Passive responses to passive-aggressive presents?
May 23, 2017 12:39 PM   Subscribe

My great aunt, whom I've had no contact with for five years due to her response to my decision to leave my abusive home, sent me a graduation card and money. I'm getting very passive-aggressive vibes and would just ignore it, but feel like the amount of money I've received obligates me to respond. Backstory inside.

Five days after I turned eighteen, I left my parents' home due to emotional abuse, medical neglect, and some physical abuse. I have been living with my partner since. When I left, I was about two months from graduating high school. When I graduated high school, my great aunt's graduation gift was a long letter berating me for my decision to leave, and a bunch of photos of me and my family.

Essentially, she said I clearly wasn't Christian and was turning my back on God by leaving my family (I am not Christian, but I have never been open with my family about it because I know they would put a lot of energy into converting me). She also said that my decision to leave my family was akin to her son's decision to commit suicide. I ended up crying for several hours after my graduation because of this letter, so you can imagine I haven't had pleasant feelings towards this aunt.

Fast forward five years. I have had no contact with said aunt (miraculously, I seem to have managed to avoid her every time she visits--she lives across the country, so this isn't often). But for my college graduation I receive a card from her. It's nowhere near as bad as the previous one, but I'm getting a lot of passive aggressive vibes from it.

The front of the card says: "God is with you today," and the inside preprinted text includes the phrases "God is with you always" (she underlined this), "May you always have the blessing of faith--in God and in yourself," and "God bless you in all that you do." (she also underlined this)

She also wrote "Praising God with you [her underline] for all the blessings he has generously given you! Congratulations on your graduation and God bless your walk with Him!" (I will point out the irony that she chose the phrase "walk with Him" when I use a power wheelchair.)

Considering my previous interactions with my aunt, this seems a very passive aggressive "look at all God has done for you, why don't you believe in him" sort of jab. It also feels very "this only happened because God made it possible, not because of your hard work" (a sentiment I have received from others in my family). It could simply be a well-meaning highly religious person sharing their joy in their faith, but I don't really feel that's the case (my grandfather, her father, is the sort of person who is deeply religious and intensely joyful about his faith, and he never acts like this).

I don't feel bad ignoring the card. However, she also sent me a check for $100 and I feel like socially I'm obligated to respond to that in some way. Even if there's no moral obligation to respond, I don't want to create discord in the family--I'm on relatively good terms with the rest of my family members now, but they are the type to get riled up if someone is acting "ungrateful." But I really don't want to waste a lot of time or emotional energy on this. What is the minimum acceptable response that will appease her without requiring a ton of engagement from me? A generic thank you card? Hand written note? Or is a phone call what's expected in this situation (not happening)? I'm not sure what's least likely to induce a "look at that, I told you she was a selfish atheist" response.
posted by brook horse to Human Relations (44 answers total)
Dear Grandma,

Thank you for the money. I will put it to good use.

-- Brook Horse
posted by trinity8-director at 12:42 PM on May 23, 2017 [36 favorites]

Send her the card and the $100 back.

That's what I'd do. I'm a bitch though.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:43 PM on May 23, 2017 [18 favorites]

I think a generic thank you card is fine. I'd go with that. Pick a pretty one with flowers or something equally unoffensive, and then let it be.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:43 PM on May 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

You are free to be equally as passive aggressive and send back a card and write Thanks for your check, the money is appreciated! (I'd resist the urge to under line the words the money because you need to hold on to some pride here.)

Except I'd deposit and clear it first.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:44 PM on May 23, 2017 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Just send a generic thank you card and don't waste any more time trying to interpret her hidden intentions or guessing how she will respond.

The older I get the more wise I realize it is to just take people at face value and not try to assume anything. How they respond is completely out of your control.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:44 PM on May 23, 2017 [123 favorites]

A generic thank-you card with no other info or specifics, sign your name. That's the "nice" minimum.
posted by MovableBookLady at 12:45 PM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Cash the check and send her a nice (but generic) thank you note. Taking the high road has many advantages, one of which is that it annoys people who are being passive-aggressive as a hope to get a rise (and ergo ammunition) of out of you. And if she's actually being sincere in the only ham-handed way that she can, then you've also responded appropriately.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:47 PM on May 23, 2017 [46 favorites]

Best answer: I can't think of a reason not to just take it, send a generic thank you note, and forget it.

This is what one does with family graduation gifts. It's just not a big deal. Get a massage or a nice meal with the money, turn it into enjoyment.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:49 PM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all. I probably am spending too much time analyzing it (product of being raised in an emotionally abusive household, unfortunately). I'm also the kind of person that tends to put an excessive amount of time and effort into thank yous (for my favorite professors at graduation, I handmade cards and wrote several paragraphs inside each one) so it can be hard for me to tell what's actually expected. Generic card it is! And then I'm going to spend the money on my partner because I am not above (quietly/to myself) spiting my aunt by spending her money on my queer relationship. :)
posted by brook horse at 12:56 PM on May 23, 2017 [63 favorites]

It very well may be that she did try to tweak you with some messages, but that doesn't mean that you have to pay attention to them.

Accept the money, send her a bland thank you and let her think whatever the fuck she wants to think. If you still feel grumpy, maybe try using a portion of the money for something completely frivolous and mildly "sinful", to sort of vicarously get back at her (like seeing a porn film or buying a small bottle of really strong booze or something).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:00 PM on May 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

On non-preview, you have a better idea for the money. :-)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:00 PM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Looks like you have decided (and in my opinion appropriately) so, great!

Just want to add a note about the card text underlining thing: I wouldn't give this a second thought. My ex-wife's family ALL did this no matter what card they were sending or to whom. To me it always seemed weird, but I guess they thought it was a personal touch, not trying to drive a specific point (GOD!) home. I don't know your aunt, but I'd take it the same way.
posted by The Deej at 1:15 PM on May 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

Your decision to spend the money on your partner makes sense as you articulate it; my original thought before I saw your reply was to donate it (or whatever portion of it your circumstances would allow) to a cause you believe in but which you know would not be your great aunt's preference (PFLAG or some other advocacy org of your choice).

Im pretty petty but even I probably would not explicitly tell her I had taken her money and turned it over to folks she disagrees with - theres not much to be gained from informing her. You win here by not being bothered by whether or not her interests in your well being are genuine or passive aggressive (put more succinctly by Countess Sandwich above).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:17 PM on May 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think some people think that somehow underlining parts of messages in pre-printed cards makes them less impersonal? I've seen it before, but not often.
posted by praemunire at 1:17 PM on May 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

Speaking more to the underlining of random words: I do indeed think there's a chance that that was an attempt to get a passive-aggressive message across. However - I also find that the best way to deal with passive-aggressive stuff is to be perfectly sincere about it ("Thank you for the lovely card, aunt. i'm pleased you remembered my graduation and wish me so well!") or just pretend it's not there.

Because then that leaves HER with the moral quandry of wondering whether to be a shit and escalate it, or just let it go.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:24 PM on May 23, 2017 [14 favorites]

Looks like you've got a great solution, but if you were to want to be passive-aggressive back at her, write "Hi Great Aunt, Thanks so much... I've used your money to buy some copies of C.S. Lewis' _Mere Christianity_. Here's a copy for you. Love, brook horse" Then underline this passage:

Might also send her a copy of Bertrand Russell's _Why I Am Not a Christian_
posted by at at 1:44 PM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

I just wanted to say that I'm a professor and I received a card from one of my students when they graduated, and I was so touched that I cried a little bit.
posted by heatherlogan at 1:47 PM on May 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

I think the advice to send a simple thank-you card has already been clearly stated, but I just wanted to chime in and remind you that her issues with your beliefs are her problem, not yours.
posted by cleverevans at 1:53 PM on May 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm similar to EmpressCallipygos in that I would send a "I'm completely dense and didn't pick up on your passive-aggressive message at all" cheery thank you. I'm of the opinion that the best revenge is living well so if I can display to someone that they didn't get under my skin at all, while still demonstrating excellent manners, then I feel that they have to live with their own crappiness, and they don't get the space to live in my head. If they try to complain about me to someone they just make themselves look crazy and petty, and I'm left out of the equation.

If you really don't want to be beholden to her, and nip further inappropriate gifts in the bud, you could donate the money to her church, or the church your family attends. Making sure that they get a notice of the donation, of course. Or to make yourself feel better you could donate it to an organization that helps people who've left abusive situations. With or without a notice to your aunt (in this case I wouldn't allow a notice to be sent to her, no sense opening that can of worms in your life).

By the way, I disagree that her card with all of the god and underlining was passive-aggressive; that sh*t was blunt and agressive as hell. But I'd still respond as I outlined above.
posted by vignettist at 1:54 PM on May 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

For a generic thank-you note, try the late Leslie Harpold's often-copied template: How to Write a Thank-You Note*.

Skip step 4 ("Mention the Past, Allude to the Future"), b/c it doesn't sound like you have fond memories of her, nor do you want to see her in the future.

* this article was the #1 google result for "how to write a thank you note" for a long time; now the #1 result is a generic, unattributed copy of Leslie Harpold's advice on Hallmark's site >_<
posted by homodachi at 2:03 PM on May 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

My now-dead aunt-in-law wedding presented us with a cheap silver-plated tray and a year's subscription to "Guideposts" or some such religious claptrap recycle bin fodder.
In my beautifully hand-written thank you letter to her (as per Miss Manners) I was effusive about the cheap-ass tray, omitting that we gave it to Goodwill but quick. I made no mention of the fact that I phoned the Guideposts (if that's what it was) 800-number and told them to remove us from their mailing list S.T.A.T.

Take that C-note and spend it on hot-tubbing it with your GAY! (underlined) lover.
posted by BostonTerrier at 2:12 PM on May 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'd send a generic thank you card. Or, if I was feeling more daring, I would write, "Dear Great Aunt, Thank you for recognizing this milestone in my life. Your card made me feel so fortunate to have made these achievements in the face of adversity that I have decided to donate half to (Charity for Abused Children / Domestic Violence / Law Fees for Students / Scholarship*) and use the other half to pay down my student loan. Thank you so much for helping me recognize how far I have come!"

* Check whether you can easily establish a scholarship at your college. I have 2 friends who were able to do this with just $100. The college does all the fundraising for it and the $100 was enough to get it started in perpetuity. They both created little scholarships for things they really believe in, so that students could have a few dollars to go pursue something like a daytrip or whatever.
posted by shockpoppet at 2:15 PM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

As a non-Christian person with some part of my family who is Very Christian, I long ago decided that "Have a Blessed Day" means "have a good one" and "I will pray for you" means "I sincerely wish you the best" and "God bless you" means "you're a kind person and I sincerely wish you the best", etc. In my mind, because of my bad experiences with Christianity, the feeling I get when I hear those phrases is really really icky, and I have to actively remind myself that the feeling that my family members get when they say those phrases is positive, kind, and polite, and they are not trying to make me feel icky.

In that hypothetical day in the future when we all have cybernetic implants screening our interactions with the real world (oh, please no, this sounds awful) the first thing I will do is to set up an app that replaces all references to Christian religion with alternate phases that I find pleasant and uplifting (as in browser add-ons that replace Trump with kittens), but until then I will grit my teeth and interpret as best I can.

Be generous and kind and assume the best of this aunt. And even if she had been trying to send you passive jabs, she wasn't very clear about it, the $100 check is a much clearer message. Send her a polite if not warm thank you, and move on.
posted by aimedwander at 2:17 PM on May 23, 2017 [13 favorites]

My step-mother-in-law often includes overwrought Christian phrases in her notes. It's just the way she presents social niceties. That's what may be going on here, and if it's not, I would just pretend it is anyway.
posted by Leontine at 2:31 PM on May 23, 2017

First, you are not required to be nice to someone who used your milestone event to be an asshole and send you something shitty. If you're of a mind to charge them $100 for the time you wasted opening their shitty card, then cash the check and spend it on whatever the hell you want. Consider it found money and your obligation ends there.

If you feel like that would start a dialogue that would suck more energy out of your day, then you are more than entitled to mail it back, throw it away, or send a completely sanitized "Thank You For All Your Kind Thoughts And Gift" Hallmark response.

I'm in the camp that believes in a) not dignifying a ploy for attention with a response and b) calling out passive-aggressive behavior so they can't hide under plausible deniability. There's always a dose of gaslighting and polite fiction involved in this crap, where they want you to think you're just totally misunderstanding their intent and whatever, and getting upset all by yourself. You can just be like, "I know what you're trying to do and it's not working. The end."
posted by Autumnheart at 2:34 PM on May 23, 2017

I would send back a very cheery note genuinely thanking her. This has two aims; if it was a genuine well meaning card, it's the appropriate response, if it was a passive aggressive jab, it'll be clear the message didn't get through at all and it will annoy her. Just an aside, that's the kind of card my Catholic mother would send and she would mean it entirely sincerely. Congrats on your graduation!
posted by Jubey at 2:37 PM on May 23, 2017

I'm very familiar with the feeling of needing to read between the lines to try to figure out what my family members are implying. It's hard to break free of this life-long behavior, and it takes time. But do yourself a favor and make it your job NOT to do this. You can even say out loud to yourself, "NOT MY PROBLEM." Passive-aggressive people deserve less of our consideration for their needs, not more.
posted by wryly at 2:38 PM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

By equating her son's suicide to your escape from your parents, she was able to turn berating you into blaming him for killing himself, and telling him all the reasons he shouldn't have done it.

That you are even still her son to her at some unconscious level seems clear from her wishes for your future, which seem quite a bit more appropriate for the soul of a dearly departed than an actual living person.

It's too bad her guilt, and I would say her intense religiosity, have prevented her from transferring her love for her son to you, which I have seen a number of bereaved aunts and uncles do with their nieces and nephews to the mutual benefit of all concerned.

I believe you ought to be as kind to her as you can, because I think she is in torment.
posted by jamjam at 3:10 PM on May 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

I'm imagining her writing to a Christian version of Ask.Mefi, where she says, "My niece is estranged from the family and I don't agree with her life choices, but I still love her and hope she comes back to the church soon. I pray about her all the time. Should I send her a card? Some money? What should I do?" And someone responded, "Your niece is an adult human being and her feat is impressive no matter her life choices. Why don't you send her a card with your heartfelt thoughts and the gift you always were going to give her? We must let God work in mysterious ways, and just love one another here on the earth." And she thought about that, and sent the card and gift.

You can send a thank-you card that says, "Thank you so much for your thoughtful gift" and leave it at that. Just as she may hope you one day come around, she might do the same the other way 'round. Who knows? The universe works in mysterious ways.
posted by juniperesque at 3:32 PM on May 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

Essentially, she said I clearly wasn't Christian and was turning my back on God by leaving my family (I am not Christian, but I have never been open with my family about it because I know they would put a lot of energy into converting me). She also said that my decision to leave my family was akin to her son's decision to commit suicide. I ended up crying for several hours after my graduation because of this letter, so you can imagine I haven't had pleasant feelings towards this aunt.

I'm ex-Christian and I think some people who have not been in this situation are missing the importance of the above bit. I too have evangelical aunts who try to convert me at every opportunity, and they drive me up the wall because there's no way to be honest and polite. And sure, they mean well (in their incredibly pushy universe).

BUT. The one who backed me into a literal corner at my uncle's funeral and wouldn't let me leave? She gets different treatment from the aunt who has never tried to intimidate me (but who will always tell me she prays for me when she celebrates my birthday). The first aunt, I avoid. The second aunt, I have managed to reply only to the bits about her cats and we have now eked out a cat-focused relationship that is only infrequently interrupted by Jesus.

This is a first aunt situation and you only owe the bare minimum response, no benefit of the doubt needed. You know her and the culture well enough to read between the lines.

Congrats on your college graduation!
posted by sadmadglad at 3:52 PM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm a ex-Christian with a very Christian extended family. God-language is ... like their English. It's certainly possible that they are trying to get at me but I doubt it, and I am much happier if I just interpret it all as Christian-speak for various social niceties (in my experience often women use it more heavily than men) and respond in the non-religious language that works for me.

I personally would send a polite note and spend the $$.

(If the letter she sent you previously was not too long after her son's suicide I would recast it to myself as the expression of a trouble soul struggling with grief, and try not to let it color the current situation. People do some very messed-up things when they are dealing with grief, and I cannot imagine what it must be like to lose a child to suicide).
posted by bunderful at 3:55 PM on May 23, 2017

I'm not interested and have no patience for the passive aggressive game, but I am close to someone who was raised this way. It really is a game that takes two to play. If you respond negatively you are playing. If you take it at face value you are not.

Like others have said, you also can't be sure it's not something you're reading something into. This might be her best attempt at amends. The best response all the way around is to say politely "Thanks" and mean it and move on. Don't interpret anything.

What's the advantage for you of responding negatively?
posted by bongo_x at 3:57 PM on May 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I like the idea of spending the money on your partner - may I suggest that you make that even more delicious by getting them something naughty
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:06 PM on May 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am not above (quietly/to myself) spiting my aunt by spending her money on my queer relationship. :)

Living well is the best revenge. I spent too much time when I was younger worrying about the feelings of people who were not nice to me and as a result I didn't worry enough about my own feelings. It sounds like you are in a good place, don't let your great aunt colonize your mind. Every happiness.
posted by jessamyn at 4:15 PM on May 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm going to be a naysayer here. Speaking as me myself, I would probably not cash the check. I would just throw it away. If ever asked about it I could lie and say I never got it or I could tell the truth say I didn't feel comfortable cashing it.

Gifts obligate people to some degree and you have no idea what this person's intention is. If they are older they likely watch their check books pretty closely and at some point she will see you cashed the money and see your signature. I would rather just be free of all that BS. Sounds like no contact has worked great for you so why not continue that?
posted by friendofstone at 5:09 PM on May 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: She made herself feel good by doing this. One hundred dollars, was cheap thrills for the religious masturbation she subjected you to. Hell, you need a motorized wheelchair to get around, and you are in your early twenties, and you live without family support. I hate it when people pretend to care, and pretend to care by religious rantings. But, cash that check! Send her a hallmark card. That is what Hallmark Cards are for. Find the most vacuous, syrupy piece of pink and purple fluff, you can stomach reading, sign it, send it.

I have to say though, you have to pity elderly religious addicts. Often this is all they have, and often it is a poor substitute for well being, companionship, safety, or the love of their families. She may have sacrificed to scrape that amount up.
posted by Oyéah at 5:19 PM on May 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I hate writing my own thankyou notes, so here's more suggested verbiage on a notecard or generic thank you card.
Thank you for the generous gift and kind wishes. I hope you are well. Best, brook horse

Religious-y people gonna be religious-y. No need to own it.

Some part of her is reaching out and making a gesture of kindness. Your wish to reply could be your recognition of that. Your decision to leave sounds so smart, and you've clearly worked hard and done well. Congratulations. Maybe you can accept the money, send the polite thank you note, and feel a tiny bit of warmth from someone in your family. You don't have to reciprocate, you have zero obligation here, but it might be the tiniest bit of cushion against all the other hurt. In any case, I hope you can use the money to celebrate.
posted by theora55 at 5:59 PM on May 23, 2017

Generic thank you, cast her from your mind.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:01 PM on May 23, 2017

Response by poster: I've settled on what to do, but I did want to clarify two things for anyone curious: one, her son died six years before I was even born (so , 23 years before I graduated); while that's still quite tragic, if that's influencing her behavior towards me it's likely to be a lifelong effect and thus not something I want to engage in.

Two, she's very rich, so I don't feel bad taking her money. My partner and I have decided to use it to buy ourselves a Nintendo Switch in anticipation of multiplayer Stardew Valley so we can have a small gay farm together. :)
posted by brook horse at 6:20 PM on May 23, 2017 [15 favorites]

A great way to spite older people who balance their check books manually is to not deposit the check for six months. Just sayin.
posted by bq at 6:24 PM on May 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'd throw everything away. Bye, fuck you & fuck your $$. No apology, no headspace.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 6:46 PM on May 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Take the money and spend it on a Switch. Enjoy!

Send a generic card and thank her. She behaved very poorly in the past and is also dealing with a lot of her own trauma. Keep her at arm's length and don't overthink this. Take the gift. It's just a monetary token; it's not something that forever bonds you to her or erases past history. There's no reason to take a dramatic action unless you need that catharsis. Forge ahead and celebrate your accomplishment.

posted by quince at 7:20 PM on May 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hard to say if she's being passive aggressive. I don't read it that way. I read it as over the top to the point of being slightly unhinged. "God bless your walk with Him?" How many times can God show up in one sentence? He's blessing you, while walking beside you? It verges on illogical (even within the Christian framework). Her earlier card also sounds extremely overwrought. It sounds like she has issues.

But she sent you $100, so send a polite thank you card and go on enjoying your happy queer godless life.
posted by salvia at 11:56 PM on May 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

"The entirety of your check was donated to GLAAD, so that some innocent child facing similar abuses from their family members might receive the love and support that was refused to me."
posted by blueberry at 7:13 AM on May 24, 2017

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