My boyfriend and I have been dating a little over a year. His mom has given me little gifts here and there. Should I get her a Christmas present this year? (We didn’t exchange gifts with each other’s families last Christmas.) What about his sister, niece, and nephew? I’ve signed my name to birthday gifts that he has given to his family and given gifts to his niece and sister. I have a feeling he will not be getting my family anything because he has never given a gift or signed his name to one I have given to my relatives. I should just ask him, but I feel weird asking about gift-giving.
C.O. / Boston
The question “What should I give my romantic partner’s family for Christmas” is a simple one that any social-advice columnist could answer with ease.
I’m not going to give you the answer.
Because, honey, this “feeling weird” business has got to stop. You’ve been dating this guy for over a year and you can’t say: “Do you think I should get your mom something this year? Or should we go in on it together?” How do you discuss birth control, for heaven’s sake? What if you had an illness with some disgusting symptoms? How would you split up the chores if you lived together? Financial responsibilities? Romantic relationships are all about awkward conversations.
Do you know what happens in couples in which one person “feels weird” about discussing expectations, responsibilities, and family management with the other? The person who “feels weird” winds up doing everything him- or herself, because “If I don’t do it, who will,” but God forbid you actually say anything. It’s a big red flag for me — or, to keep to a seasonally festive tone, it’s a bunch of bright red holly berries for me! — that you’ve been keeping up with social niceties for his family this past year while he has not done the same for yours. Did you even ask him to?
Get over it. Have a courage-boosting peppermint mocha, take a deep breath, and say to your boyfriend, “How should we handle gift-giving for our families this year?” Not what should you get for his family, but what should your joint policy on gift-giving to both families be? If you can’t bring yourself to do this — and I mean this with all sincerity — get help. Because otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of living up to your own, probably exaggerated, ideas of what other people expect of you and letting decent people take wild advantage of you because they have no idea that’s what they’re doing.
And if you can’t bring yourself to get professional help, either . . . then buy his mom something charming and inexpensive at a local craft fair and get a board game or a couple of family-friendly DVDs as a group gift for his sister and her kids.
There. I said I wasn’t going to tell you the answer to your question, but I did anyway. That’s because I, too, like to solve people’s problems, even when it means disregarding my own previously set and entirely reasonable boundaries. But I get money, some local fame, and great intellectual and emotional satisfaction out of it. What do you get?
Merry Christmas, C.O. Why don’t you and your boyfriend watch the great Rankin/Bass Rudolphspecial together this year? With its themes about breaking out of bad habits and accepting differences comfortably, it could just get you in the Christmas spirit to have a few necessary conversations.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.