. His circus, his monkeys.

      Thanks so much for this spot-on advice, and the Jedi hugs! I do want them. 🙂

  19. In many ways, the MIL sounds A LOT like my mom, and I can be a lot like her too (because I’m slowly turning into my mom), so this is very interesting and informative for me to read.

    The Sweetie has some of the same issues with my mom as OP does, and I think a lot of it is because we grew up with very different dynamics around things like money, gifts and self-reliance. In his family, people tend to value doing things for yourself a lot, whereas my family is much more centered on doing things for each other.

    For example, when he was briefly living at home after graduating uni and working a summer job, he used to pay rent to his mother (who owned the house). His grandfather used to lend money to family members who needed it, expecting to be paid back with interest. Both these things would be deeply shocking in my family and no one would ever think of that. Instead we help each other out in a way that’s much more needs-based, without expecting direct payback. My mom still often pays for my dental treatments.

    Gift-wise, my mom, my grandma and I often find it easier to buy things for each other than for ourselves (my mom bought me a lot of my clothes and I bought her most of her make-up, for example). The Sweetie’s family doesn’t work that way – at some point he was mentioning that as an adult he doesn’t get as much enjoyment from gifts as he used to as a child, because he can just buy what he likes for himself – something that I have never experienced.

    As a result, it has been the case at times that when we visit his family I can’t help but feel a bit slighted (my internal monologue goes a lot like WHO THE HELL BRINGS THEIR OWN TOILETRIES WHEN VISITING THEIR OWN PARENTS? THEY DON’T LIVE IN THE BLOODY WILDERNESS! AND WHY DOESN’T HIS GRANDMA OFFER ANY REFRESHMENTS WHEN WE VISIT?) and when we visit my family he feels a bit overwhelmed (his internal monologue must be going like (NO I DON’T NEED JOLIE’S MOM TO BUY ME SOCKS, I’M AN ADULT AND CAN GET MY OWN SOCKS, ALSO WHY DOES SHE WANT TO GIVE US TEN JARS OF HOME-MADE JAM?)

    Because we grew up with very different dynamics, we have very different expectations and conceptions of “What we do for ourselves” vs “What we do as favours for other people” vs “What we pay people to do”; what feels natural, efficient or common sensical to my mom and I may not feel that way to the Sweetie. Latest example : when we came to visit this summer, the Sweetie didn’t really have climate-appropriate clothing. After consulting with me, my mom got him two shirts and a pair of trousers. I thought that was a great idea, purely from an efficiency point of view : we really didn’t have time to go clothes shopping and he would have been very hot in his usual clothes; and we saw this as “he’s part of our family now, and this is how our family rolls”. But he actually ended up feeling quite bad about it.

    I would say discussing this openly helped us a lot, to understand where each other’s family members are coming from (as in : no, my mom is not infantilising him or expecting anything in return ; she just does this because she sees him as part of her family – and no, his grandma doesn’t hate me, she just doesn’t ever serve refreshments to anyone because of reasons having to do with her personal history). Ultimately , families will always do their thing, and understanding where they come from helps you accept it

    1. This is so familiar to me – different gift giving dynamics + idea of guests / family.

      My mom likes to wander through the shops, she likes to take care of us, and she likes to get a good deal. When she comes and visits, she makes breakfast, helps with projects and stocks our cupboards. My dad’s favourite activity is running errands with my husband. My husband feels quite guilty about it and I’ve had to explain that this is their way of sharing love / there are no strings attached. My mom is a fantastic present giver (and buys his favourite American candies) so he’s warming up to it. We’re also reciprocating by booking travel (train tickets, event tickets when they are visiting).

      My husband’s family is gift oriented but in a very different, more formal, way – they send extensive lists before every birthday and Christmas and the conversations are about who bought what. I find the lists really uncomfortable and find the whole system weird. My plan for this year is to delegate entirely – I did quite nice consumable gifts and no one really seemed to get it last year so I’m not wasting my time on it. We’ll order flowers for special events and I like to send the teens boxes of goodies around their exam times but I dislike the feeling of obligation.

      My family spends a significant amount money on us but in a more spontaneous (and to me, more genuine) way and it’s been tough to reconcile these two issues. Visits are also tough – my family is there to hang out, pitch in with things whilst his is more high maintenance (fancy dinners out, wait to be served etc). They also tend to act like our location is the furthest reaches of the earth (4-5 hour train journey) and thus, we should come to them which gets an eyeroll from me.

  20. I did quite a bit of reading to see if this take on the issue had come up. I don’t think it has yet.

    My MIL (and her family, including my partner) gives large gifts – sometimes massively more expensive than I feel comfortable with sometimes. It took me quite a few years to realise she was essentially giving them to her child, who shares the family’s gift-giving culture and is comfortable with it. It’s partly that their family has a huge gift-giving culture, and it’s partly that she’s trying to set her kid up in a good, comfortable life, and she can afford do. That’s rather lovely, really. I give her gifts I can afford that represent my best efforts to find things she’ll like, or I leave it to my partner to shop for her. She seems happy with that.

    But her large gifting is also partly, and this is key, that she’s trying to keep what she gives her other child fairly balanced with what she gives my partner. And the other child has needed a *lot* of financial support over the last twenty years. Partner and I are much more comfortably off, but MIL is definitely trying to keep things even regarding how much she gifts her kids.

    Does your MIL maybe have other people she’s gifting stuff to and might she be worried about keeping things fair? People she can’t reasonably keep to small limits with?

  21. Tactics me and my partner use with his mother, who has a weird generosity thing going on:

    1) I pretend that I don’t handle our money. So when Mother in law asks about our finances ‘have you got enough/do you need/I want to give you money so you can go on holiday’ I play dumb and refer her to my partner. Gosh, mother in law, your son is the boss of our finances, he’ll be able to tell you.’ This means that he can navigate that issue and he’ll often tell her that he needs to check his acct (and then he’ll chat to me) so we can agree on what we want to accept.

    2) I make use of all the non money ways to spoil her. I make her things, help her out with practical jobs, spend time with her. Money is not the main way I communicate with her.

    3) she complains a lot about her other son and his wife, who tend to borrow money a lot and with three kids and a mortgage, need it more. She has all kinds of resentful feelings about sister in laws expensive tastes. I do the listening thing and try to say nothing because I think her willingness to be overgenerous with her other relatives is about her sadness about that relationship not being how she wants. She needs to be heard but not for me to join in the golden child/gold digger wife bitchfest.

    4) when discussing holiday plans, I focus on saying things like ‘I will look at the calender ‘ and don’t book me in until I can say for definite once I have Autumn birthdays out of the way.’ I do ask in laws and my parents what they want to do as an ideal – whose house, what food, gifts limits – so I know if my passive aggressive family plan to ambush us with a last minute’faaaamily’ Christmas. The earlier and more casually I ask what is important this year, the more likely it is I can cut through the bullshit and say that we can do X not Y. Also, families who have drama tend to create shitty Christmas drama and then insist on doing Christmas the same each year except with more resentment. I find it useful to say ‘hey,ll last year was a bit fraught, how do you feel about making it easier by getting together on Christmas eve/having the grandkids over for boxing day breakfast- I’ll cook’ so that people don’t assume they have to keep doing the same dysfunctional hate fest.

    It was a relief to Mother in law to know that we weren’t upset about her desire to not cook a huge faaamily meal!

    It’s negotiation. I can control what I do and protect my time with my partner but our parents will always throw curveball. Mother in law will keep trying to give me envelopes of cash, my brother will keep asking to put his name on tags of gifts I buy and not paying me the cost like he promises because he is an alcoholic who is crap with money. Christmas is a balance between happy time at home with my partner and finding ways to show our love for our families in a way that doesn’t drive us crazy it is what it is.

  22. I have no advice except to say in my family, Christmas plans are usually set by January. And that is because I refuse to discuss it before then. My partner’s family on the other hand, send a vague email any time between 10 and 21st December wondering about our Christmas plans and that freaks ME out.

    I see above it could be an Australian thing. It’s a big country, it’s summer school holidays and there is not a lot of airline competition, so Christmas flights booked at short notice across the country can be extortionately expensive. This does not stop my MIL from getting upset that we won’t spend 1000 dollars on a 40 minute flight to where she lives when she decides in mid-December maybe it would be nice for her grandkids to come and visit her, but I digress…

  23. It’s not always about control and dominance. I come from a well-off family and my parents LOVED to give us things and pay for things. They put me through school, which lasted until I was 26 (college + med school.) My husband and I lived 3,000 miles apart for several years during grad school and they paid for his travel as well as mine. When I finally finished school and moved to live with my husband and was earning an actual salary, Mom sent me a check for furniture. I ripped it up and sent it back – I was determined, after all those years, to be independent. I regret that. Now (30 years later) I see it as a slap in the face. My mother lived her whole life in her hometown; she was very close to her mother, who helped her choose the furniture when she bought a house. I was 3,000 miles away and she missed me, and missed being connected to my new life. She never tried to stop me and she never tried to make me feel guilty. She just wanted to do something nice, and be able to feel like she had a hand in getting me started.

    It took me a long time to recognize this. Once I did, I realized that accepting my mother’s gifts graciously was a gift to *her.* We had some wonderful trips that my parents paid for (although Mom did ask me about acceptable dates!) And now I’m the person who often treats my friends and co-workers because I can and it gives me pleasure. Sometimes a gift is just a gift.

    I’m not dismissing the LW’s feelings. If it’s uncomfortable, it’s uncomfortable, and you’re under no obligation to do something that makes you uncomfortable – especially if paying for everything means she chooses everything without any consultation. I think this is a both/and – set the boundary when you need to, and consider accepting some of the generosity as an investment in the relationship and a gift to your mother-in-law.

  24. My father is a big spender. He takes us to expensive diverts on expensive trips and he loves to spoil us at Christmas! He has the money and is smart about it so I do not question it I just make sure to say thank you. I know it is hard for my partner because his family cannot spend the way mine does. The sense of needing to repay or feeling like it is a power play all make sense to me.

    But when you have the money to spend like that being relayed often doesn’t matter. It is just how some people show their affection. Christmas is an especially good occasion for it.

    My only suggestion is to try to look at how you and your husband, and maybe even the rest of his family can give back to the community. Maybe instead of feeling guilty about taking gifts from your mil, you take the money you want to spend on reciprocity and donate it.

    There are usually groups that let you adopt a needy family around the holidays. (My father adopts a couple every year and buys them all the things.) maybe if your in laws did that together or if you did, or if you found a nice soup kitchen or a youth shelter or the hundreds of other places that could use help it might help you feel like you are still giving over Christmas instead of just receiving. It might even encourage your mil to channel her spending that way as well.

  25. I have a friend like this– I always offer to pick up the tab, but he always insists on paying no matter what. It irritated me for a while, because I wanted to reciprocate and I didn’t want to feel like I was taking advantage of him– but I’ve since come to realize that this is one of his quirks, that he’s really proud to be able to do nice things for his friends so by gosh he’s going to do it.

    But it’s still important to me that I’m pulling my fair share of the weight. So, I keep a spreadsheet of the approximate amount of money that’s been involved in all this. Half of that is allotted to the Friend Epic Party/Rainy Day Fund. I’m satisfied knowing that if/when it comes up, I can do a nice thing for him, too.

    1. Remember that services have value, too! So, if you want to reciprocate in a service-type way, that works.

      I’ll bet (well, except I don’t believe in gambling, but you know what I mean), that you’re the type who will be right there to help the guy move, or to help him through a rough emotional patch with tea and sympathy.

      Balance in a relationship doesn’t have to be about money. I’m so glad you’re trying to maintain that balance, though. Believe it or not, mooches annoy the over-generous, too!

  26. I wonder if this is perhaps a case of different love languages, at least partially? My parents aren’t really capable of expressing emotion explicitly (verbally), which is my love language. Instead, they express love by giving me things/money. It took me a while to readjust expectations and recognize the gesture for what it was – not throwing money at me to avoid parenting, but showing a form love that is what they’re capable of.

  27. I have some suggestions, but since I don’t know your family dynamics they may backfire. Please use, discard, or adapt as you see fit.

    1) By now, you probably know where would be likely places to go out to eat. Do any of those places take gift cards? Would MIL accept gift cards for those places, even if they aren’t for shared meals? If she wouldn’t, would FIL accept them so you could sneak in paying her back, and would that work well enough for you? How about grocery store gift cards or things along that line?

    2) Is MIL competing with your parents in some way? Does she need to be reassured that there is enough love to go around? Is she competing with you for her son? If so, I wonder if maybe some sort of courtship gestures from you to her would smooth things a bit, something like occasionally sending her flowers for no reason.

    3) This one is really likely to backfire, so use with caution. Have you asked why she’s trying to buy you, when she’s already such a wonderful person? She does X and Y and Z, which don’t involve (much) money, and she’s a joy to be around because of A and B, and she’s admirable, and that’s more than enough, and you really want her time and attention far more than things with a price tag (assuming you do).

    4) This last won’t really help the situation, but might make you feel better.

    My FIL is a difficult person. Loyal, intelligent, works his butt off, completely devoted to MIL… and has very little bend to him and very little grey area. It’s either his way or he gets snappy. If you don’t conform to rules you may not know about then you’re deliberately going against him. He also makes snap assumptions and acts accordingly. Despite the snappiness, I love him, but I’m not sure he believes that because I don’t always bend my head and follow orders. Most interactions are good, sometimes there are fights.

    Husband and I have the only grandchildren he’s likely to ever have. We’ve never lived closer than 400 miles from FIL. And family is very important to FIL.

    Sometimes I take spiteful pleasure in the thought that I have the nuclear option of cutting FIL off from his eldest son and from his grandchildren. I’ve never brought it up nor do I intend to, but the thought that I COULD sometimes helps. I have this power, and there’s nothing he could do, and I briefly indulge in evil laughter, and that’s enough. It’s petty, it’s spiteful, and wallowing in it for a little while is cleansing. It’s not something I do often or for very long, and it’s not something I will ever let him know about.

    1. I really like the gift card idea. I left a comment further down, but my Mom gets a lot of emotional value from gift-giving. It’s a big thing for her. I often default to gift cards of some sort — Amazon most recently, because Dad’s chemical sensitivities have gotten worse and he can’t go out to most of their favorite restaurants anymore. But before that, I would give gift cards to their favorite restaurants, and it was something they genuinely appreciated, because they viewed it as a free dinner out. That said, my Mom is old school New England and hardly ever turns down something free. 😛

  28. Gosh, LW, this sounds incredibly stressful. I haaaaaate when people ignore my boundaries. My bff’s mother is like this. Fortunately, I don’t spend a lot of time with her, but when I do, what works best for me is to take a step back and remember that I have my issues, but she has hers, too. She’s trying to control me, absolutely, but I like her and I want to be a good guest, so…I let her. I let her control me. I am a leaf on the wind. If she gives me a piece of jewelry, I admire it, thank her graciously, and wear it in her presence. If she takes us to a restaurant, I admire the decor, order what I want, praise the food, thank her graciously, and offer to leave the tip. She usually lets me leave the tip. I make things easy. I offer to help. I get the door and carry shopping bags and stow her cane and generally play the role of a professional lady’s companion. It’s tolerable because I’m doing it willingly and intentionally and–most of all–temporarily. When I do these things for her, my calm, gracious, appreciative behavior is like a gift I’m giving her. One area where YMMV is that for this lady, appreciation is enough. She does not expect gratitude, and if she did, we’d have a problem. I appreciate someone buying me a nice meal, but I’m not grateful for it, if that makes sense. This flexibility *within* my boundaries also makes it much easier to calmly, factually apply my boundaries (with a polite deflection, of course) when I have to. Intentionality is key, though. I’m doing it willingly, and that makes it okay for me.

    That was long-winded, but what I really wanted to comment on was the Captain’s excellent observation: “I don’t have good answers or scripts to your specific questions. You are already doing & saying the right things.” This is one of those unfortunate situations that simply does not have a good outcome. There are bad outcomes and worse outcomes, but no good ones at all. Now, you didn’t create this problem, and you can’t solve it. Your MIL set the parameters here and created the range of outcomes. It’s not that she doesn’t know how you feel; it’s that she wants you to feel differently. She could be doing this beneficently or maliciously or anywhere in between, but whatever her intent, her expectation is unreasonable. Her unreasonable expectations are her problem, and you can’t solve it for her. Your task now is to figure out your least bad outcome within the parameters she has set. Base your response on the facts on the ground.

  29. It might help a little to reframe the actions in your head? (With the specifics that this isn’t a powerplay or shaming thing and she just flat out wants to pay)
    Instead of “We’re going out and I’m going to try and pay and MIL is going to stomp all over that.”
    Try “I think I’m going to give my MIL the gift of letting her do something that makes her happy.”

    Every time I visit my grandma, she’s gone through her house and found something to give me. It’s usually something I will never in a million years use. It makes her very happy to give it to me, there’s no strings attached, and fighting it just stresses us both out. I tried a couple times “No grandma, I don’t need a stack of old butter tubs missing lids, but thank you!” and it Just. Wasn’t. Worth. It. You have to pick your battles! She gets to give me the junk, I say thank you, and throw the junk away once I’m gone, and we’re both happy.

    And yeah, it might be helpful to identify why you’re fighting. Is her spending more a powerplay? Do people make snide comments about you not keeping up with the Joneses? Or is it purely your own feelings on how it Ought To Be butting up against her feelings on how it Ought to Be in which case… yeah. Follow the Captain’s advice. You can’t change her mind, you can’t force her to believe the same way you do, you can only manage yourself which may be avoiding the situation entirely. (There was a George Carlin bit that, paraphrased, said when driving, you alone are the only person going the perfect speed. Everyone faster than you is a jerk, everyone slower is an a-hole. I’ve found the same true with holiday celebrations! Everyone who does more is a wasteful jerk, everyone who does less is a stingy a-hole To her she’s likely not overspending, she’s spending the exact amount she wants to. Do what you need to to keep yourself safe and happy and cared for, but you can’t ‘fix’ someone who doesn’t believe that they’re broken)

    1. OK, I really relate to this, but from the other direction. I’m the kind who gives my niece and nephews old things that I think they might be able to use for crafts and stuff, so the stack of old butter tubs missing lids is something I would totally do! But I don’t have a problem with them just tossing them, either. And I can take a refusal, as well, if they look at it, and say, “I can’t think of anything to do with those things.”

      When I’m on my pain pills, I get even more generous. The urge to give strikes, and I become obsessed, until I find SOMETHING to give to this person I love. Other times, I will be unwrapping a thing, and think “Hey, this bubble wrap is so much fun! I need to save it for the kids!” or “My niece can use this bit of plastic for one of her projects” and save it for her. It varies. But yeah, they frequently get my stuff, and it gives me lots of warm fuzzies.

      I think that we have an understanding with each other, and always assume the best, and the fact that we don’t PUSH our desires on each other makes all the difference. It’s the pushing that is the problem, really.

      I was about to feel horrified about what I do, reading it from your perspective, until I realized that I actually can take the refusal and that I don’t push. If I ever get pushy, I’ll try to remember your response, and tamp that pushiness right out.

  30. I have too much work tonight to be able to read all the comments, but wanted to add a factor to consider (or maybe somebody upthread has already mentioned it?). In my community growing up, there were huge disparities in resources but lots of close relationships across them anyway. The really rich family hosted the annual picnic for the whole choir plus spouses and children, because they had the house and garden big enough for the crowd. They also hosted occasional pool parties each summer because they were the only ones with a pool. Some of the other parents would occasionally feel uncomfortable enough to be able to speak up, and one day the rich dad took a couple of the guys aside. He pointed out that he had come from nothing, that most of his wealth had been created from One Lucky Idea that happened to take off at the right time, and that the largess they were objecting to amounted to petty cash. AND that he deeply recalled the days when he would have been unable to match even an invitation to spaghetti at grandma’s. They worked it out as: each family contributed what felt like “easy to spend petty cash” gifts or invitations or food — and everybody was okay if it turned out that the one rich guy usually put in more than the others. Mostly it worked, for a couple of decades that I could watch.

  31. Someone may have already mentioned this but picking up the tab once in a while is easy. Just excuse yourself to the restroom well before the end of the meal, find the waiter, give them your credit card and ask them to put the tab straight on it. Can’t do it every time but every 3rd meal or so…I’ve done this to my overgenerous FIL before but he felt so bad about it I don’t do it anymore.
    Sometimes just accepting graciously is the more generous act.

  32. IDK if this has already been mentioned, but…if/when you go, can try turning paying for the meal into a sort of group game? With my family it’s become something of a playful competition to see who could get the check first and pay?

  33. Wow, this question hits so close to home! Every single thing you talk about happens with my MIL. In our case, the gift-giving and over-spending comes from a place of love and tradition rather than trying to manipulate (I think). I mentally separate the over-spending into two categories: Things we can control and Things we have no control over.

    Things we can control: plane tickets, car rentals, where/how long we’ll be staying over the holidays, things to do with schedules.
    For this to work, you and husband need to be a totally unified front. It sounds like in a previous year you were left out of travel planning (when MIL bought tickets). In my case, this required a bunch of talks with my partner about our schedules being on a “need to know” basis. Anytime MIL asked about schedules, Partner would say “we haven’t decided on our travel dates yet” or “I still need to talk with work about time off”. Once you have made all your travel bookings, you can let MIL know when to expect you. In my case, this took a lot of coaching, as Partner had been raised to never keep “secrets” from his family, but eventually we got there.

    Things we have no control over: expensive/too many gifts, picking up restaurant tabs, etc.
    I never felt comfortable about calling out over-spending in the moment (or even afterwards). To me, this feels like the “going nuclear” option. We had the same thing with secret santa last year, where MIL bought expensive gifts for everyone. I didn’t feel comfortable calling out this boundary stomping during or after the holiday visit. Instead, this year, we’ll try secret santa again by sending out an email months ahead of time that emphasizes our reasons for wanting to buy less gifts (“we are trying to save up”, “we don’t have space in our house”, “we have so many relatives how with all the new nieces/nephews”, etc). If MIL does it again, oh well! Her gifts make excellent re-gifts or charity donations.

    I HEARTILY endorse what CA says about not visiting every year. We go every 3 years, and that has been a big win for sanity.

  34. To LW:

    I don’t know how many siblings your husband has, or how things are going to go down at the end of your MIL’s life when all that’s left is a pile of stuff and a will (no one likes thinking about these things ahead of time), but it’s really important–

    If you inherit the money or stuff, there’s going to be an argument.

    If she gives you the money and stuff now, there’s no argument.

    There’s danger of there being no will (even if she thinks there’s one)–that leaves it to the estate courts. And taxes.

    Try to guide the gifts to things you want and need, if you can, but let go of the price tag. Let her spend the money while she can spend the money on you without taxes and fees and arguments.

    I got this book called The Boomer Burden, by Julie Hall, and if I learned only one thing from the book, it’s that it’s easier to distribute an estate when your parents are still alive.

  35. My Mom is still like this (but a little better now) and it made/makes my husband very uncomfortable too. She did not buy travel arrangements for us without asking (OMG!) but everything else yes. She spends way too much $$ on Christmas (she can afford it at least, but still, it’s unsettling how much stuff she buys), wants to pay for everything for everyone, etc. We’ve slowly changed her and my Dad a bit on paying for EVERYTHING, at least for us, by continuing to insist on paying sometimes, especially when they visit us as it is easier to do so logistically or by stragetically sending one of us along to help pick up dinner and grabbing the check or forgetting to use her credit card. So she has relaxed on that part.

    For the gift giving part, the only way we got her to stop giving us all so many gifts (she was probably spending ~$1000 per person for all her kids and their spouses, I would stop buying stuff for myself around July and just start putting it all on an amazon list to give to her to buy me so at least she was buying stuff I needed/wanted – and she wanted the lists too which was good at least) is consistently bringing it up in ways similar to this “Mom, we really appreciate your gifts and how generous you are, but you don’t need to buy us all so much every year. It’s just too much and makes us uncomfortable!” and my husband tried to protest by not giving her a gift list, but then she would just guess and he hated that more cause then he had stuff he didn’t want that he felt bad about donating/taking back. So years of that message and then when all of her children had at least one grandchild, we brought it up like this: “Look Mom, we all have kids now, let’s focus Christmas on them. Your adult children have been doing a secret santa with a spending limit for years now, you and Dad are welcome to join in!” and she agreed! Now, she still buys WAY TOO MUCH for the kids, but she’s imminently willing to take suggestions, partially because she knows if she buys something we aren’t cool with, we’ll just leave it at her house for the kids to play with when they are there and mostly because she truly wants to buy stuff we/the kids want. So she ends up buying 80% of their clothes for the next year at Christmas plus too many toys, but oh well and we give her pretty specific lists and will tell her if we are getting them a special present from us (one year a play kitchen for our daughter for example) so that she make sure she isn’t repeating that. And I’ll limit her to (for example) 1-2 stuffed animals because OMG we have way too many stuffed animals in our house even after donating some and giving half of the remaining to my sister before she had kids so she’d have some toys for my kids to play with when they visited.

    So lots of sympathy here is what I’m saying. And what helped/helps me are a few things.
    1. One of the ways my Mom shows love is gift giving and taking care of things in a financial way. It is especially important to her because we were “just had enough to not be getting government assistance” poor for years and she’s still mentally making up for that in her subconscious. Not that any of us care now(we occasionally did when we were kids, but not really), but she does, so I put myself in her shoes and it makes me less uncomfortable about it and I tried to show my gratitude while still showing that it was uncomfortable.
    2. With our kids, I make sure they get plenty of messaging from us that love and spending time with people you love is way more important than gifts. My Mom doesn’t intend to send this message, but the kids absolutely know that Grandmas = lots of presents, though they also know she loves them and will play with them patiently too, but gifts are the first thing they think of with her.
    3. I tried as much as possible to have my Mom buy me things I needed or really wanted, but would not buy for myself. That way I felt like if she was determined to spend that much $$ on me, at least it wasn’t being wasted on things I didn’t want. Ditto kids stuff.
    4. I use it as practice for graciously accepting gifts/meals as that is an important thing to know how to do. And since I know she truly wants to give and she can afford, I also give her the gift of accepting with nothing but a “Thanks Mom!” when I can.
    5. I also did my best to not feel any extra obligation because of all the $$ being spent. This is where I feel a lot of discomfort comes in because even though my Mom didn’t want to create an obligation, it still sort of hangs there making everyone uncomfortable when there was any conflict. The unspoken “Hey, I paid for this, you better enjoy it/stay until I’m cool with you leaving/etc.” Again, not intentionally done, but still felt by everyone a bit. So anyway, my husband and I were careful to not let that weird guilt get in the way of setting boundaries for our family. It was tough, but that helped us a lot too.
    6. Sometimes do holidays (yes even sacred Christmas!) with just my family and don’t travel. It helps that my husband’s on call schedule forces this at times, but we’ve done it without that handy excuse too.

  36. I have a MIL like this. What has helped ease my discomfort is realizing that she doesn’t heap on the gifts as a way of controlling us (as in, I bought your $2,000 plane tickets NOW YOU OWE ME). She heaps on the gifts because gift giving is how she shows her love. For her, providing a gift is providing eviidence, however unnecessary it may be, that she was thinking of you.

    So I let her do it. And I stopped feeling guilty that I can’t spend money equally on her. But she’s a great MIL so I show her love the way I show love – by providing random acts of kindness during our visits – cleaning her house, weeding her flower beds, getting up early to make breakfast. And it all comes out in the wash.

    Now, when I married her son, he and I agreed on boundaries right away. We flat out said, we’ll travel to her for Thanksgiving but stay with my family for Christmas – and than switch off every year after that. Is she happy about that? No. But we’re a united front when it comes to what works for us. So set your boundaries and if MIL buys plane tickets without checking again, don’t be guilted. And the too-expensive gifts? Enjoy her show of love and don’t feel bad that you can’t/don’t wish to spend an equal amount.

  37. Hi, LW! This is always a tough situation — much sympathy. If it helps at all, here’s what I figured out over time about my stubborn, overbearing, domineering father and his constant insistence that he had to pay for stuff/force money on me (including for little everyday things, as if I was too immature in my late 20s to figure out I needed cash to get home on the train!). It used to make me *bonkers*, and then eventually it hit me that he’s just not able, for a whole variety of reasons, to come out with “I love you.” “Here, take some money” is the primary way that he, as an old-school manly breadwinning provider, can say “I love you” to me and my sister. It still irks me every once in a while — but when I can translate it in my head as “This is how I’m able to express affection comfortably,” everybody ends up reasonably happy.

  38. Wow, this has been eye-opening. If my kid were older and partnered, I would totally be inclined to pay for everything.

    It wouldn’t even have occurred to me that this was a family culture thing. It would have just seemed like common sense: one generation is at the place in life where it has extra money to spend; another generation is at the place in life where things are still a bit of a scrounge; them that’s in a position to help, helps.

    We’re all space aliens in each other’s families, going, “Among your people, what does this gesture mean?” LW, I hope your MIL isn’t trying to buy you or control you, but is simply thinking, “I’m old and have money, and they’re young and have none; when they’re old, it will be their turn.”

    1. Hey, LW here. Yeah, I think this is really a matter of cultural clash + primal reaction to wannabe-adopted-Mother (i.e. she wants to be my adopted Mother and I really, really don’t want her to be).

      There certainly is a generational consideration, and when we were in our 20’s, it didn’t bother me as much when she paid for stuff. But now we’re in our 30’s, Husband has a very successful and lucrative career, and the fact that she won’t let us pay despite having ample means is infantilizing. I’m certain that MIL has no idea her actions are having this affect… she just wants to support her kids (primal Cat me growls “I’m not her damn kid”).

      But I think it’s important, for all the parents out there, to remember that reaching adulthood is a big deal for your children. When they see themselves as adults often coincides with how you treat them. You may be trying to be nice by paying, but if they offer, let the kids show their ability to support themselves and treat their family. To me, it’s a sign of respect when the parent says “oh sure, you can totally pay”, because it says “I see you as an adult, and I respect your status as one”.

      BTW, I love your comment about “we’re all space aliens in each other’s families”. It’s so, so true! I’ve often felt like I’m observing a completely different species in MIL’s house… how they operate and communicate is so vastly different from my family. Mostly it’s benign, but sometimes (like with this situation) I’m left with this “WTF is even happening?” feeling.

  39. Hi all, LW here. Thanks so much, Captain Awkward and the commenters here for your thoughts and feedback. I wish I had more time to respond to every comment (but alas, I’m lacking the bandwidth!).

    This advice is very good and probably the best way to handle this situation. It’s tough for me to swallow at this moment because of how uncomfortable MIL’s spending makes me (see my novel-length comment to postmenlikedoctors for more background on our relationship). An excerpt:

    “So, when MIL insists on buying everything, and very rarely allows us to cover the tab (maybe 1 out of 30 or 40 times), it feels like several things are happening:
    1 – she’s denying that we are adults who can pay our way
    2 – she’s not allowing us to participate in the relationship on equal terms
    3 – she’s saying to me “I am your mother, and it’s my job to pay for you.”

    The last [3] is, I think, the main reason I feel so icky/guilty/uncomfortable/anxious/angry about the lavish gifts & spending. I have a wonderful Mother who I really respect and who raised me well and cared for me. When MIL does this money thing, it feels like she’s trying to push into a role already filled by someone I care about. When she said (above) “I’m your mother and you have to do what I tell you” I wanted to yell back “well, you’re not MY damn mother!” I keep thinking back to the analogy Captain Awkward used about kids of parents who get new partners after breaking up with the kid’s original parents: a cat, hiding under a chest of drawers, growling, who very much DOES NOT WANT YOUR AFFECTION. I want MIL to treat me as an autonomous adult (which I am) and a peer, not as her new adopted child (which is how she thinks of it, probably).” My reaction and rage at MIL for trying to assume that role feels very primal: I already have my tribe elders, and you have no right to install yourself in their place.

    One thing to note: MIL lives fairly close to us, within a few hours’ drive. So I will never get to skip an Xmas visit with them. Husband recently told me (after alerting me to the family pokes sent about Xmas) that he’d told her that the two of us would want to do something quiet by ourselves.. but that of course we’d seem them on some other day around then. It’s only fair, since I expect to see my family (who live only a little bit closer). Still, I don’t think I can get out seeing them for Xmas every year, even if we don’t do the big extended family trip every year. So, I’ll try to re-frame my thinking about her spending (“it makes her happy to treat us” vs. “she’s trying to buy my love”), limit my gift list to a few items, and anything extra she gives will be a large donation to Goodwill to help other people.

    I will also try to carve out an Xmas tradition for Husband and me… maybe we always spend Xmas Eve and Day together, just us, doing our favorite stuff, and schedule visits outside of those days for both sides of the family.

    1. “I’m your mother and you have to do what I tell you”

      Augh! My shoulders are up around my ears just reading that. I wish there was a polite way to say “You’re not my mother, stop trying to take her place,” but I’m really struggling to come up with a script that doesn’t sound hostile. Not that you’re not totally justified in feeling hostile, because AUGH, but it probably wouldn’t make things less awkward.

      This is not super nice, but would it work to reframe tolerating your MIL’s weird pushy behaviour as you kindly humoring her like you would a small child who needs a nap and simply can’t help behaving badly?

      1. Yeah, the only thing I can come up with is (saying in a firm tone) “Well, you’re not my mother, and I really don’t appreciate it when you say that to me.” I’m keeping that in my back pocket for the next time she whips out that phrase (which is hopefully NEVER).

        Haha, yeah, that’s actually how I’m already framing it. It bothers the hell out of me that I just have to tolerate this nonsense, but I don’t really see her that often, and most of the time she’s her normal, nice self. But I will keep that image stored in my mind for when the grumpy ogre comes out, and imagine a tiny toddler MIL screaming in frustration because she’s tired and hungry and wants her rattle.

    2. If both your and your husband’s parents live close, have you thought about hosting a Christmas celebration yourself for both sides? It might be a lot harder for your MIL to try to act like she is your mother when your real mother is sitting right there next to her.

      1. This is a really good idea (and yes, both parents live close), but when I broached the topic with Husband he shot it down pretty quickly. I think he’s embarrassed by his family a little (for reasons I won’t go into here). When I threw out the idea last year of doing a joint Thanksgiving celebration, he squirmed a great deal and said it would be too awkward. Alas! But this is definitely something to try for others with similar problems!

        1. Can you come back to your husband and ask for more details about why he doesn’t like this idea? If it’s that he’s afraid his mother will embarrass herself in front of your mother, it’s ok to point out that that’s part of why you’re doing it. She can either embarrass herself, or better yet, she can think about what she’s saying and realize that if she wouldn’t say it with your mother in the room, she shouldn’t say it without her, either. But it seems like you can deploy the “we’re all faaaaamily” here to your own benefit, which is a nice reversal.

  40. I don’t know how much good it would do, but I’d be very curious to ask MIL just why she feels the need to spend so much money on you?

    It could be because she feels it gives her a sense of control (strings attached on the gifts). Alternately, it could be that is her “love language,” and she really doesn’t know how to express love without throwing money about. Or maybe she’s scared of mortality and trying to buy her way into Heaven. Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe she That Friend, whom she wants to impress with bragging rights about how much she spent on her holidays. Maybe she was poor for so long, and had to scrabble so hard that she wants to give her family the luxury she didn’t have when she was their ages. Maybe she has a spending addiction. Maybe she just gets a massive boost out of enthusiastic thanks, and figures that the more she spends on her family, the more thanks she’ll get. Maybe she has extremely low self-esteem, and is trying to buy a better outlook on her own life.

    I’m not sure how much difference it will make in your decision about what to actually DO, but asking her to help you understand her better might lead to a more relaxed relationship. If she gives you a reason that you can understand (not necessarily agree with, just understand, that’s how she rolls), then you might be able to exhale and say, “OK, moving forward. I have these needs, you have those needs, what can we do to find a win-win solution, so we are both comfortable?”

    There’s plenty of time before Christmas, so why not reach out and chat with her about it. Not in an accusing way, but in a “please help me understand” sort of way. And maybe take the time to express to her your dream of a low-key Christmas, and why that means so much to you.

    I really second the notion of establishing an every-other-year switch off. Or even every third year – once for your husband’s side, once for your side, and once for your children’s side (that’s your nuclear family at home, being low-key).

    Finally, a last piece of advice: Do not get too hung up on celebrating the holiday *on the day.* One major advantage to having a family member who works weird shifts is that we learned quickly that we can schedule our celebrations to be whenever we darned well please. That means, if we want to have a “Christmas” on the 23rd, we can. Or the 27th, for that matter. Or both. A bit of flexibility in honoring the holiday and its meaning, without being welded to a calendar will go a long way in managing your stress levels, and allowing you to enjoy the traditions you desire the most.

    Good luck, and I hope we get an update!

  41. Mom is like this, or used to be before retirement and finances got tighter (my sister is still living with them). For her, she shops year-round, and if she sees something that’s perfect, she’ll buy it, and stick it in the closet until birthday or Christmas. She also insists on paying for dinners. I’ve given in and stopped trying to argue. It’s something that makes her feel good, and she understands that my finances aren’t such that I can return appropriately. Even a minimal gift is appreciated as a gesture.

    And there is no way that we could meet the amount of presents she would give. Again, it’s less now, but the first year my ex-partner and ex-bf and I moved back, the Christmas tree was literally piled half high with presents. We couldn’t even begin to return that. My way of dealing with it has been to accept that it’s something that makes her happy, and to try to ignore the brainweasels. I’m afraid I can’t be of much more help, except to express sympathies.

  42. “3 years ago, we all agreed on a Secret-Santa arrangement for Husband’s family, and set a spending limit of $40. Although MIL agreed, she bought gifts for everyone and blew right past the $40 spending limit per person.”

    This reminded me of something I did as a teenager. I had a bit of money, and so, in the middle of Christmas Eve, when everyone was asleep, I got up and hung up socks (we weren’t doing traditional stockings that year), which I had snuck from everyone earlier, and I filled them all with little gifts and fruit and nuts I had purchased on the sly (which was a challenge, because I relied on my parents for transportation). It really surprised everyone on Christmas morning, especially my parents! I was totally stoked about it.

    I hope they didn’t think I was pushing boundaries, because I went over the accepted gift-giving arrangement we had all agreed to.

    Did MIL skip the Secret Santa, and just do gifts for everyone, thus rendering her Secret Santa recipient on a par with everyone else? Or did she do the Secret Santa gift, in accordance with Secret Santa rules, and then go on a personal Santa-spree for everyone? If the first, I don’t think that’s right. If the second, it maintains equality within the Secret Santa arrangement, and then everyone gets a bonus gift from MIL, which is exciting for a lot of people. As long as the Secret Santa arrangement itself is honored, though, there shouldn’t be feelings of competition or jealousy, which is why those spending limits are usually put in place. If that was her thinking, it will be hard to argue the point with her.

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