Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My sister is a year younger than me and has two children, ages 16 and 14. I have four children: one age 14, one age 12, and 8-year-old twins. We have another sister with 6-year-olds. We’ve all always exchanged Christmas and birthday gifts and have always sent one another's kids birthday gifts.

A few years ago, my sister stopped giving my children and me birthday gifts. I continued to send her and her children gifts. For their 14th and 16th birthdays, however, I stopped in response. The gifts themselves are not the issue—it’s totally fine to stop sending gifts (and none of us really needs anything anyway), but I'm wondering what prompted this change since she still sends gifts to my other sister’s kids. She’s never said anything about it.

We did have an argument four years ago, but that was resolved and everything has seemingly been fine for years. But I wonder if she has some issue with me that I’m not aware of. Should I ask her about it? I don’t want her to think she needs to send my kids gifts. That's beside the point. I'm just wondering if there was some message I missed that I should address. Or should I just let it go?

Anonymous
New Jersey


Dear Anonymous,

Gift-giving in families can be a minefield, because the act of giving a gift (or not) has the potential to represent so much. A gift can be a way to communicate love or affection, or to offer an olive branch; the absence of one can communicate anger or hurt or spite. Some gifts send a message of resentful obligation (the overtly cheap gift; the blatantly “wrong” or impersonal gift) while others become a tool of manipulation (the estranged sibling who sends a gift to “look good” in the eyes of other family members and then, to look even better, complains to those family members that the recipient, who didn’t want the gift in the first place, wasn’t appreciative).

Accurately or not, we also use gifts as a barometer of the giver’s feelings for us. If I give my sister a more thoughtful and personal gift than the online gift card she gives me, does that mean I’m more invested in our relationship than she is? If I give my brother’s kids nicer gifts than he gives my kids, does he not care about my kids as much as I care about his?

I mention all of this because your question is really about your relationship with your sister. She stopped giving gifts to you and your children a few years ago, and yet in all that time, neither you nor she has acknowledged this. Meanwhile, you’ve been left worrying that you may have hurt her without intending to. And so I wonder if there’s a pattern between you two in which the only way she expresses herself is by withdrawing in some way, leaving you to ask, “Is anything wrong?” And if so, does she calmly tell you what’s bothering her, or is the interaction generally fraught? Or does she say “Nothing’s wrong,” even though it later becomes apparent that something is wrong?

In other words, perhaps there’s something in your history together that has made you reluctant to simply ask her what’s up in the same way that you so clearly and compassionately expressed your question here—that the gifts don’t matter, you just want to make sure everything’s okay between the two of you. Likewise, there may be something in your history together that has made her reluctant to say to you, “Hey, I think that we and the kids are old enough now that I’d like to stop giving gifts since none of us needs anything anyway” or “What do you think about giving to charity on each other’s behalf instead of gifts we don’t need from now on?” It’s possible that she anticipated—based on past experience—a negative reaction from you, so she felt that it was easier to avoid the topic altogether.

Avoidance usually takes hold when one or both people in a relationship feel that the benefit of evading the issue outweighs the benefit of being direct. And both you and your sister have avoided not just this conversation about whether things are okay between you, but also the conversation about why you two are so afraid of being direct with each other about what’s in your hearts and on your minds. Now would be the perfect time to start by telling her how important she is to you, that you want her to feel comfortable talking to you and vice versa, and that you’re curious to know what prompted the change around gift-giving and whether there’s anything she’s upset about, related or unrelated to gift-giving. And then you can say something more general about how much closer you feel to her when you two can tell each other what you’re thinking and feeling.

Two final thoughts about gifts: True gifts are those we give freely and without expectation of reciprocation. If you’ve been giving gifts to your sister and her children for their sake (and not in order to get something back), then your decision to continue to give should have nothing to do with whether your sister gives gifts to you or your children. Genuine giving isn’t a tit-for-tat situation. (Of course, if your sister explicitly requests that you stop—and so far she hasn’t—then you’ll need to respect her wishes but can also talk about what’s behind them. It may be, for instance, that she can’t afford giving gifts to everyone on their birthday and finds it awkward to receive them under those circumstances.)

Second, a gift is one way to say, “I have you in mind today; I celebrate you.” But there are plenty of other ways, too, such as calling to offer birthday wishes, sending a thoughtful card, taking the person to lunch, or going on a special outing together. This goes for both your sister and her teenagers and is an important part of nurturing these relationships. Once the gift-giving stopped, did you both continue to call or send a card or in some way acknowledge the birthdays? If not, you two might also talk about how you’d like birthdays acknowledged in your respective families, even if gifts aren’t involved. No matter what’s decided, taking the guessing out will be the best gift you can give to your relationship.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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