Broken engagement, and gifts?
October 11, 2017 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Should we expect a gift to be returned?

Family member, B, got engaged last winter and the couple gave an engagement party recently. B is 42, well established in career and home, but had not been successful in relationships.

My spouse and I gave a very generous gift. We recently found out that the engagement was called off by B within a week or two after the party. Am I wrong to feel that the gifts should be returned?

Complicating factors: B is a difficult person (narcissist, borderline) in general, and had frequently complained of being treated within the family as a lesser member due to their single status. I don't get along well with B, and I try to stay away from the drama and manipulation that B entails. My feelings about this engagement and the party were not positive, because both of them seemed more like a pedestal for B than a sincere relationship or a celebration. But we went, and gave a gift, and smiled as required.

I will absolutely not be suggesting that B return gifts (risk of narcissistic injury!), and I recognize that B must be in pain after the breakup. What I'm looking for is perspective - it's taken me years to break away from the Stockholm syndrome, because an explosion is always at risk, and recreate my own sense of how I expect people to behave or treat me. I gave a gift in good faith, but I feel like I've been used (again). What's normal here?
posted by ashy_sock to Human Relations (32 answers total)
Would you still expect to have the gift returned if you didn't have trouble getting along with B? That's probably the question you should be asking.

Also (and I know you aren't suggesting this is the case) it is deeply unlikely that the engagement and subsequent break up was done for the gifts. The timing of the breakup was almost definitely not done for the gifts. The gifts received are probably the last thing on their mind or (even more likely) a source of added angst and awkwardness for them.

I also don't think that its been long enough to assume the gifts WON'T be returned. If the breakup was very recent there is still a moderate chance that there is still the intention of returning them. They just have much more pressing issues to deal with right now.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:09 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes, you gave a gift in good faith, but you gave it in good faith to a person you know to be a dramatic and manipulative and difficult person.

So, yes, most people would return the gift, and no, you should not expect this particular person to return the gift, and you should probably think about not giving generous gifts to people you don't like/trust in the future.
posted by mskyle at 8:09 AM on October 11, 2017 [72 favorites]

From an etiquette perspective, I believe all gifts given at the engagement party should be returned.

From a gentler perspective, it's not clear exactly how long it's been since the party. Depending on how fresh this all is, it's possible that B fully intends to return the gifts but hasn't gotten around to it yet.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:09 AM on October 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

While it would be considerate of him/her to return the gifts, I do not think it is reasonable to expect it. Ending an engagement is painful and embarrassing. Returning the gifts can drag out the pain and shame by forcing the formerly-engaged person to directly acknowledging their huge mistake to numerous people close to them. If it's cash, it may well already be gone. (Even if it's not, "keep it and spend it on booze" is the most compassionate response.)
posted by xylothek at 8:11 AM on October 11, 2017 [22 favorites]

So okay. B is not a nice person. But even nice people, when their marriage is falling apart, end up ignoring all kinds of fine points of etiquette.

When those nice people do it, they have a way of smoothing things over: they burn some of the excess social capital that they earned and saved up by being nice to everyone. B doesn't have any social capital to burn with you. They're already overdrawn, and this is just putting them further into the red social-capital-wise. Which means, yeah, it's not surprising that you're annoyed.

Still — you probably shouldn't count on getting the gift back, and I'd say that even if B was the nicest person in the world, just because dropping the ball on this sort of thing is what people in the middle of bad breakups do.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:16 AM on October 11, 2017 [15 favorites]

Absolutely gifts should be returned after a broken engagement.

Also, people should write thank you notes and RSVP for parties, family members should not give bridal or baby showers, and you should never lift a glass to a toast to yourself (this is all per Miss Manners). In other words, what traditional etiquette requires and what people actually do are not always the same thing.
posted by FencingGal at 8:17 AM on October 11, 2017 [14 favorites]

Eh, I don't think anyone should ever expect any gift to be returned. When you give a gift, you give it away, freely. If the "gift" is agreed to be contingent upon future performance, it's not a gift at all, it's payment for services due.

When you give a gift, you don't get to say what the recipient does with it, and you don't get to ask or expect it returned because something later changed.

(Nb. I also don't give engagement gifts, though I do give wedding gifts, YMMV)
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:19 AM on October 11, 2017 [48 favorites]

(I think more broadly when you're dealing with a narcissistic person it's useful to distinguish between different kinds of "expectation."

There's expectations-meaning-"the statistically most likely outcome." In that sense of the word: nope, don't expect it back. You knew that already.

There's expectations-meaning-"the outcome you'd be statistically likely to get from someone who wasn't a narcissist." In that sense of the word: yeah, no, probably still don't expect it back, because this is a point of etiquette that even non-narcissists fuck up all the damn time.

There's expectations-meaning-"things it's okay to be privately pissed off if you don't get." In that sense of the word, yeah, it's totally natural and human to "expect" it back, and to be cranky if you don't get it, because it is a violation of etiquette and it's hard to forgive those when they're coming from someone who's already stepped on your toes in lots of bigger ways. Just, you know, recognize that your natural human crankiness probably isn't going to change anything, and maybe also recognize that this won't be a very useful battle to pick.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:21 AM on October 11, 2017 [10 favorites]

When I get home I am happy to consult my vintage etiquette books!

In general, the rule is to return them. This person will not do that. They are probably giving the ex hell right now. EVERYTHING myskyle said applies!
posted by jbenben at 8:36 AM on October 11, 2017

My feelings about this engagement and the party were not positive, because both of them seemed more like a pedestal for B than a sincere relationship or a celebration.

Why on earth did you give a "very generous" gift in this situation? If you don't like people, it's one thing to give them as much as would be considered obligatory, but don't give them things you're going to hurt to not have. I think you were used, here, after a fashion, but not having anything to do with the engagement being broken and whether you have any reasonable expectation of getting the gift back. I think that you'd be feeling bad about having given this gift in either case, and you need to work out why you felt like you needed to give more than the minimum to someone who treats you like this, and how to get away from that sort of behavior in the future.

Etiquette is a set of rules about how to handle standard social situations in the absence of other information. It helps to create standardized expectations. But what you're asking here is not really what you expect--you already know what you expect. You seem to be asking not really what to expect, but whether it's okay to be offended. And I'm going to say that it's okay to be upset, here, about the situation, but that at the same time, etiquette violation or no, if everything here has happened exactly as you could have predicted using what you already knew about this person? You can't act like they're violating your reasonably-held expectations about how this was going to work out.

Otherwise, once you know someone is terrible, if you just keep treating it as though the standardized etiquette rules are in play, then what--you keep doing nice things for them and they keep being terrible and you keep getting more offended? It just doesn't work. Do the bare minimum with people like this to maintain social standing not with them but with others around them, and save the nice gifts for the people you actually like. It's not that this isn't an etiquette breach; it's just that it's not at all useful to think of it in those terms. If they hadn't broken up, you'd still be out a nice gift to someone who didn't deserve a nice gift, and it sounds like you already had really negative feelings about this before there was an etiquette issue.
posted by Sequence at 8:38 AM on October 11, 2017 [12 favorites]

The gift is given not for the engagement or wedding, but as a token of appreciation for being invited. They invited you. You thanked them with a gift.

Strictly speaking, the transaction has been made or the matter has closed. That said, if I were them, I would return the gifts -- but that's on them. I would not expect gifts to be returned to you, but would be happily surprised if they did.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:42 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would be very annoyed by this but I don't think they actually have an obligation to return the gifts.
posted by something something at 8:42 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you felt good about giving gifts to your newly married friend, then surely your friend who's suddenly confronted with paying twice the rent they expected and also not combining household resources has far more use of for them.

Giving people things as a reward for marriage is bizarre tradition. (To be fair, one I've engaged in repeatedly.) But, the idea that your friends are expected to reward you for making a life choice that saves a huge amount of money is, in the contemporary context, completely nuts.

Celebrate that there will be one less awful marriage in the world and hope that your friend's new blender makes their single life slightly more rewarding than it would have been. It's a gift; you don't get to take it back because you don't like someone's life choices. If you don't want to give them gifts, then don't give them gifts. They don't owe you anything.
posted by eotvos at 9:06 AM on October 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

Sometimes I wonder why gifts should be returned after a broken engagement. Like, I know that Miss Manners says so, but what does saying so entail?

It seems like expecting the return of the gift is saying that the gift wasn't a gift but an award or a payment - or a downpayment - to a person who is getting married or has promised to get married. Because they're getting married, we are willing to dish out a present, but if something happens to prevent the wedding, it's their fault in some way, they've broken their promise to us and should give it back. In a way, this bears out B's contention that they are treated as lesser because of their single status - that in actual fact, people who are not single were given awards/payments because they ceased to be single.

Like, if someone said they were taking some kind of cooking certification class and I gave them a chef's knife, and then they didn't have the money or they got fibromyalgia and couldn't chop without pain or they were not accepted to the program, I would not expect them to return the knife. I would be sad for them, in fact, and I'd think, "well, at least they have a chef's knife!" I wouldn't view their announcement that they planned to get this certification as either a promise or an invoice to me, with the chef's knife to be returned on breach of contract.

The more I think about it, the more I don't think it's particularly fair to insist that engagement gifts be returned after a break-up. Would we expect them to be returned if the parties divorced after three months? I mean, maybe they never even got around to using the crock-pot, why shouldn't they give it back to me? Or maybe a couple of uses haven't dented the value of the nice silver service that I gave them and I would enjoy using it myself? I gave it to them because they promised to get married, and now they're not!

I mean, I can see why people might prefer to return engagement gifts so as not to have to store or wrangle them, but I can't see it as anything but a convention with an underlying meaning that I find unpleasant.
posted by Frowner at 9:07 AM on October 11, 2017 [49 favorites]

The gift is given not for the engagement or wedding, but as a token of appreciation for being invited.

No, it really is not. This is not a $10 bottle of wine brought as a hostess gift; it's more like a $200 kitchen appliance, one purchased specifically as an engagement present -- there may in fact have been an engagement gift registry. (We don't need to speak of it, but it is A Thing.)

The expectation is that when an engagement is broken, the ring is returned immediately and the gifts are returned within a month. (People can have other opinions and make other choices, but that is the standard of etiquette.) However, ashy_sock, you are 100% correct that this relative is atrocious and you will never see this gift again. You should not doubt either your expectation or your estimation of the likelihood of it being met.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:08 AM on October 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

Reframing: This person was already sore about being treated worse for being single. I imagine they have bought wedding gifts for many of their friends (possibly multiple times!), even though these gifts no longer serve the traditional purpose of setting up a household and most of them didn't need this stuff. You gave your friend a gift. It's kind of crappy to demand it back because their relationship status changed. How long would they have to be married before they could keep it?

(I know this isn't the traditional etiquette. I also know that I'm unmarried and I've given for a lot of friends' weddings and baby showers, and two people gave me anything besides facebook likes for my major life events, and sometimes I'm a bit sore about it. Times change.)
posted by momus_window at 9:09 AM on October 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

A gift is a gift is a gift is a gift. I would probably return a gift after something like this, although it might take me months to get around to it. But I'd never expect it back. Once a gift is given, it's gone.
posted by dis_integration at 9:17 AM on October 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

My feelings about this engagement and the party were not positive, because both of them seemed more like a pedestal for B than a sincere relationship or a celebration

You know, a lot of weddings can be like this too. But we still go, and join in, and give gifts. I'm not saying it's ideal, but if it helps with changing your perspective on it...
posted by greenish at 9:30 AM on October 11, 2017

Traditional etiquette says the gifts must be returned.
posted by theora55 at 9:32 AM on October 11, 2017

It sounds like you've done a lot of personal work in terms of learning how narcissistic and borderline people operate, and how to protect yourself from that. (Me too.) Awesome! But there may be one more lesson here. Giving money/gifts is an extension of giving yourself, and perhaps you feel exposed once again by having over-given. I understand - I do find it much easier to throw money at a problem involving a narcissistic relative rather than giving my time or emotional labor. The money is less painful to lose than my peace of mind. Still, though, it hurts to have given generously to a narcissist for no good outcome (i.e., person is still going to believe they are the family's "single" outsider). I think that's why you feel particularly robbed in this scenario. I think that if you had, say, lost a $100 bill on the subway, it would bother you less than feeling this relative has taken advantage of you yet again.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:42 AM on October 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

This is interesting because it's the first I've heard that engagement gifts should be returned. I would never expect this in the event of a called-off wedding, even from a highly non-narcissistic person, and in my few experiences with this scenario no gifts were returned. I actually don't think it would occur to many people who are unaware of formal etiquette that they should get a present back .
Honestly it seems anachronistic -- from a time when going through with the marriage meant setting up your first adult household, and breaking off the engagement meant staying home after all with your parents.
Also, no matter how unappealing the people are, they surely didn't get engaged to rake in the toasters. I would let this go.
posted by flourpot at 10:28 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Think of it as an active voice / passive voice sort of thing. You should not expect that B will return a gift freely given because circumstances changed; B, however, is expected to return gifts (just not, specifically, by you).
posted by fedward at 10:51 AM on October 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I can speak from two perspectives: child of narcissist and shower gift awkward.

From child of narcissist perspective: Narcissists use gifts to either shower their love and affection in the sunny happy good times, or they give them with an expectation of control far beyond the actual gift (like gifting a trip and expecting years of invitations in return), or they withhold them in order to show their disapproval. For a narcissist, giving a gift is never really about the other person but it is about narcissistic supply for the narcissist - gratitude, outrage, etc.

From that perspective I would suggest that you are carrying forward with you some narcissistic impulses (this does not make you a narcissist - see the concept of fleas). I'm not saying you're entirely wrong -- I think that ideally they should return the gift, and certainly it might be normal to wish they would in passing. But I think that maybe if you're having strong feelings around the gift, that felt you were required to give a really generous one and smile, etc., are more related to dealing with your family dynamics than gift etiquette. Boundaries are pretty much the only way to handle this going forward.

Speaking personally, I know I still am a bit messed up and weird about gifts, both giving and receiving. I mostly try to set good boundaries and to give gifts freely, or when I have to give "obligatory" gifts, I spend the least amount of time and effort possible, generally resorting to gift cards and a nice card since for me the time shopping and thinking are what's more fraught than the dollar amount.

And then when it comes to showers - my sister threw my husband and I (eek! family member!) a massive baby shower for our first child, way beyond what we would have wanted and we got dozens of gifts. Then our baby died. We really didn't know what to do with the gifts at all so we kept them and in fact did go on to have more children. But it was absolutely beyond my capacity at the time to go back to who gave me the yellow blankets and who gave me the blue ones and get them all sorted out. I try to pay the situation forward in various kindnesses.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:20 AM on October 11, 2017 [9 favorites]

No, it really is not. This is not a $10 bottle of wine brought as a hostess gift; it's more like a $200 kitchen appliance, one purchased specifically as an engagement present -- there may in fact have been an engagement gift registry.

I completely disagree. There is a significant scale difference between being invited to a simple dinner party and being invited to an engagement party or wedding. The more significant event would suggest a more significant gift -- if one chooses to give a gift.

Strictly speaking, a host asks for nothing more than the pleasure of their guest's company at an event. The guest is under no obligation to give anything. There is no gift given as admission paid. It is the guest's own election to give a gift as a token of appreciation or not. Whether that guest chooses to give something from off a registry or not, that is also the guest's choice.

That said, to not give a gift -- for me -- would be unspeakably rude. To ask for or expect the return of a gift would be to retract the thanks and appreciation you have already extended, and is that the kind of person you really want to be?

As for the one receiving gifts, I wouldn't want to be the kind of person who unjustly enriches themselves by keeping them, but -- that is on them.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:27 PM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

when an engagement is broken...the gifts are returned within a month.

O M F G no. Nope. This is cruel.

Think of your worst, most public breakup ever and how awful that felt. How it was difficult to get out of bed, much less go to work, much less string together complex tasks.

Then think about how much you hate packing things and going to the post office, or driving around to each of your family members' houses and ducking in for a quick visit.

Could you do all that logistics, packing, and shipping ($$) under those circumstances? It's unnecessary and cruel. And come on--what are you going to do with the thing? Return it for store credit? Do you still have the receipt?

It sounds like you want the gift returned as a matter of principle, and I get that. But don't hold your breath, and don't be overly insistent on it. I don't care how shitty B's personality is. This is a terrible time for them.
posted by witchen at 1:27 PM on October 11, 2017 [12 favorites]

Short answer - no, don't expect the gift to be returned. Not because it shouldn't be, but because letting go of that expectation will be a load off of your mind. Also, you may very well get that gift back, but on B's timetable.

Either way, you let it go - that's good. You get the gift back at some unspecified time in the future, also good.
posted by 41swans at 2:14 PM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

It occurs to me that an awful lot of the etiquette around weddings and showers dates from the early to mid-20th century and comes from sources aimed at middle class and richer families, so it assumes that there are women with a lot of free time available to pack and ship and write and answer and so on - women who don't work, or whose work is volunteering or who work part time in a lighter capacity. All these "return the gifts within a month" and "only a hand-written letter counts as a thank-you, you can't email or call" sorts of ideas assume that there's a woman in the picture who doesn't have a full time job or a child or a commute and who is not caring for an elderly parent. Also, this theoretical woman implicitly lives near her family, so her mother (who also has a lot of free time) is available to help.

On the one hand, people who are selfish and lazy are annoying, and certainly there are plenty of people who don't say any kind of thank-you, who are self-centered and just generally terrible about their weddings. But on the other, it seems like we often feel that we should get offended when people don't live up to rules that were intended for a young, non-working, childless woman of means rather than an older person who probably doesn't live near family, has a job and a commute, etc, even if the failure to live up to those rules doesn't really harm or inconvenience us.
posted by Frowner at 2:29 PM on October 11, 2017 [17 favorites]

The real gift you are giving this person now isn't a KitchenAid or whatever physical item you bought them, it's the kindness you're extending to someone whose probably going through one of the hardest times in their lives; by not putting this silly etiquette rule on them, letting it go and maybe phoning them up a bit later and seeing how they're doing. And I know you don't really like them, which makes it an even bigger gift if you can do it. These are the things people remember. And who knows, maybe it can change your relationship with them around.
posted by Jubey at 5:01 PM on October 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

I appreciate your kind intention, Jubey, but I keep B at arms' length, or in Mefi terms as close as I can to no-contact as I can get away with, because B is an established hazard to my well-being. I did not describe this fully in the original post, but it is there and real. Appeasement doesn't work out well with a narcissist on the other end - they're very happy to be appeased to, but it never changes the real problem.

I mention this because family dynamics get all screwed up with/around a narcissist. There are other family members who would also nudge me to appease and forgive and look past B in hope that everything would get smoothed over (at my emotional and here, real expense) until the next explosion. This is how it goes, over and over and over again. It feels triggering and like gaslighting to hear more placation suggested, and I've worked so hard to get away from it. I know you meant kindness, but please consider that this isn't a normal "be kind" situation.
posted by ashy_sock at 8:48 AM on October 12, 2017

Like so many things in life, you are absolutely correct, but an uncaring universe will not oblige you. Yes, the gift should be returned, and by should, I mean this is the polite thing to do; no, it won't be returned; breathe, reflect on your own blessings (specifically, it could be worse; you could be B), and move forward.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:19 PM on October 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Wow, I'm really sorry. I in no way meant to trigger you and I take it all back now that I know the extent of it. Would it help to reframe the whole experience and think instead of you getting suckered into giving a gift for an event that never happened, what has actually happened is that someone managed to break away from this person! If they're as bad as you say, the would be spouse has managed to dodge a huge bullet by not marrying them. You wouldn't go around saying it, but I imagine a few people are relieved to hear the news.
posted by Jubey at 4:20 PM on October 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

All these "return the gifts within a month" and "only a hand-written letter counts as a thank-you, you can't email or call" sorts of ideas assume that there's a woman in the picture who doesn't have a full time job or a child or a commute and who is not caring for an elderly parent. Also, this theoretical woman implicitly lives near her family, so her mother (who also has a lot of free time) is available to help.

Sorry, but this is a ridiculous excuse. These women with jobs are planning weddings that rival the Normandy invasion in complexity. When the wedding is over, that should leave free time for writing thank you notes. If there's no wedding, the time that's freed up can be spent returning gifts. I agree that giving people just a month is a bit harsh, but unless the wedding was going to be four people at a courthouse followed by dinner at Applebee's, the gift recipient has time to do the right thing.
posted by FencingGal at 8:07 AM on October 13, 2017

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