This month, the advice columnist answers a question about unexpected gifts from estranged relatives.
Q: We never had a great relationship with my in-laws, I would say civil. Late last year my mother in law decided she didn’t speak to us anymore, she didn’t tell us she got married, her new husband was ill and later passed away and that my husband’s sister is very ill in cancer. We found this all out from other family members. There was no change to how we acted she stopped contact with us out of the blue. But she still sends us birthdays and Christmas cards with money in. I am unsure on how to approach this? We have now stopped sending Xmas/birthday stuff to her as if you won’t tell us life changing news why send a birthday card. How should I deal with her sending us these things?
A: Hi there, anonymous friend,
Thank you so much for writing in. This sounds like a tough and emotionally fraught time that you and your husband have been navigating — but let's be real, here.
This is not entirely about the Christmas card money.
In your letter, you write about becoming estranged from your mother-in-law out of the blue, being out of the loop on important news, and the extended family facing significant change, illness and tragedy over the last couple of years.
Birthdays and holidays aside, how are you holding up with all of this? How is your husband holding up? It is his side of the family, after all, where all of this is happening.
Is this a thing you two are able to talk about, as a couple? Do you have support in your lives, beyond each other, as you navigate through this?
When I read your letter, it made me wonder — it's clear that getting these predictably-unpredictable cards from your mother-in-law is bringing up a whirlwind of emotions. But even if you find the most perfect possible way of dealing with these cards, will that address the problem? Or will you and your husband still be feeling all of these emotions about his mother, and will find them cropping up in other places?
I believe that it's a real problem in your life right now — and I'll do my best to offer you some card-specific strategies.
But let's also not lose the forest for the trees.
In your letter, you wrote about finding out life-changing information from your husband's side of the family late, second-hand, and from other family members.
If you and your husband haven't already had this conversation, I'd encourage you both to explore this question:
What do you actually want from that side of the family?
Just because you want it doesn't mean you're going to get it, of course, or get it in the way you want it — some parts of this are outside of your control.
But before we get into all of that, let's figure out what you both want.
In a perfect world, would you want to hear about Little Cousin A's school choir recital, and Uncle B's upcoming retirement, and see all the pictures of Great-Aunt C's craft projects in progress?
Or do you only want the most important news, like if your husband's sister's health takes a turn?
Would you want to be invited to (all, or some) of your in-laws' family gatherings, have catch-ups on the phone a few times a year?
Or are they people you'd be happy to know from a distance — with no ill will, but no particular desire for closeness, either?
You and your husband may have different answers, here, and that's just fine — there are no wrong answers when it comes to wanting what you want.
Then, it's about figuring out what measure of what you want you may actually be able to get.
When you've actually gotten these big pieces of information from your husband's family over the course of the last year, you say there were other family members who told you the news.
Are these people who you and/or your husband are close to, who might be willing to help keep you more in the loop?
When it comes to estrangement (and in just about every other context), I firmly believe that the best way to build the strongest possible relationships is to ask forthrightly for what you want — with the understanding that other people are absolutely free to say no, if that's what they want.
For example, if it's important to your husband to prioritize a closer relationship with his sister while she's ill, he might try a conversation with her (by phone, or email, or in person, or whatever is most feasible) that goes something like this:
"[Sister], I love you very much, and I want to support you, especially while you're ill. When you got sick, and no one told me for a long time, I felt [worried? hurt? powerless?]. I also know it's completely your decision, who you tell about your illness, when you tell them, and how much you want them to know. But if you're able, I'd really like to know [how you're doing, in general? If you're admitted to the hospital? If there's anything I can do to help?]"
From there, the ball is in her court — and whatever comes of it, your husband can know he did the best he could to build the kind of relationship with his sister that he wanted, and that he gave her the space she needed to do the same.
When it comes to what to do about the birthday and Christmas cards, my advice is actually not all that different.
Together, you have already made an important decision about what you want to do on that front — you've decided, as gift-givers and card-senders, you only want to participate in this tradition with people who are meaningfully present in your lives.
Now, I can't speak for why your mother-in-law is still sending you cards, even after she has decided not to speak to you anymore.
Maybe she sends them because that's her family's tradition, and it would be harder to break the habit than it would be to keep sending them. Maybe she feels a sense of obligation, or that sending these cards is an important part of her identity as a mother, or to feel like she's being the bigger person. Maybe, for whatever reason, she isn't able to offer more of a relationship right now — but this, she can do.
In the future, if things change and your family is exploring the idea of rebuilding/reimagining this relationship, her reasons for doing this might become very important.
Right now, I'd say they don't matter very much at all — she is sending the cards, and you don't like it, and you want her to stop.
My first suggestion would be to ask for what you want.
The next time she sends a card, what would it feel like to send a short reply?
"Hi [mother-in-law]. [Husband] and I got your card. While you're not speaking to us, we would prefer not to get these types of cards from you either. Please stop sending them. Thank you, [Anonymous, and husband]."
She might not honour your request — but, then again, she might, and you'd be able to solve this particular problem at the source.
If the cards keep coming, I'd encourage you and your husband to make decisions based on these two principles:
1) A gift is not an obligation, and
2) Sometimes, the cheapest way to pay for something is with money.
When somebody makes a free choice to give you something — whatever their reasons — then that thing is now yours. You get to use it how you choose, and it doesn't incur any sort of debt, or run up favours to be called in later. The money she's putting in those cards is a gift, not a contract or a wage. Regardless of what your relationship with your mother-in-law turns out to be, you and your husband can feel free to use it like you would any other unexpected little windfall.
That's easy enough to say on paper — I know, in practice, gifts (or promises) of money from estranged relatives can be emotionally wrenching to receive, let alone spend. And if the pain, uncertainty and discomfort you and your husband are feeling because of this money is so much greater than the peace and pleasure you could get from using it, then you can feel just as free not to use it — leave the cards unopened until you feel ready to face them, give the money to charity, or return to sender.
Wishing you well with whatever you choose, and all the best in the new year,
Hila (any pronouns) is the Advice Columnist for the Together Estranged Newsletter. They have been happily estranged for a number of years, and now live with their chosen family and beloved, silly dog in rural Canada. They have a background in mental health, peer support, writing and journalism. Outside of work, Hila can be found recreating desserts from The Great British Bake Off, running on the beautiful trails near their home, singing show tunes, and learning to knit.
Please Note: The peer to peer Advice Columnist is not a licensed mental health professional; this is not medical advice. If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, please go to your local urgent care center to talk to a professional counselor.
In addition, the views and opinions expressed by Advice Columnists are those of the Advice Columnists and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Together Estranged.