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Friend feels trapped by gift-giving tradition

DEAR AMY: I have been friends with three women since we were 13 years old. We are all nearing 50 now. It has always been tradition for us to get together for birthdays and Christmas, and we give gifts to one another for those occasions. In the past few years, it has been hard for me to afford the gift-giving. I’m working multiple jobs, but I am barely keeping up with my bills. I have told them how difficult it is for me, year after year, but all they tell me is not to worry about giving anything. That doesn’t make me feel better. I feel very guilty. I would never feel right about attending one of our get-togethers empty-handed. I won’t be buying gifts for anyone in my family this year. I love these ladies and enjoy their company when we get together, but I’m resenting my obligation to buy gifts for them when we only make time to see each other for these “gift grab” occasions. Should I continue to cave, and follow the age-old pattern of giving gifts to them when I really can’t afford it?

Feeling Hopelessly Scroogey

DEAR SCROOGEY: You are sounding very resentful over this pattern, and yet you also report that when you have brought up your situation, all of these women tell you not to worry about bringing a gift.

Your inability to drop your feeling of being obligated seems more like a refusal at this point.

These get-togethers do not sound like a “gift grab” to me, and it is unkind of you to refer to these celebrations that way.

In my family of (many) women, we have gradually stopped giving gifts for these occasions, and exchange cards instead. This practice started gradually, and now is a treasured aspect of our birthday lunches. The person being honored goes home with a stack of cards — some homemade, and some from the drugstore rack — and it is awesome.

It is time for you to be brave enough to trust these lifelong friends. What they are telling you is that your friendship is the gift they want to receive. If you give a card, it might inspire your friends to also make a transition away from material giving, but it is important that you respect their choices, too, and receive their generosity with grace and gratitude.

DEAR AMY: I am responding to a recent letter in your column from a woman signed “Helpless Monster-in-Law.” She reported how her mother-in-law engaged in “drunk fighting” with her son (Helpless’ husband) during visits. Like Helpless, I had a mother-in-law who became argumentative when she drank. One evening after particularly mean treatment from her, I decided that I was not going to expose my kids to that behavior. The next time she was scheduled to visit our home, I packed an overnight case for my girls and me. I told my husband that the instant she began to become abusive or talk disrespectfully about family or friends, I was going to take my girls and leave for a hotel. I don’t know what my husband said to her, but her bullying behavior stopped. The mother-in-law will not change. It is up to the husband to set the boundaries (not engage in a fight) with his mom. The couple might benefit from couples counseling on how to present a calm and united front to the mom.

Been There

DEAR BEEN THERE: Thank you for providing your perspective, based on your own tough experience and lesson learned.

Only a fool argues with a drunk. Your response, which was clear, calm and protective — was the appropriate way to cope with this toxic pattern.

I love it that you presented your nonnegotiable in such a proactive fashion.

Family members of addicts often have trouble setting boundaries, partly because the impaired person often leaps over boundaries in unexpected ways. “Friends and family” support groups such as Al-anon are useful for the same reason your response is: support group participants will demonstrate through personal experience how to stop trying to control the other person, while maintaining control over their own response.

DEAR READERS: My own life is probably a lot like yours. I’ve experienced poverty, prosperity, marriage, divorce, remarriage, step-parenting, caretaking, loss and grief. If you’ve ever been curious about the life behind the advice column, I hope you’ll consider picking up my memoir, “Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home.” (2017, Hachette).

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