Q: We see my husband’s family only once a year, at Christmas. They tell us where and when we need to be. He and his siblings are not close at all. All year long they go their separate ways. Then, at Christmas, we are supposed to act like a close-knit family.
His relatives want to have a gift exchange every year. I am totally against this. We don’t see these people all year long, and now I have to go out and try to guess what they like. In return, my family gets junk. I say: Scrap the gift exchange and just get together. They say: No, we want gifts. This is very frustrating to me. How would you handle this situation?
A: If your goal is to keep your relationship with your relatives on decent terms, I would try to handle it graciously and agreeably.
As is the case in your family, there are many families whose members have little affinity for one another and spend little time together. Still, the pull of the family is intense. Very few people want nothing to do with their family members. It's unfortunate to have such estrangement, unless the relatives are truly toxic, damaging or abusive.
In this case, it doesn’t sound as though your husband’s relatives are bad, but simply that you are not especially fond of one another. (And, clearly, you have differing opinions about holiday get-togethers and gift-giving.)
So I suggest you maintain some sort of limited connection with these people. Maintaining positive ties benefits your husband and your children. Seeing them once a year is not that big a deal.
You could, in fact, view your situation differently: Since you don’t like them, you could consider yourself lucky to see these relatives so infrequently, as opposed to having dinner with them every Sunday, as some families do!
The gift-giving issue is trickier. People often invest gifts with a great deal of meaning, especially when relationships are not close. They perceive gifts as a reflection of how much you love them.
What your relatives really want — though they may not even know it themselves — is a closer relationship with you and your husband. It might be impossible or unrealistic to have that. Or, if you put more effort in, it might not.
Regardless, their feelings are voiced in the form of a demand for gifts. To many people, right or wrong, a gift exchange is a way of saying, “We care about each other and thought about each other.”
It sounds as though you are annoyed at the effort and money you must spend on gifts for people you are highly ambivalent about — and who you feel provide nothing of emotional value for you. This annoyance makes you even more surly about the holiday get-together.
Or maybe the issue is that you feel the family is using you to get stuff. In this case, you need to set limits so you don’t feel taken advantage of.
I suggest you accommodate the gift exchange, but give gifts that don’t require so much time, energy or money. Go for small tokens: tree ornaments, gift cards, framed pictures of your kids, homemade cookies or a nicely wrapped box of chocolates for each person.
You don’t have to do something monumental. You can pick gifts that are thoughtful to you, rather than guessing at what is perfect to them.
If you feel their gifts to you are junk — which may or may not be true, but which indicates how you feel about these relatives — you can tell them you have so much stuff already that you don’t need more, but would appreciate a homemade treat. Or suggest they make donations to a charity you care about. They might or might not go along with your suggestion, but it’s worth a try.
In your situation, I wouldn’t refuse to give gifts. A hostile attitude will not smooth out your relationship. It will merely create more distance by showing how little you wish to participate in their family life.
You might try an experiment: Act in ways that are opposite to how you feel. Actively offer an olive branch. Say how nice it is to be together, pay your relatives compliments, really talk to them and participate in the day. See how it feels to engage with them, rather than forcing yourself to get through Christmas with gritted teeth and a sour mood.
Because of the tone of your letter, I suspect there is something more going on here that explains why you have such a problem with your husband’s relatives. It may have nothing to do with Christmas or gifts. I urge you to figure out what this is, as it will likely solve a lot more than your problems with the holiday.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: You might feel burdened by holiday obligations toward relatives you are not close to. But, for the sake of family harmony, this is a time when it’s worth making an effort.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book, "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts" (Penguin), helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.