My MIL and I have never had a great relationship. In fact, we haven't had a relationship at all, from nearly the very beginning. I could spend days telling you all the things she's done to try to sabotage the relationship between her son and I...but through counseling we have come to the conclusion that she could possibly have a NPD or a similar personality disorder. My fiance also learned how to set healthy boundaries through counseling, and he's come so far. But a couple months ago, he drew the "line in the sand" for her. He set a boundary that he would no longer accept her verbally abusing him or me (screaming, name-calling, etc). It ended with him forcing her to leave our home and they have not spoken since.
However, we have a dilemma now. MIL's history of "apology" is through lavish gifts. The last time she showed her tail at our house, she sent a 60 inche flatscreen television...then called "to make sure we received it," and then she acted as if nothing ever happened, and my fiance did as well. I do not accept her gift as an apology, but fiance asked me to let it go.
Now, a couple months after her last tirade (and still no communication, nevermind an apology), we've received another "gift." It's a box full of clothes, very nice ones, for my fiance and our daughter. I feel very "icky" keeping it, because I know what it stands for. This is her apology, again. It's a horrible cycle that we would like to avoid, but she just perpetuates it.
I do not want to keep this gift, again. I don't wish to be nasty about it to her, but I feel as though we need to somehow let her know that we do not accept this as an apology. She's done this far too many times, and we'd be foolish to let her do this again. My Fiance, on the other hand, feels that if we send the gift back to her, it will only make her mad and make things worse. I suggested that we donate the gifts to the local shelter, and send her a thank-you note to let her know her items would be helping others...but he didn't like that idea either. So we are stuck. We can't agree on how to handle it, but we agree that doing nothing sends her the wrong message and will make her think we accept her "apology." What is the best way to handle this?
A person like this places real value in the giving of the gift. If you send it back, or donate it, it is a real slap in the face. Keep the gift, thank her for it, and tell her that you appreciate the gesture. Then tell her that you feel there are things that are unresolved between you, that can only be addressed through talking with one another. Tell her that the gift cannot fix the problems between you and ask her to not keep sending gifts and that it makes you uncomfortable.
Unless you really want to exclude her from your life completely, your only real choice is to meet her where she is and understand that at her level of functioning, this may be the best she can do; Or perhaps a few pleasant words or some kind of apology for past hurts, at best.
If she continues to abuse you or your husband, and THEN sends more gifts - then it's time to send them back;
Ben Schwarcz, MFT
Santa Rosa Psychotherapist