On my husband's and my first Christmas together, we spent a lot on presents for his family. We don't talk to them that often, but we sent the package and even paid extra to make sure it arrived on time. We never heard anything. It wasn't until mid-conversation during a phone call two months later that they mentioned, "Hey, we got the Christmas gifts. Thanks." I was annoyed but thought maybe it was just an isolated incident - until their birthdays rolled around and the same thing happened. I voiced my concerns to my husband and have demanded we send nothing more than a card from now on. He insists that we continue to send gifts, since, in his words, they're the only family he has. Do we really have to keep this up? We don't have the time or money to keep buying things for people who obviously don't appreciate it. - H.M., 28, San Diego
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In a perfect world, we would give people presents out of the goodness of our hearts, not because we're expecting a lot of gratitude in return. But gift-giving is complicated, and gift-giving within families is more complicated still. Last year, you really extended yourself to your new family; you invested time, money, and effort - and got a limp thanks in return. No wonder you're ready to swear off presents and stick to Hallmark!
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To be honest, I was going to suggest that you try to assuage your upset by looking at your gift-giving as a way to honor your husband and new marriage, but that strategy might pave the way for resentment on your part. Marriages can survive holiday dilemmas far more easily than they can survive one partner's resenting the other.
With this in mind, I think you should listen to your gut and take it holiday by holiday. Over time, you'll figure out what feels like a comfortable amount for you to give and, more important, what makes you feel good, even if you don't receive the thanks you deserve.
So you want to send only cards this year? Do that and see how you feel about it. I suspect from your letter that you're a big-hearted soul and that being stingy in that regard won't feel satisfying to you. You'll discover what studies have shown is true: It feels good to give; giving, in some immeasurable way, increases our happiness.
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In the meantime, if you do decide to pony up for presents this year, consider the tactics of one of my good friends. She never spends much, but she's sure to give you something special. Her method involves paying attention throughout the year: If I mention I'm in a mad knitting phase, she gets me a gift certificate for my favorite yarn shop. If I say I my current favorite cookies on Planet Earth are ginger snaps, she gives me a tin of the best ginger snaps. The beauty of knowing the likes and dislikes of your recipients is that you're never stuck in front of the perfume sets at Target the day before Christmas, desperate just to buy anything.
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This giving method does, however, mean you need to get to know what's going on with your husband's family. You should, perhaps, talk to them more often, since you're now part of the family. View your holiday-present predicament as, well, a gift: It's an opportunity for you to figure out for yourself what it means to truly give.
Karen Karbo is an award-winning writer and author of The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman. She's also a mom, a writing teacher, and a horse owner. Check out more advice from Karen.
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