Dear Sibyl, My older brother has a girlfriend for the first time in years. I'm super psyched that she's going to be around for the holidays. I've already got her gift lined up. I'm looking forward to being able to hang out with her and get to know her. I've only met her once so far.
Earlier this week she texted me about a Christmas present for my bro. Super sweet. But here's my worry: I pretty much know he won't get her anything. He is always broke by choice and quite cheap. Love him anyways, of course. I'm aware that I might be projecting my own fears onto her (no gift = no love), and I know in my heart things just don't work that way. But I'm still freaked. Part of me wants to just buy a gift for her from him without her being the wiser. I know my bro would approve (unfortunately). But something tells me I shouldn't do that.
Should I say anything to her? Should I do anything? If this is all my own problem, what can I do to get over it?
Thank you! Santa's Elf
Dear Santa’s Elf,
First of all, congrats to your brother on his new relationship, and to you on your connection to her. I can understand your excitement, relief, and hopes that big bro will be loved in the way that he deserves. However, I have to advise you to pull that elf hat off right this instant, and burn it on sight. It’s not a good look.
Here’s the thing: YOU love your brother despite his Scroogey ways. What makes you think she won’t do the same? Is it because it really, really sucks not to receive in the manner in which you give? Yes, Sibyl knows this feeling well.
Love is fucking disappointing. At times it can be wonderful, but at others, it makes your heart so sick that you’re sure it’s detaching from your chest. I remember that I was several years into my marriage when I realized that marriage is even more heartbreaking than the cycle of getting together and breaking up that makes up the dating scene. I spent a sleepless night with a pile of old love letters, crying over what was lost and what might still be.
Your brother is going to disappoint his girlfriend. She is going to let him down, as well. What will be most important for them to work out as a couple will be: is the way in which they disappoint each other inherently traumatic to them, because of things that have happened in their early, shaping years, or can they survive the disappointments and grow stronger because of them?
It is good that she is learning now that your brother does not really value gift-giving. If it is something that is very important to her, hopefully she will tell him that, and he will either be able to change and grow, or he will say, “Well, I’m never going to get you anything, that’s just who I am.”, which could be the end of the relationship.
Listen, I know you would do almost anything to make this relationship stick. You love your brother and it sounds like you desperately want him to be happy. But if you interfere here and give his girlfriend what you think she needs and wants here, you're writing an emotional check for your brother that he may not be able to cash. It's love forgery.
So, if you can't get his girlfriend a soy candle and tie it up with a raffia bow and do your best impression of his handwriting on the to-from tag, what CAN you do? Well, you can tell him that she contacted you, and is planning to get him something nice. You can lay your cards on the table with him, and say, "I really like this girl, and you seem happy for the first time in a long while. I think you should consider getting something for her for Christmas. Perhaps you don't have any money, but you can do this. You can make her something, you can give her a coupon for a great date, or you can be really frugal for the next few weeks so that you can afford to buy something. I think it's worth it, and I hope you do, too." Then, you can buy the girlfriend that soy candle, and put your own damn name on it. It won't erase the awkwardness and frustration of not getting anything from her boyfriend, but it will express to her that you are excited about her presence.
After all, if you swoop in and compensate for the ways his expression of love falls short, not only will you be making promises that you can’t really keep, but you are taking something else away from them—an opportunity to grow as a couple. It is through feeling lack that we change. Without the chance to feel loss, we’d have no impetus to look within ourselves and see what needs work. Will your brother step up to the plate and find a way to show his girl he wishes her all the best this year? I hope so. But if he doesn’t, I hope even more that they find a way to talk about expectations and disappointment, an important conversation for any couple to have.
Wishing you and your family Happy Holidays,
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