Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Husband Suddenly Wants to Start Buying Christmas Gifts for Extended Family”

Every year my husband and I buy Christmas gifts for my family and his family, and we set a limit for each gift so we don’t spend too much. For adults (our parents, our siblings, two closer in-laws) we spend $25 each and for kids (seven nieces and nephews) we have spent $20 each, a total of $390 each year. This is before gifts for ourselves or our own kids.

We’ve agreed that this is a standard amount to spend and that it makes sense to get gifts for all of these family members, but now he wants to buy gifts for cousins and their kids. Right now that includes two cousins and three of their kids, so $110 more each year, or a total of $500 each year. Since we already buy so many gifts, and since we already spend nearly $400 on gifts (before gifts for us or our kids), and since no one else in his family is buying gifts for those cousins or their kids (and we don’t expect gifts from them), I suggested we don’t buy the gifts. But he insists that it is “standard” for people to buy gifts for their cousins and for their cousins’ children.

I’m sure some families do it that way, but my sense is that the majority of families do not do it that way and that most people buy gifts only for immediate family (parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces/nephews). He says I’m being unfair and unreasonable, but I don’t think I am. One of the cousins lives across the country and we have only seen the family four times in the past nine years, and the other cousin is closer to our family but we usually only see that cousin two to three times a year. On top of that, the fact that they are cousins and not immediate family, plus the fact that no one else in the family is getting them gifts, plus the fact that we already spend so much, makes me think it is fair to not buy them gifts.

For me, the bottom line is that I am uncomfortable spending more money especially when we already spend so much for gifts, and I would hope my husband would respect that I am uncomfortable with it, but he doesn’t. Is my husband right? Am I being unreasonable or unfair? I don’t think I am, but maybe we need an outside perspective. — Enough Gifts Already

I’m so confused — and I’m sure you are, too — why your husband wants to suddenly buy gifts for family members you haven’t bought gifts for before. He says it’s “standard” that people buy gifts for their cousins and their cousins’ kids — and that’s arguable at best — but it hasn’t been standard for you guys, so why the change now? What’s the impetus for it? If you expect to see the cousins at a family Christmas gathering, that’s one thing, and it makes sense that for this year you might have a few token gifts to exchange. Even then, spending as much on the cousins and their kids as you do on your siblings and your parents isn’t necessary. I’d give one small token gift to the grown-ups — a bottle of wine; some fancy hot chocolate mix; an ornament — and very small gifts to each kids, like coloring books and some crayons, a $5 board book, some cute gloves (kids can always use spare gloves in the winter!).

It sounds like you need to discuss the expectations and boundaries of holiday gift-giving again with your husband. Find out why it’s suddenly important to him to give gifts to people you’ve never exchanged gifts with before, and re-iterate what you think your holiday gift budget should be. Does he agree with the total amount? And when you divide the amount by the number of people you already give to, does the per-person amount seem appropriate? Is there room to cut back on individual amounts to increase the number of people you gift to? And, again, why would doing that be important to your husband? What would you each think about giving gifts only to the children in your lives (your own kids, your nieces/nephews)? Some families draw names for the adults, so that you give a gift to only one adult in the family and not all the siblings and parents/grandparents. It’s ok if this hasn’t been “standard” practice in your families – as family structures (and budgets!) change, standards can change and new traditions can develop and shift.

Finally, this is also an opportunity for you and your husband to re-visit expectations of gift-giving to each other. Is it important and meaningful to each of you to exchange gifts? Maybe it would be more meaningful to spend your budget on a shared experience together, or to save the money since you feel like you already spend so much on gifts, in general. Or maybe put the money toward a therapy appointment if it turns out the gift-giving issue is one you need additional help with in finding compromise!

I was in an abusive marriage for 25 years. My ex-husband and I have two grown children together. Our son, “William,” is 25 years old and our daughter, “Natalie,” is 22 years old. William has alienated himself from the family since the divorce. He came home once for Christmas, and his father broke into the house on drugs to come after me; our son stopped him and they fought. He hasn’t had much to do with me or my daughter since then, and he has moved out of state. Natalie has been in an on-and-off relationship with her boyfriend for three years. She has told me that he reads her messages, keeps her phone, and wants her with him all the time. He puts her down, he tells her that her family doesn’t care about her, and he isolates her.

I am recently remarried to a good man who tried to put Natalie’s boyfriend to work, but he just kept getting mouthy and disrespectful so it didn’t work out. Every time my husband bought her a new cell phone her boyfriend would smash it. Natalie became pregnant and I barely heard from her. When I did, we would argue because she stated that my husband would not be allowed around my grandchild ever and her decision was final. Then I received a message from my sister that Natalie had had the baby. I drove two hours and saw my grandson.

I have tried to talk to her since then about why she is cutting ties with my husband and she won’t talk about it. Then I confronted her boyfriend on it and he said that my husband should have treated him better and that next time he will remember who he is talking to. My husband confronted her boyfriend about his drug use and gave him the “party is over and someone handed you the check” talk. That was all he did. Natalie’s boyfriend once told me that he will have nothing to with his child if Natalie doesn’t stay with him. He only gets along with Natalie’s father, who is also an addict and alcoholic. And of course my ex-husband encourages bad feelings towards my new husband. Meanwhile, my entire family and friends love my new husband. He has been a very positive addition to our family.

Natalie and her boyfriend now live three hours away with no phone or any way to contact her except Facebook, but I fear her boyfriend erases my messages. My heart is broken. My daughter and I used to have such a strong bond. What do I do? — Worried Mom

When someone you love is in a relationship with someone controlling who works to alienate her and isolate her from her support system, the worst thing you can do is give that controlling person ammunition to use against you. You and your husband, although so well-intentioned, did just that when you argued with her about her husband, when you made any negative comments about him to her, and when your husband gave him the “party is over” conversation. All of that made it very easy for him to convince Natalie that you’re not on his side, and since she loves him, if you aren’t on his side, then you aren’t on her side either. He has manipulated her to believe that there are now two sides – you and your husband against her and her boyfriend. You cannot win as long as she is on his side, and you cannot get her off his side by saying or doing anything that reflects negative feelings against him. She will only leave her boyfriend’s side when and if she comes to the conclusion herself that he’s bad news and only if she has a clear path away from him.

Your job right now is to provide the clear path away from him. All that means is keeping in touch with her enough to let her know you love her. Of course, that is challenged by your limited way to be in touch with her, which is exactly what her boyfriend is hoping. I’m not sure why Facebook is the only way you can reach out to Natalie. If she has access to Facebook, doesn’t she have access to email? If you know a mailing address, can you write letters to her? Keep in mind that any letter she receives will likely be read by her boyfriend, so don’t say anything bad about him! Keep the letters short – tell her you love her and were thinking about her and hope she’s doing well. Let her know you’d welcome hearing from her but don’t put any pressure on her. Even if you don’t hear back from her, keep sending mail to her regularly – even postcards will suffice. Always keep the messages short and just continually reiterate that you love her. The notes will serve to create a pathway for her. And as the path away from her boyfriend builds – through the love you will express to Natalie — the ultimate hope is that she will take the path all the way back to you. Barring that ultimate outcome, you can hope that, at the very least, a two-way line of communication will begin to open and that Natalie will let you back into her life, giving room for a relationship between you to grow again. If you are so lucky for that to happen, please resist the temptation to pull her toward you and away from her boyfriend. I promise he will be on the other side, ready to yank her back, and she, weakened from however many years of being manipulated by him, will lack the strength to fight him.

This is a battle that will be very hard, if not impossible, for you to win. But if you can extend your hand into the battle and give it a wave every once in a while, your daughter will see it there should she ever decide to grab hold.

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

32 comments… add one
  • anonymousse November 21, 2019, 12:00 pm

    On one side of my family, all immediate kids get gifts and we do a Secret Santa for the rest. I think it’s around a $25 limit or something. I do not think there is a “standard” way all families do gifts at the holidays, but we definitely would not involve the extended family. I have never heard of anyone doing that, except maybe Oprah.

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    • anonymousse November 21, 2019, 2:39 pm

      I do immediate (like, my own kids and my husband) and my nieces. That’s bare minimum, plus the secret Santa. Often other things come up. My husband gets gifts for his coworkers.

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    courtney89 November 21, 2019, 12:05 pm

    Wow, maybe my family is in the minority, but we do exchange gifts christmas night with two of my cousins/their kids. I wish we would do some sort of secret santa thing, especially with how expensive it gets (one of my cousins has 6 children, we have 7 ‘kids’ ranging from 10-21).

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      courtney89 November 21, 2019, 12:07 pm

      That’s in extended family. so we have those 7 and then my 1 year old niece and 4 year old nephew as the kids (who we exchange gifts with christmas morning). Definitely adds up!

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      • anonymousse November 21, 2019, 2:35 pm

        My family is huge, like, six kids my parents generation, they all had 2-6 kids each, and probably 75% of those kids had kids, so it’s a lot.

  • Jennifer November 21, 2019, 12:33 pm

    I find it very interesting that a woman who was in a 25 year abusive marriage does not have more insight here as to the dynamics at play. I feel sorry for the daughter. She grew up in this abusive environment and is repeating the pattern. It took the mother 25 years to break free from her marriage. Perhaps she should think about what it took to get her to break free.

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    • Vathena November 21, 2019, 12:50 pm


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    • SpaceySteph November 21, 2019, 2:29 pm

      Totally agree. LW set this example for her daughter and is now surprised when he daughter followed it.
      LW 2 should think about what she would have honestly wanted 20 years ago when she was in a new abusive relationship with young kids and give her daughter that. I’m sure she knows that her mother challenging her abusive drug addict husband would not have helped the situation.

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      • Worried mom November 21, 2019, 9:06 pm

        Yes I realize the example that I have set. However that does not mean that I stand by and watch as the same mistakes are made. And yes of course I have insight into this. My abuser was rarely physical. He chose more mind games then anything. These kinds of abusers are horrible. By the time you realize what has happened to you it can be to late. They are narcissists in every aspect of your relationship. There is no love although they make you think their is or worse make you think there’s nothing out there but what he has to offer because no one wants you. Never judge until you walk in someone’s shoes.

    • dinoceros November 21, 2019, 5:45 pm

      I was thinking the same thing. LW, unfortunately, as you can see, it may take 25 years for your daughter to move on. Let’s hope it doesn’t, but you must understand how hard it is. Especially if she grew up with the belief that this is how relationships work. I think it’s also common for adult children of abusive parents to try to find a relationship that replicates the situation so they can finally get the approval they wanted.

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    • Worried mom November 21, 2019, 9:25 pm

      I definitely have the insight that is how I know my daughter is in trouble. And yes children who grow up in an environment where one parent is abusive to the other they are far more likely to end up that way themselves. However, the chain must break somewhere.
      One winter he left me and my daughter whether a snow storm on our own. I have a heart condition and she had hip surgery. He thought he would teach us a lesson. And he took every dime in the house too.
      When he tried to come back three days later I told him no. I told him that he can bust everything in the house and the answer is still no.
      My breaking point you ask? Is when he started on our daughter. And started treating her like me.
      I lost everything divorcing that bastard. My home, my car, my belongings…everything. I was left with a car my parents bought me and a few boxes. That’s it. Everything gone.
      But I am free. It was worth it.

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      • Redgirl January 1, 2020, 9:16 pm

        I am glad you are finally free, and I hope your daughter finds herself free sooner rather than later.

  • Miss MJ November 21, 2019, 12:47 pm

    I don’t think there’s a set Christmas Gift Cut Off Standard. Parents, siblings, nieces and nephews is as far out as we generally go, family wise. We all got tired of trying to figure out what to buy the adults a few years ago, so now we do presents for the kids – our nieces and nephews – (7 in all) and then do a gift card dirty santa with a dollar limit for the adults and my husband and I get each other separate gifts. But it is weird that your husband suddenly wants to add more people to the gift list. I thought people generally preferred to cut the list!

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    • SpaceySteph November 21, 2019, 2:32 pm

      I agree its strange there’s a sudden change. I wonder if someone said something to him, to guilt him into it. I can imagine my MIL trying to guilt my husband into something like that.

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  • Kate Avery November 21, 2019, 2:23 pm

    There is no standard way to do Christmas. In my family, the kids all get gifts and the rest are Secret Santa. Immediate family only, plus anyone who will be at my mom’s on Christmas day who wants to participate may do so (so sometimes my sister’s in-laws).

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    Miel November 21, 2019, 2:46 pm

    This just sounds like so many gifts! And so much money! I can’t help but think: is there a way to reduce this?

    One way would be to do a gift exchange for the adults, as other people have already suggested. But another option is to give other things. Last year I came across this “alternative” gift-giving pyramid, that I’ll try to share here:

    First: Try to give time, memories and experiences. Spend time with someone. Invite them to do a special activity together. Offer to do a special chore for them. Buy tickets for an event. Buy a subscription for an online publication they like.

    Second: “Upcycle”, upgrade or gift something you already have. A book you already have read. A piece of furniture that can be upgraded. A toy your children won’t need anymore.

    Third: Buy used. “Vintage” clothes and jewelry, flee market, Ebay, goodwill…

    Fourth: Create something yourself. Baking desserts, crafting Christmas ornaments, knitting scarves and mittens, etc.

    Fifth: Ethical gift buying, buy local, buy fair trade, buy from small producers.

    Six AND AS A LAST RESORT: Actually buy new, mass-produced objects.

    Hopefully, these strategies can help reducing the overall cost of the holiday gifts!

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    • Helen November 21, 2019, 3:55 pm

      LW2’s daughter has at least one child. Living with at least on addict. Are you sure she isn’t also using? My friend’s abusive addict partner purposefully got her hooked on heroin so she would be willing to turn tricks for his dope. Someone needs to be monitoring the environment the child is in. I don’t know how LW2 would accomplish that being so cut off from them. Is there anyone trustworthy who they would let in for a visit? Nobody wants to call CPS on their own child, but you need to if the child is in danger or neglected. Keep all lines of communication open with your daughter, don’t speak negatively about her relationship. If it’s in your budget, open a savings account and regularly deposit some money that your daughter can use to set herself up if she escapes. Don’t tell her about it in less you see her actually leave him!

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      • Helen November 21, 2019, 3:57 pm

        I didn’t mean for my post to be a reply to Meil’s excellent gift giving advice

  • anonymousse November 21, 2019, 2:53 pm

    I think it can be really hard for some victims of abuse to see red flags and signs of abuse for what it is and know what to do, even if they’ve lived through it. A lot of times they move on from their trauma and work to “put the past behind them” instead of working through what happened. It doesn’t sound like the LW2 ever went to therapy of any sort and that could be why she’s made these missteps and doesn’t know what to do. Her family has been broken apart. It’s interesting and sad that your son has alienated himself from you, the events you wrote about don’t seem like a logical step, but maybe he just got tired of the drama? I think it would be worth making an appointment to speak to a therapist, or maybe a family counselor. Your children are pretty much estranged from you.

    LW2- keep the lines of communication open. Don’t talk badly about her bf, which I know will be so hard. All that will do is give him fuel to prove how you’re trying to split them up, how you aren’t on “his side,” etc. He’ll use anything like that against you. It’s really sad, but she has to go through this and hopefully get out of this relationship of her own volition. Just support her as much as you can. Offer to watch the kids, offer to bring dinner, etc whatever it is that can help you stay involved.

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  • Ange November 21, 2019, 3:10 pm

    All this gift giving is nuts! My family went to kids only when we were all quite little then as we hit the pre-teen years we gave it away altogether and just wrote cards, now even that is scarce. Are the cousins even aware gifts are coming? Do they intend to reciprocate? If anything you could be putting pressure on them to do so which could be the last thing they need during a cost heavy time. Your husband needs to be a bit more aware of others I think, which is ironic considering the true intent of gifts.

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  • dinoceros November 21, 2019, 5:42 pm

    LW1: I also don’t know why your husband suddenly started this . The only thing I could think of is that he thinks it’s some kind of status symbol to be able to give gifts to random family you hardly know, or he wants to get gifts in return. Neither is very complimentary to your husband, so I hope he has some other unique reason. I have to say that you guys also need to consider their side. If they don’t give you two gifts, then this is most likely going to make them uncomfortable. You’re forcing them to either start buying your family gifts OR deal with feeling stingy by being given gifts from people they aren’t buying gifts for. Either way, it just sounds kind of wasteful to spend all that extra money on them for no apparent reason. I think the amount you’re already spending is a lot. I don’t know why the children can’t just get a book or something, but what do I know.

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    • csp November 22, 2019, 5:48 am

      I am wondering if they are going through a hard time. and he is worried the kids won’t get any gifts.

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      • anonymousse November 22, 2019, 11:10 am

        I thought about that, too. Maybe he knows something you don’t, LW1.

  • Hazel November 21, 2019, 6:41 pm

    LW1 So many gifts!! Tell your husband you are investing in the children’s future, by avoiding buying stuff (if you are not close will probably not be even the right stuff) and buy those closest to you an experience rather than a gift and encourage the rest to visit and be spoilt in person. Good luck. x
    LW2 Everything Wendy has said. Hoping so much for your daughter and you that she gets out of this soon and wishing so much better for her and you.

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    • Hazel November 21, 2019, 6:47 pm

      I was in the position your daughter was in once and my mother’s unswerving support was one of the things which saved me. She accepted me at all stages of my leaving and it was a life saver, don’t give up on her if she wavers. I hope it all goes well for you both.

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  • Worried mom November 21, 2019, 9:12 pm

    Yes I realize the example that I have set. However that does not mean that I stand by and watch as the same mistakes are made. And yes of course I have insight into this. My abuser was rarely physical. He chose more mind games then anything. These kinds of abusers are horrible. By the time you realize what has happened to you it can be to late. They are narcissists in every aspect of your relationship. There is no love although they make you think their is or worse make you think there’s nothing out there but what he has to offer because no one wants you. Never judge until you walk in someone’s shoes.

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    • anonymousse November 22, 2019, 11:06 am

      You can’t do anything but be neutral to him and supportive to her. You are so far estranged from both of your children. Please see a family counselor. Offer to help, offer groceries, keep putting your hand out to help. If you can repair the relationship with her and be a landing pad for when she needs it, you will make progress. If you keep fighting with him, you’re going to keep pushing her away and adding more stress to their relationship. She’ll have one less person to turn to when she needs help.

      My mom was in an abusive marriage, luckily she left my father early into their relationship. Guess what? Oddly enough, one of my early relationships ended up with a controlling, emotionally and then physically abusive person. I do know what I’m talking about. I was so ashamed that I feel into the same type of relationship she had. I’m glad that for all her faults, my mother never tried to butt in between us. She was there to listen, support and continued to try until I finally had the ovaries to leave. My mother and I do not have a great relationship, but she kept the lines of communication open then and for that, I am grateful. She dropped everything and made a seven hours long round trip to pick me up, with little notice and move me back into her house when I finally had the courage to leave for good.

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  • Fyodor November 22, 2019, 8:26 am

    I would strongly suggest maybe meeting a financial counselor and discussing this in the context of your overall financial goals and budget. I think that between couples there are often going to be strongly felt differences about certain spending priorities that may need to be accommodated. You may have renovations or durable good purchases that seem more important to you . I think that you are better off trying to work out an overall budget together than trying to prove who is “right” about gifts to extended family.

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  • CET November 22, 2019, 8:32 am

    Between my husband’s family and my family I have 15 nieces and nephews…and we have two kids. Plus adults get each other gifts. It’s too much. I have suggested several times we pull names out of a hat instead of getting gifts for everyone and the other family members say no. My SIL wants her boys to feel special and get gifts from everyone but she struggles financially and her mother buys all her gifts for her. I understand. Yet also I am frustrated bc it’s just TOO MUCH. I am growing to hate Christmas bc of the financial stress.

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  • csp November 22, 2019, 10:18 am

    LW1 – I think the why for your husband is really really important here just like Wendy said. I think you not putting his why on here is because you think it would swing the debate. Honestly, I am a big budget person and part of the debt free community so I understand the importance of sticking to a budget.

    But, If these cousins are going to be at the family Christmas party, I think excluding the kids from gifts is harsh. They don’t understand the family dynamics just that some kids got gifts and some didn’t. If it has been a tough year for the families, then you could make their days brighter.

    Now, lots of families are different. I know for us, we only exchange for the kids. We do not do siblings anymore. For cousins. I have 27 cousins and those cousins have 23 kids and counting. so it would be way too many people. But if any of those cousins are with us for a holiday and gifts are exchanged, then we get things for those kids that year.

    If money is tight, I think you should consider stopping sibling gifts and just do stuff for the kids. It helps a lot.

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  • Liz November 23, 2019, 8:27 am

    My family no longer does this but when we were all younger with small children…

    I have seven siblings and all had children. Our thanksgiving tradition was drawing names for Christmas gifts. Everyone under 18 yrs names goes into one bowl and everyone over 18 goes into another. If you have two children you draw two names. One adult name for each adult in the household. This doesn’t work out so well with small families.

    For Christmas at the end of our day everyone left with one new gift.

    As our family grew we had our family celerbration the Sunday before Christmas. My parents reconized we had in-laws who wanted their own family time. Mom had Thanksgiving and the in-laws had Christmas.

    My parents had New Year Eve parties and somehow we all showed up for that too.

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  • Liz November 23, 2019, 8:34 am

    PS, We had an agreed dollar amount to spend. We even had a dollar amount that Santa could spend. All the big item gifts came from parents not Santa.

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