Ex-etiquette: Is it OK to give gifts to ex’s family?

Jann Blackstone

Q: I was recently divorced from a marriage of 18 years. We have one son, now away at college. With Christmas right around the corner, I’m wondering if it’s proper to continue giving birthday gifts and/or Christmas gifts to my ex-mother in-law, ex-brother and sister in-laws, young ex-nieces, and nephews? They were family for so long; it seems strange to no longer be in contact around the holidays. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A: I get this question a lot this time of year. People are family for a huge portion of your life, the relationship that created that family ends, and people wonder, does our relationship have to end, too?

Propriety aside, the key to answering future questions of this sort is to remove yourself and your ex from the situation and use the children and their relationship to various “ex” relatives as your criteria for making decisions. Then, essentially, you’re asking, “Is it proper to continue giving birthday or Christmas gifts to my children’s grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins after my divorce?” Does the answer seem more obvious?

But, be prepared. It’s not uncommon after a break-up for ex-couples to expect their relatives to severe ties as a sign of allegiance, and when their relative, especially if it’s a parent, doesn’t, they feel betrayed. As a result, divorced parents and former extended family may try to keep the continued relationship secret and that often backfires.

I often tell the story of a family I worked with that had quite a bit of trouble adjusting after a divorce. The mother’s father and her ex had become quite close over the years and much to the mother’s dismay continued their relationship behind her back after the break-up.

Each year the men in the family — grandpa, her brother, her ex, and her son would go ice fishing around Christmas. This year mother knew dad and son were going, but when her son came home with stories of the one that got away from grandpa, and referred to Uncle John when describing the trip, she was shocked to hear her own father and brother had gone along and she was not told. The guys kept it a secret to keep from hurting mom’s feelings, but what it did was make things more complicated. She explained, “I can’t believe my own father and brother chose him over me.”

Here’s where the rules of good ex-etiquette come in. “Choosing” wasn’t the issue. Mom needed a new frame of reference now that she was no longer married to her son’s father. She had to accept that these relationships were no longer in relationship to her, but to her son. (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 1, “Put the children first.”) Her father loved her and his allegiance to her as his daughter had not wavered, but he had developed a close relationship with her son’s father that revolved around a common love for her son — and he wished to maintain that relationship. He then vowed to never discuss his daughter or the break-up on the trips and that was enough to appease mom.

Bottom line, relatives are only “ex” to you because you’re no longer married to their blood relative, but their relationship to your children remains the same. (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 8, “Be honest and straight forward.”) That’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com.