My in-laws feel we are too rich to need presents. I don’t know how to handle Christmas | Leading questions

Perhaps your relatives are not just responding to perceived levels of wealth but to perceived social class, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith

My little family of three is not rich, but we are richer than my in-laws. As my husband and I have grown our careers, his parents and sister have let their resentment quite openly grow with them. Their perception doesn’t quite meet reality: we live in an expensive area and while we don’t make a big deal out of our jobs and the training we undertook to get them, we have sacrificed a lot and work long hours while they have made conscious choices to work fewer hours, share childcare, live rurally and prioritise differently.

They now seem to feel we are so rich that we do not need Christmas or birthday presents, and I can see that my husband is upset. For his birthday he received nothing from his sister and a plain card with just a signature from his parents.

I know my “love language” is giving gifts. Not about prices, but about the thought and care behind the perfect gift: a handmade scarf, an amusingly named packet soup, a childhood toy, a nail polish in their favourite colour. To me, not buying a gift for a loved one’s birthday seems unthinkable – no matter their age or financial status, or my age or financial status.

I really don’t know how to handle Christmas, or approach my husband’s feelings about this. The whole thing ties back, I think, to their assumptions about our finances. But it’s not about finances for me and I can see it’s not for my husband either. It feels like the richer they think we are, the less they’re able to love us.

Eleanor says: The first thing to notice here is that your relatives might be responding not only to perceived levels of wealth but also to perceived class.

Different members of the same family can wind up occupying different class brackets (or appearing to). This isn’t just about “what’s in the bank” but also a whole interplay of knowledge and expectations. What do our houses look like? What occupies our free time? What do we wear and drive and eat and buy? How do we talk? Where do we feel most comfortable? These are all ways of falling into class brackets without even being aware that we are.

It’s easy for families to feel divided and mutually resentful when their answers to these questions start to diverge. What, you think you’re better than me? What, you think I’m up myself?

If it sounds like this could be going on for your family, the response “we don’t have buckets of money!” isn’t actually a defusing one – because the rift might not just be about estimates of your capital. It might also be about a suspicion, from either side, that the other is privately judging them for where they have wound up. When a child moves significantly away from the class or lifestyle of their parents, it’s extremely common for parents to experience the shift as a kind of rejection.

So, what can you do? One starting place might be tempering some of your resentment about their resentment. I’m not saying your feelings are misplaced – they could be totally apt. But sometimes these cycles only break when one of us decides to put aside the feelings we’re allowed to have.

It can help to imagine all that we don’t know. Perhaps you’re right that your in-laws made “conscious choices” to “prioritise differently”, but what do we know of why they made those choices? Or how they feel about them now? Might the fact that you chose to live in an expensive area feel, to them, like a rebuke that they didn’t?

Or might they feel unable to come up with a gift you might want, given their sense of a lifestyle gap? Do they not want to try for fear of getting it wrong – buying your husband something that reveals they no longer understand him?

Your examples of thoughtful, inexpensive gifts like nail polish, soup or homemade crafts are lovely demonstrations of care and thought – but I can imagine your in-laws feeling (or fearing) that an inexpensive gift to a wealthier person just seems like a reminder of that gap.

None of these things need to be true, but entertaining the possibility that they could be might help you feel less annoyed.

Wealth and class can divide families in the same way they divide neighbourhoods or workplaces. One way to resist these divisions is by noticing that they are there; how closely they are wrapped up with identity, projection and our feelings of what we truly have in common. The idea is if we can see past those things, we might do a better job of seeing each other.

This letter has been edited for length.


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