Ask Unclutterer: Dealing with a prolific gift-giver

A reader who goes by the name of Overwhelmed wrote in with this dilemma.

I am newly married and my mother-in-law and I have a strained relationship. She tends to show her affection by buying things and she goes way overboard. If I tell her specifically not to buy me something, she will buy it anyway.

She buys new clothes for my husband every time she is at the store. (He has several plastic bins full of clothes he has never worn). We do not have space for a dining table because the entire dining room is full of boxes of stuff she bought for my husband that he doesn’t need/want.

My mother-in-law kept telling me that for Christmas she was going to buy me something from our wedding registry that hadn’t already been purchased. I told her it was unnecessary because we were inundated with stuff and had already purchased the extra items we needed. She asked me if I wanted a convection oven that I had listed on our registry. I specifically told her that I no longer wanted it because it would not work in our current apartment.

So, she surprised me by buying the convection oven as a Christmas gift. This item is huge and very expensive which makes me uncomfortable. We have no space for it at all in our apartment.

I want to be grateful for the gifts but I feel disrespected that she didn’t listen to me. What is the polite thing to do with this oven (and all the other gifts) and how can I get through to her to listen to me when I tell her no?

I’m sure Overwhelmed is not the only reader with this dilemma. There are probably many people out there looking at piles of Christmas or birthday gifts asking, “How can I get this to stop?”

Because this is your husband’s mother, the first person you need to have a conversation with is your husband. I mentioned your situation to Unclutterer writer Alex and he strongly recommended the book he reviewed, Crucial Conversations. You may want to read it before you speak with your husband or read it with your husband before you speak with your mother-in-law. Regardless of if or when you read the book, it is important that you and your husband agree on how and when to approach your mother-in-law with your decisions on what to do with the all of the gifts you have received to date, as well as what to do with any future gifts you do not want.

Many people give gifts because they love the recipients. For whatever reason, gift-giving may be the only way the giver knows how to express that love. In the eyes of the giver, asking him/her not to give gifts would be like asking them not to love you anymore — an almost impossible task for many mothers.

Your mother-in-law is facing an empty nest now that you have moved out and is probably trying her best to keep a connection to you and her son even if she is going about it in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps you could try and build a connection with her that doesn’t involve material possessions. You could have regular “Sunday Roast,” (a British tradition where extended family gathers together for a mid-day meal) or schedule an outing to a museum or theatre. There may be a leisure activity you might be interested in starting such as yoga or ceramics. You could ask your mother-in-law to join you. You might find that working together at community service/charity events works best for you. This would allow you to show that you appreciate her presence (as opposed to her presents).

After you have made your wishes about gifting known to your mother-in-law, you can start disposing of the things you no longer want. Your mother-in-law will likely ask about certain items and I know it may feel awkward at first, but, with loving kindness, reiterate the decisions you and your husband have made regarding gifts and reassure her that you appreciate and value her thought, effort, love, and generosity.

Note: If you have received an heirloom item and you’re not sure of its significance, ask your mother-in-law to provide a detailed history (written or verbal). It will help you decide if the item is worth keeping or passing along (possibly to another family member).

It’s your home and you can decide what stays and what goes even if it was a gift. Remember that the gift is not only about the recipient but also about the giver, so always show your gratitude then move on.

Thanks for your great question Overwhelmed. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for and all the best of luck with your situation.


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7 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Dealing with a prolific gift-giver”

  1. posted by G. on

    I suspect this has already been discussed with the husband, and he is not and will not deal with it, probably because of past failed efforts to change the MIL. Or it really doesn’t bother him and he sees no issue. If MIL asks Overwhelmed about gifts, and it’s truly not wanted, it’s time to not only say “NO” but say it WILL be given away or returned immediately. And then do it. If MIL protests, remind her a gift given is no longer under her control. This sounds more like MIL wants control, not to express her love.

  2. posted by Minnie on

    My friend does this– buys what she thinks we need and completely disregards blatant “don’t buy” statements. I’m currently sitting on a set of pots and pans i can’t use or return that I specifically said I didn’t want. I felt horrible, but I told her I would be selling them and would send her the $$. She refused it and said I could find a use for the set repeatedly. So I’m selling it and keeping the money. Its my gift. When she asks where the set is we can discuss it again and hopefully make it stop. Its her way of showing caring because she can’t quite believe people will like her just because. Sad…and frustrating.

  3. posted by Stephanie on

    Seriously, they don’t have room for a dining room table and you are telling the letter writer to just deal with keeping what MIL already gave? No. This is the new couples apartment and DIL has to begin with the end in mind or they will be buried with stuff forever. Tell MIL stuff is no longer welcome and anything (including what is already there) will be sold/donated.
    What MIL is doing is not about love but about power and DIL needs to take back her power in her own home. Enjoy having a dining room table soon.

  4. posted by Mel on

    I have a mother in law like this. If your husband is passive about the situation, it’s because he can’t deal with it. It’s his mom and his family culture. His love and sense of obligation (or guilt or whatever) prevent him from addressing the problem. Maybe he doesn’t mind the gifts. Maybe his family doesn’t think it’s ok to talk about these things. I tried talking to my mother in law and she could not see it from my point of view. I could see her side – it gives her pleasure to buy us things. But we don’t have a need for them or room for them. There was no change or understanding and that made me angry for years. Add two children and the situation escalates intensely. The only thing you can do is be responsible for your own needs, actions and feelings. Express your thanks, honor the effort and intention, and then donate, sell or return anything you don’t want. You don’t have to keep gifts that are burdens, gifts that are blackmail, or gifts that are incompatible with your life. My mother in law gives me things that I say I don’t want, and I can only guess she is being passive aggressive or thinks this is something I really need whether I want it or not. Maybe it’s something she wants her son to have? Maybe it’s the only way she can express love – who knows? If one conversation fixes the problem, great. If not – move on. If she’s impolite enough to come to your house and ask where these items are you just be an adult and explain that you were grateful, but you didn’t have room or it didn’t work out, didn’t fit, etc. Honesty is respect. Save yourself the aggravation and deal with the situation sensibly – not emotionally. Good luck.

  5. posted by Imogene on

    So many thoughtful responses to this situation. If I may add my two cents and one other possible motivation for the mother-in-law’s behavior: she has a shopping addiction. By buying things for her loved ones she’s able to justify, in her own mind and in her own heart, her compulsion to spend and buy unnecessary things. The writer didn’t comment on the mother-in-law’s financial situation. Is this woman spending herself into bankruptcy? If I were the daughter-in-law, I’d sell everything on ebay and put the money aside for a rainy day. The rainy day may come in the form of an elderly mother-in-law in such poor physical and financial health she’s unable to properly care for herself. That money will come in handy.

  6. posted by April on

    This is such a frustrating experience…they really need to set boundaries with mil immediately. The three of them need to have a conversation about the gifts. It’s helpful if the husband can support his wife by repeating this conversation with his mom, while reassuring her that she is appreciated & loved, gifts or no gifts-as many times as it takes. I wish I had done this when we were newlyweds. It never ends & she could end up resenting everything…I hope this family finds a different way for her mil to express her love for the two of them. The hubby really needs to step up his communication here & help the love of his life out.

  7. posted by Debbi on

    Take all the crap she’s dumped on you, rent a truck, & dump it all in her yard. If it blocks her door, all the better. She bought it, let her deal with it. I doubt the husband will be much help here – she’s almost certainly had this conversation & either he’s too passive or has attempted to reason with his mother to no avail & has given up. And straight up telling her doesn’t seem to have worked, so… yeah. She can deal with the clutter herself & see for herself how much space it takes up.

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