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Background: I am estranged from my sister. The last time I had a substantial conversation with her was ~4 months ago, and her response the last time I initiated contact, via text about ~3 months ago, cemented my feelings about this. I have zero interest in being in contact with her and believe this is best for my mental health and relationships with other family members. She is well aware of what the problem is, but I have not explicitly told her I am blocking her texts, etc., mainly because I don't see a benefit (well, until now), and because I am afraid of how my parents would react. We are both in our 20's and do not live at home, but she visits home (parents' house) frequently and is close to my mother.

Story: I was not at my parents' house for Christmas Day, but visited later and gave presents to everyone. I had gotten a small gift for her in the event she would be there too, but she wasn't. I ended up leaving it at the house since she visits frequently (I think this may have been a mistake). She didn't seem to have left a gift for me, so I assumed she just hadn't gotten me anything because she knew we wouldn't see each other - this would have been fine with me, and what I would have done too if I had known.

I blocked text notifications from her a while ago, but an app update messed up my settings, and I saw this one:

Thanks for the scarf! Your Christmas present will also be at home for when you are home next.

Based on the timing, it seems like she probably got me a gift after she realized I had left one for her. Regardless, I have no interest in whatever it might be, and I do not plan to go home for quite a while (at least 4 months, probably longer).

It's worth noting that she did the same thing for my birthday. She said she got me a present and needed my address; I told her don't bother, and didn't give my address; she kept the gift for the next several months until we were both home at the same time. I had been hoping that after all that time she would realize I really didn't want it.. It was very awkward and I took the gift to end the interaction, but felt very uncomfortable about it. I donated the item and plan to do the same with any future gifts - but I'd much prefer that there weren't any to begin with.

My goal is to refuse the gift and discourage her from doing this again. I think this means I need to contact her directly, but I don't know how to without her thinking that I'm open to having a conversation. I'd also like to avoid being any more hurtful than necessary. (Because it's the right thing to do, and selfishly, because she will probably tell my mother.) Obviously I have strong feelings here, so I'm having a hard time figuring out how to express all this appropriately.

How can I refuse the gift, with minimal drama?

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    To clarify, you are the one who wants little to nothing to do with her, and she doesn't necessarily feel the same way? Also, does she know this is how you feel or that you've been blocking her messages? – Kendra Jan 18 '18 at 17:50
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    Possibly off-topic but what do you consider estranged? Understanding the relationships that are involved will improve the relevance of the answers to your specific situation. You don't have to go into any sort of detail, just saying "My sister did something that made me want to stop having contact with her. My parents are unaware of what she did and I don't want them to know" helps. You imply that there's more going on than simply not having talked to eachother in a while. – Cronax Jan 19 '18 at 10:36
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    @Cronax Yep: my sister did something that made me want to stop having contact with her. She and my parents are aware of what she did and why I feel this way. She thinks I am wrong to feel this way / it's my own fault for being a bad person / she has nothing to apologize for. My decision to stop talking to her is after a year+ of turmoil that's gone nowhere. My mother - unlike her - showed some empathy, but basically agrees with her and thinks I need to get over it because we're family, which is why I now avoid the subject with my parents. – Em C Jan 19 '18 at 14:19
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    @Cronax and before anyone says "hmm if everyone in your family thinks you're wrong, maybe you are??" - a very large part of the conflict comes from the rest of my family being conservative religious people, whereas I am not anymore. I have been to therapy and talked to non-family about this to get outside perspectives on whether or not my behavior and feelings are reasonable. – Em C Jan 19 '18 at 14:23
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Mithical Jan 20 '18 at 23:01

10 Answers 10

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It's not clear from your question whether the estrangement is mutual, but either way, you've confused matters by leaving the gift for her. When there are issues between people, even without a full-on estrangement, a gift is often seen as sending a peace offering. She either was going to get you a gift anyway or responded to your peace offering by signalling that she wants to fix things too. Refusing her gift at this point in the sequence would send confusing signals and be very hard to do without causing hurt.

Further, if she did get you a gift in response to yours, and then you refuse it, you'll be telling her that it's ok with you that she wasted time and money trying to do something for you in response to your gesture. That's definitely going to cause some hurt. (Source: observation of some family members over many years.)

I therefore recommend separating handling this gift from changing her future behavior. If you want peace in the family, accept the gift. You don't need to run over there to get it; if your parents don't mind it sitting there for four months, then just let it wait. Pick it up next time you're there anyway but don't make a special trip. Don't make a fuss; you can open it at home.

For the future, one option, though it's the more-confusing one, is to stop sending gifts (what you had originally planned to do this time). Your parents might notice, though, and since you did give her one this time, she'll probably have one for you next time. That'll be awkward. Eventually she'll probably get the hint that her gifts won't be reciprocated, but it's not certain and it'll probably take a while. There's somebody who still sends me birthday cards even though I haven't reciprocated, or otherwise interacted with her, for about 20 years. Some people are slow. I should have been more direct back then, but I wasn't.

So the other, I think better, option is to bite the bullet and tell her. If you want to minimize the interaction, send her email or a letter saying that you don't think the two of you should continue to interact (or exchange gifts, or whatever the specific goal is) and that you won't be bringing gifts in the future. If she already knows the reason for your estrangement then you can be brief; no point rehashing stuff that will just aggravate her. If this is coming as a surprise, though, then (a) it'd be better if you actually talked with her interactively so she'd feel less dumped, but (b) if you're going to do it via letter, you should explain the reason. I wish I had done this with the person I mentioned in the previous paragraph; in the end it would have been easier.

  • "You'll be telling her that it's ok with you that she wasted time and money trying to do something for you " -- I did consider this, but I was hoping that by saying something now rather than later, she might be able to return it.. would that help at all to say? She is quite aware that I'm not interested in a relationship with her and why, but I haven't explicitly said "please don't contact me anymore" or anything like that. – Em C Jan 18 '18 at 19:56
  • @EmC This answer is the best one… I suggest that you (say that you) accept this gift. You can take this gift "when you are home next". No hurry. But you can prevent future gifts from her by saying something like "Thanks. BTW I had actually got gifts for everyone." and then stop to send nor reciprocate future gifts. – garyF Jan 19 '18 at 6:28
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    +1 for you've confused matters by leaving the gift for her If OP wanted no gifts (or interaction whatsoever) from her, why would OP get one for her. If OP got her one for appearances, why won't OP receive one for appearances? All this seems very strange, at best, very petty at worst... – xDaizu Jan 19 '18 at 13:41
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    @xDaizu As I said in the question, I got one for her because I felt obligated to see my family over the holidays, and did not want to cause conflict if she was there for the gift exchange and I had nothing for her. – Em C Jan 19 '18 at 20:39
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You buy her a gift which I’m sure you expect her to take and want but want her to know you don’t want her in your life and don’t want her gifts! You say she takes weeks to respond to text messages... but you don’t respond at all!

Sorry to be harsh, but without knowing the rest of the story, it sounds like youre the one who only has her in your life for show.

I agree with the mixed messages but also suggest you gently actually tell her that right now you don’t want contact. Otherwise she is left not knowing or understanding why you never reply or send birthday wishes but leave gifts. She may be at fault but still has feelings and honestly usually when people behave badly it’s because they are lost in life and unhappy. I hope in future you can reconsile as people do change and who she is now probably won’t be who she is in 5 years. Good luck

  • Ok, I deleted my earlier comment now that I have had some time. Your assumption that I expected her to take and want the gift is wrong; it was a mistake to leave it there once I realized she wasn't home, and I would have been fine if she ignored it. I stopped responding to her texts after she took weeks to respond to mine, and the response began with "I wasn't really motivated to respond because I figured you were lying" and continued with other personal insults. – Em C Jan 19 '18 at 14:48
  • I do not want her in my life at all. On the other hand, when I told her I was uncomfortable attending an event she was hosting, she told me "well you better find a way to show up and smile in my pictures" - that's what I mean for show. The whole story is quite long and personal but I can assure you I have sought therapy for a professional opinion of whether or not (as she claims) I really am the bad guy. – Em C Jan 19 '18 at 14:51
  • @EmC, true improvement will never be successfully accomplished through psychology's antiquated approach of evaluation (telling a person what to think about themselves), but that's rather beside the point. (cont'd) – Wildcard Jan 20 '18 at 4:31
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    @Wildcard Please do not presume to know what happened between us. She made her choices and I have made mine. I simply want to know how to communicate my decision. – Em C Jan 20 '18 at 4:36
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    No idea why this answer opens with an attack (e.g. "...without knowing the rest of the story, it sounds like youre the one who only has her in your life for show." Indeed, you don't know the rest of the story!). The concrete advice in the last paragraph is sound ("tell her that right now you don’t want contact"), but it's embedded in unnecessarily condescending commentary. I recommend editing this answer and sticking to responding to OP's question without making side judgments about her and her family. – Rose Hartman Feb 25 '18 at 3:23
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I couldn't guess at the dynamic of your relationship, but what about an honest letter (or email to prove you sent it, should things get interesting)?

Hi, I appreciate the gesture and spirit of your gift, but I would rather we didn't exchange gifts in the future. I am sorry if my giving you a gift was a mixed signal, but honestly, I only got you the gift so mom wouldn't be upset with me. I still intend that we not have a relationship. It would be best if this was our last gift exchange and we continued to not speak to each other at all. Thank you for your understanding.

I had a similar (one-sided) conversation with my brother and it's been 5 gloriously quiet years.

As a bonus, you might choose to inform your parents of your intent to completely sever your sibling relationship. They can then tell you if your sister is over or is planning to be over when you call them about coming over (be sure that you do call). I did this and have not seen my brother since. I am sure you can imagine how nice that's been.

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    I can only accept one answer, but your example was very helpful! Thank you for sharing your experience, it's great to get an answer from someone who has actually been there and understands. – Em C Jan 20 '18 at 15:12
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    Of course! Even if it isn't the perfect answer for you, maybe it can help someone else 😊 – Forklift Jan 20 '18 at 16:16
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I would suggest you continue to exchange gifts, but add some clarity. You have already indicated you are willing to mislead your parents for the sake of pretended peace (by buying a gift you did not want to give). Offer that truth to your sister:

"On behalf of not upsetting our parents, thank you for your gift. I want to be clear the intent of my gift was to avoid any unpleasant scenes at Christmas, I hope your gift to me is in the same spirit. The same will be true in the future, I see no gain in distressing them at Christmas."

  • If it is an agreed pretense, they could simply tell their parents they already sent their gifts to each other. Getting the sister to agree and keep up pretense seems more difficult than just having everyone understand OP is done with her. – Forklift Jan 18 '18 at 21:05
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    @Forklift This is why I phrased it as I did: The OP does not require consent of her sister, she is just informing her to avoid confusion. If the the sister cooperates, fine. If she doesn't: The OP is not the one that upset her parents, and does not have to answer to them for why she can't buy a simple gift. If her sister does not reciprocate, fine: None is needed. The price of a token gift is the price of a pleasant Christmas, like bringing a cake or a bottle of wine to a party. It also does not require an outright lie to her parents about nonexistent gifts. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jan 18 '18 at 21:23
  • That makes sense. It doesn't keep OP from accepting a gift, though, which was the desired outcome. I like the honesty angle though. It's hard to go too wrong when you lay it all out. – Forklift Jan 18 '18 at 21:26
  • I would also add, that phrased as I have it, this is a defensible text if her sister shows it to her parents. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jan 18 '18 at 21:26
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Best way to accomplish this goal is to no longer buy her gifts, and not accept anything in return.

If you visit home and there's a gift waiting, gently refuse it (for example accept it, say thank you, put it down in a corner, unopened, and leave it there). Do not leave their home with it, or simply put it down on the drive way, and walk away.

The point here is that they will know for a fact that you will not accept anything from her. At one point or another your sister will figure that there's no point, and stop trying to send you anything.

The converse is that next time you go over you do not bring anything for her. You should also have a plan ready in case you run into her at that event.

  • The only problem I see with this solution is the parents. If they're all meeting at the parents' house and the OP doesn't bring a gift for this sibling but does for everyone else, I'm sure the parents will have something to say about this... – Kendra Jan 18 '18 at 18:01
  • Thanks for the answer - this does seem the obvious solution, but as Kendra suggested, I'm concerned about my parents. We're kind of at a "don't ask, don't tell" standoff regarding my sister. I felt pressured to take the gift to avoid "making a scene", and to bring a gift for her because I would be giving things to everyone else in the room. Though in hindsight I wish I hadn't left it, and taken it back with me - she probably got a mixed signal there. – Em C Jan 18 '18 at 18:05
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    @emc - mixed signals is exactly the problem. Either silently accept her own gifts and donate them, or stop giving her a reason to buy you anything. – AndreiROM Jan 18 '18 at 18:12
  • Hm I thought I was clear on the birthday gift at least, I hadn't gotten her anything for her birthday a couple months earlier. But I do see your point and will definitely be avoiding doing that in the future. – Em C Jan 18 '18 at 18:49
  • Not clear to me from your answer. They will know makes no sense. You expect the family to stop the sister from leaving a gift. The family did not stop OP from leaving a present. – paparazzo Jan 18 '18 at 20:10
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Sorry to disagree with the other answer, but if your main objective is keep things calm in your parents home. Just accept the gift and continue your life. Don't let the action of other impact yours. They only have that power if you allow it.

Just think about it. What is the real cost for you? Do you waste time/money? Just say thanks and move on. You can throw it later or donate to charity.

I can understand you aren't comfortable with your sister. But you already make the compromise of tolerate her if both are visiting your parents.

But how much your sister affect your life is up to you. You already decide keep the interactions at minimum. So just continue keeping your cool

I give you an example. Some guy cut me off on the road I could be angry because I was close to a possible collision or because I lost 5 seconds of my time. Or I could be happy because nothing bad happen

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    This does not answer the question in any way. OP has asked to refuse the gift and cause minimal drama. – Forklift Jan 18 '18 at 21:18
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    @Forklift I already said the minimal drama is accept the gift. I'm not saying she go there and get it. But if she visit her parents and there is a gift there just accept it and 0 drama. – Juan Carlos Oropeza Jan 18 '18 at 21:20
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    Actually I can see how this answers what to do with this gift, but how does it discourage her from sending future ones? I would like to achieve that too. I don't want her to feel obligated to spend money on me when in reality it is unwanted. – Em C Jan 18 '18 at 21:36
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    I just think you are still hurt and that is why every action of her cause a reaction on you. But as I try to explain is up to you to decide when is enough and move on. If she give you a gift you can accept it to keep things peaceful on your parents home and you can tell her later you don't want any more gifts. – Juan Carlos Oropeza Jan 18 '18 at 22:14
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    I also have a bad breakup and the worst part is it was a coworker so I have to see her every day. And each time I want go to the bathroom has to walk in front her desk. I was so hurt that I stop drinking water so didn't have to go the bathroom. I keep saying I was over her, until someone explain it to me how mess up was my actions. And I finally understand if something have to change was me. – Juan Carlos Oropeza Jan 18 '18 at 22:16
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Don't expect an easy and appropriate request from your inappropriate behavior. You gave her a gift, people who receive gifts like to give things back as their gift to the same person. This is common sense, but the problem here is you have complicated matters by doing something which is totally contradictory to what you feel and that is giving her, a gift.

Now you are stuck in a dilemma with the other party thinking that the dynamics or your social relationship is fine when it comes to gift giving since you yourself gave the "green-light".

Now, how to get yourself out of it?

I say be straightforward, use this as an excuse.

Listen, I only gave you that gift as a formality considering the occasion and you gave me one in return which is more enough for me. Though I understand your sentiments but frankly I do not wish to receive further gifts from you. That's all, have a good day.

At least that is what I would do, your personality maybe different but if you follow through my advice, I'm pretty sure it would solve the issue and regardless of personality differences I believe looking for a solution is all that matters.

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Buying/leaving the gift for your sister was a mistake, as you seem to recognize. What I would recommend doing from here is sending her an email or text among the lines of:

"I'm sorry if my leaving a gift for you confused you or made you feel the need to reciprocate. I was concerned about our mother making a scene if I didn't bring one and I assume you got mine for the same reason. I don't want this to become a reoccurring issue. I do not wish to receive gifts or messages from you in the future. I will not be getting gifts for you again or contacting you again after this message. P.S. I will not be going to our parents house for several months, if you are there sooner, please retrieve and return your gift."

Since your sister is already aware of the reason why you do not wish to have contact with her (and mostly seems fine not contacting you), there is no cause to explain the reasoning behind your wishes here. Unless your sister is actively trying to cause discord between you and your parents, there is no reason for her to bring up this message with them. If your parents are aware of the issue between the two of you and do not want a scene, then they will keep quiet about the lack of gift exchange between you as long as the two of you don't draw attention to it.

If any of the above statements are not true, then you might have to deal with drama because someone else is determined to start some. If such is the case, try to keep in mind that you aren't the cause of the drama; whoever felt the need to make a scene about an issue that really should just be between you and your sister is. Also remember that you are an adult with your own home and life and are free to leave if your family isn't willing to respect your feelings or stay out of your problems.

Keep in mind though, that if you and/or your sister are trying not to draw attention to your estrangement or to keep up appearances for your parents or other relatives sakes, then your sister might not retrieve the gift if she can't do so inconspicuously. That means you might be stuck with this gift just like she was stuck with the scarf. At least you should be able to cut off further gifts by communicating your wishes now and not contradicting them in the future. If she continues to buy them to keep up appearances, just quietly leave them behind, unopened. If she (or your parents) asks why you haven't accepted them, remind her/them that you two aren't on good terms and leave it at that.

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How can I refuse the gift, with minimal drama?

You can't it's a juxtaposition; refusing a gift causes lot more hassle for the other parties involved and thus more of a reason for them to cause drama about it. If it's useful use it, if it's not sell it.

A message like in Forklifts answer is more than adequate to resolve receiving unwanted gifts again.

The other answers haven't mentioned that the relationship between you and your parents, I assume your father in particular, is real issue at hand. I totally get not wanting to upset them but you'll be causing them more upset in the long run hiding it, or worse you might not get the opportunity to tell them and then you'll have to deal with guilt and regret.

Chances are they already knew something was up, just talk to them about it.

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"You can tell her later you don't want any more gifts", that is what I'm asking about here - how do I do that?

With your actions -- by not giving her any more gifts.

It will take time for her to get the idea. Be patient.

The way to minimize drama is by not engaging in drama. If she gives you a gift in future, directly or indirectly, don't refuse it outright -- just don't reciprocate.

In general, avoid providing input to her that is likely to feel a need to respond to. When a polite response is needed, provide a minimal, polite response. Don't share your feelings, don't give explanations -- just build emotional distance.

When executing this kind of operation with someone as close as a sister, it can be helpful to enlist the help of a friend or another relative, to filter communications from her. That way, you don't miss something important that you really do need to hear about, such as, "Mama is in the hospital and we need to decide about organ donations in case she doesn't make it."

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