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The Christmas Car

This happened the first or second year my husband and I were married. We got married very impulsively only a few months after we met, and I didn’t know his family well. Initially I thought they seemed really, really great. His mom was (and often is) a really, interesting person and his dad is a musician. As I got to know them better, I started to see some of their bad sides. His mom has an ugly temper, and his dad can be pretty inconsiderate.

Initially, both sets of parents wanted to make it a point to celebrate Christmas together. This particular year, my parents hosted. My mother-in-law, Sandra, showed up before my father-in-law. He was going to be late because he had to pick up my husband’s brothers from the airport. As we waited my mom, brother, husband, Sandra and I made small talk. We heard my father-in-law, Chris, pull into the driveway and my husband made a beeline outside to see his brothers. He went out through the garage door, and almost immediately turned around and came back inside. He was very troubled. My brothers-in-law came inside ahead of Chris. They too were upset. My husband privately told me that while his dad was on his airport run, he’d gone to a car dealership to pick up a new car to “surprise” my mother-in-law with for Christmas. He’d even sprung for one of those giant bows.

To give you some backstory: cars have been a huge, HUGE source of conflict between my in-laws for most of their marriage. My FIL loves a new car every other year or so. They’ve always had to live on a tight budget and the accompanying car payment has always been something that’s helped pushed them into living beyond their means. I knew this because my MIL mentioned it often, in relation to the fact that for the first time ever, they were within six months of paying of their car. The car my FIL had just traded in for a brad new car, complete with five years financing. My husband and BILs were not looking forward to the eruption that was sure to happen when my MIL discovered my FIL’s “surprise” that, given the history, was clearly NOT for Sandra but for him.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before Sandra saw her new “present”. To say that she freaked out would not do her reaction justice. She was absolutely furious, and she let loose on Chris in front of everyone. Eventually they moved it into the garage, where she screamed at him for 45 minutes while the rest of stood around awkwardly, having our cocktails and waiting to start Christmas dinner. When she finally came in, it was awful. She was still clearly irate, and was barely able to disguise her fury at Chris. I’d like to say Chris was sheepish, but mostly he seemed mad that his gift wasn’t received the way he wanted. She made passive-aggressive (or, frankly, mostly just aggressive comments) to him throughout dinner while he kept saying, “I SAID I’d take it back. I TOLD you the dealership would let me return it for a week or 300 miles. I’m going to do it tomorrow. SORRY” It would have been uncomfortable enough if it’d just been me, my husband and BILs. But my parents hardly knew them and they had no idea what to do. My family isn’t very demonstrative (we might be just a teeny, tiny bit repressed in fact) so this blow out twenty minutes before Christmas dinner was not something they were very equipped to handle.

Needless to say, there was not much socializing after we all finished eating. Sandra apologized for making everyone uncomfortable, although she was still very clearly angry at Chris. My FIL didn’t apologize for anything. (I would later learn this is characteristic of him: either act like he did nothing wrong or defensively apologize in a way that makes it clear he doesn’t actually think he did anything wrong.) My parents have mostly avoided socializing with my in-laws since then (tellingly for my family, they mostly blame my MIL for her reaction, but that’s probably a totally different Etiquette Hell submission). My husband told me later that my FIL deliberately debuted the car at my parent’s house because he thought Sandra wouldn’t freak out in front of people she didn’t know very well (wrong!).

That Christmas will go down as one of the most memorable, but not in a fun way. 1213-12

Your poor husband.  To have grown up with two self absorbed parents who only think of themselves.   Chris is a disgustingly selfish manipulator and Sandra has no control over her emotions even when she knows that the situation has been manufactured to avoid her predictable explosion.     Had I been Sandra, I would have excused myself (assuming I could barely contain my emotions) and gone to the bathroom to get control over myself.    There is no way on earth I would have given the expected reaction but oh, the conversation I would have later in the privacy of the car or my own home.   Drama, anger, screaming, and other displays of heightened emotions very rarely have the effect of resolving the heart of the matter. It’s merely cathartic and while there is nothing wrong with a good cathartic outburst, the luxury of doing so must be reserved for your own home turf.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Huh December 20, 2012, 2:14 pm

    Reading this story made me sick to my stomach because it took me back to my time of dealing with a selfish passive-aggressive spouse. Especially him sitting at the table sulking saying, “I SAID I’d take it back” after making a major purchase without consulting his spouse, concealed as a present to HER when it’s obviously not, and did it in front of other people so she wouldn’t react badly and HE’s the wounded party…

  • Spuck December 20, 2012, 2:28 pm

    Actually GleanerGirl’s comment about Sandra driving away angry makes me change my mind. Normally I would agree that people are responsible for their own actions, but Sandra was distraught and her husband (partner in life) obviously couldn’t comfort her. She could’t exactly get away because she would be doing it in the source of her stress. I am saying here, because of how mad she was, her blow up was okay at the time because she probably did not see any form of escape, and it doesn’t sound from the story like anyone offered her an escape. Anyone can claim that they could have grace and poise in a situation like this, but whether that is actually the case remains to be seen.

  • David December 20, 2012, 2:35 pm

    Chris did not buy Sandra the car and bring it to the in-laws to keep Sandra from ‘blowing up in front of people she didn’t know’. Chris bought the car knowing Sandra would blow up, specifically to show everyone ‘what he has to put up with’.

    Yes, Sandra was wrong to blow up. If she couldn’t hold it together, she should have made apologies and left. Once you get on a meltdown train, it’s very hard to stop. So yes, she deserves some blame.

    But I’m blaming Chris for this, 99%. He purposefully did something he knew his wife would have a major problem with while they were at guests at someone’s home pretending that he expected her to be able to handle herself. They’ve been married for years. He knows her, knows how well she handles her temper – he purposefully did that to embarrass his wife.

  • OP December 20, 2012, 2:44 pm

    Hi! This is the OP. After re-reading my submission and reading the comments, there are a few things I wanted to add/clarify. This actually happened on Christmas Eve. My FIL had test driven the car earlier in the week, so the day this happened, it was all ready to go and he just had to pick-up the new car/drop off the old one. Although my FIL was a semi-professional musician while my husband was growing up, he also had a day job as well. My MIL stayed home with their kids, but she’s always managed their money, so she’s always known better than him where they stand on their finances.

    Unfortunately for her, my MIL is so prone to out-of-control temper tantrums, that she ends up invalidating whatever point she might have. The other person (usually my FIL) looks so reasonable next to her rages, in spite of the fact that he often behaves like a manipulative jerk. I don’t know about my husband’s brothers, but I know for him, growing up in his family taught him a lot of very bad coping skills, and we’ve had to work very hard as a couple to have a better dynamic/relationship than my in-laws.

    It’s been helpful to read these comments. To this day, my husband can’t understand why my parents don’t want to spend time with his parents. He thinks they should just “be over it” by now, although there have been enough other things that have happened for them to know this wasn’t an isolated incident.

  • The Elf December 20, 2012, 2:51 pm

    Helen ” I don’t understand why people who want new cars every two years just don’t lease the thing”

    You can’t modify a leased car.

  • PM December 20, 2012, 3:20 pm

    @Audra, Lia, et al. I was trying to avoid that for fear of my parents finding this web site. But I’ll live on the edge. It was a mini-fridge between the front seats. It could cool a six pack of soda while you drove. Mom was an avid soda drinker and Dad just KNEW Mom would love it.

    She didn’t and it broke really early on. Within about six months, I think.

    Also, unlike the OP’s inlaws, my mom didn’t have a fit in front of her family. She clenched her jaw and said, “Take me on a test drive. Kids, you stay here.” And she let him have it while they drove around grandma’s neighborhood.

  • Tanz December 20, 2012, 3:21 pm

    I’m going to have to disagree with admin here: I think Sandra is being blamed unfairly.

    We women are taught from an early age to not rock the boat; to be calm, to take whatever crap the world (and *especially* our menfolk) might throw at us with a smile and at most an icy silence. It’s interesting to see that both the OP’s parents and admin blamed *Sandra* for the argument and uncomfortable situation when it was 100% the fault of Chris, who admitted that he was attempting to manipulate his wife into submission.

    Considering this was an ongoing situation, and she was horribly manipulated to boot, I can’t attack Sandra for her reaction. I do think, though, that at the very least the others there owe her understanding – although intervening on her behalf against Chris would have been better.

    • admin January 1, 2013, 9:58 am

      Sandra is being called to account for not recognizing that her husband set her up with a dramatic presentation of a gift car and she then adding to the drama even more. No one is saying women must be doormats. Power is having control over one’s emotions and not allowing people to manipulate you into reacting exactly as they hoped you would or in a way that diminishes your position. Power is to keep it graciously under wraps until out of range and home of one’s hosts and then dealing with the matter privately.

  • PM December 20, 2012, 3:34 pm

    GleanerGirl, I saw it as a “You can’t mad at me, I put a bow on it!” gesture. 🙂

  • Amethyst Ribbons December 20, 2012, 3:44 pm

    A little bit off-topic but I wanted to comment that I really dislike those car commericals where the person gets a new car with the big bow on it. When you think about it, it is kinda dumb. How do you get a new car with a huge bow on it to your home without your spouse/SO *not* noticing? Sneak out in the middle of the night? Ask a friend to help? Also, most of the homes in the background are pretty big and nice, so that leads to me to think that if the family were a “real” family, they would not have to struggle with car payments. But that is just me assuming and we all know what they says about that…

    I think Chris basically ambushed Sandra hoping that she would not make a scene. I would have probably lost it, too. Afterward, I would most likely still be so upset that I would have excused myself from the dinner and left.

  • Elizabeth December 20, 2012, 4:08 pm

    There is a lesson in here … separate finances, maybe? When my husband buys me a gift, or himself a vehicle, HE buys it. Same with me. We’ve always kept finances separate, contributing equal amounts into the ‘house’ account each month for the mortgage, utilities, and insurance. This is just the way we’ve always done it because it seemed fair.

  • Missy December 20, 2012, 4:08 pm

    I would hope I would save an outburst like that for a private moment but…

    Like others, I would be too busy feeling sorry for Sandy than worrying whether she was on-spot with etiquette. I can only imagine that I would be SEETHING in that situation. It would be uncomfortable but the story just made me want to fix her a LARGE cocktail and give her a hug.

  • Elizabeth December 20, 2012, 4:10 pm

    June First, I agree with you!!!

    “This sounds like a private conversation. Would you like to step into the den (basement, garage, whatever)? I’m going to slice the roast; please join us when you’re ready.”

    And then proceed with the day’s plan.

  • Shalamar December 20, 2012, 4:42 pm

    Goldie, sounds to me like you handled a terrible situation with as much grace as you could muster, considering how sad and stressed you were. You’d already told that guy to back off, and not only did he not listen, he went WAYYYY over the line by asking if you’d ever loved your husband. What a boor!

  • hakayama December 20, 2012, 5:08 pm

    @postalslave: You said it, I’ve done it. Divorced the husband.
    Mr. X acted a lot like OP’s FIL besides having other unredeemable features.
    @TheElf: Sorry, if I had to “crunch” the numbers THAT thoroughly, in my heart of hearts I’d know that I really could not afford those cars. Comfortably that is… 😉

  • Wren December 20, 2012, 6:22 pm

    The whole thing is FIL’s fault. He threw the bone in front of the dog.

  • Marozia December 20, 2012, 6:22 pm

    Chris & Sandra are completely out of control with their emotions. A xmas party at another’s house is not the place to show off or blow off. Another 5 yrs to pay off a new car is enought for anyone to explode especially at their time of life.
    Your FIL is a show off which is quite vulgar.

  • Angel December 20, 2012, 6:49 pm

    I am going to agree with what most of the posters have said thusfar, if you are in a situation like this and in the MIL’s position, you have no idea what you would do. You’d like to think you’d be able to hold it together and be gracious and calm, but when your husband signs contracts without consulting you first, trades in your own vehicle to buy himself a new one, and pretty much refuses to listen to you at all regarding a fairly major financial decision, well, I defy anyone to NOT react badly under those circumstances.

    Sure the FIL looked reasonable next to the MIL. He had served his own needs. And he didn’t feel as though he did anything wrong. Yes, the MIL probably could have handled it better. But at least she recognized that her behavior had made other people uncomfortable, and apologized for it. The same cannot be said of the FIL.

    I think that the only thing the OP’s family could have done in the situation was to let the arguing couple know that they were going to go ahead and sit down to dinner in a few minutes, and let them decide what they want to do from there. If they want to go home and argue, so be it. If they want to collect themselves and join them for dinner, they can. I don’t think I would have held dinner for more than 20 minutes or so.

  • The Elf December 20, 2012, 7:56 pm

    Hakayama: I’m a number cruncher by profession. If I didn’t thoroughly double check, running multiple scenarios based on best-case, worst-case, and likely case down payments and interest rates, I psychologically couldn’t do it unless I can pay for it in cash. I just couldn’t. It would be foreign to me. We can afford it, comfortably, or else we wouldn’t buy them. What you are seeing is more my habit of number crunching our whole budget than a lack of affordability.

  • Elle December 20, 2012, 8:39 pm

    “A little bit off-topic but I wanted to comment that I really dislike those car commericals where the person gets a new car with the big bow on it. When you think about it, it is kinda dumb. ”

    Here’s the thing about those kinds of car commercials – they aren’t about selling a car to someone who doesn’t have one yet. And they don’t really believe that anyone will buy a Lexus as a gift. These commercials are about making the folks who already bought the car that they made a good choice. It’s selling the image of being able to buy a car at an impulse and everyone basking in the luxury. Sort of like CocaCola doesn’t really think you need to be reminded they exist by CGI polar bears. But the commercials are there to reinforce that you’ve made the right choice in reaching for that particular cola – the one that brings happiness and wintery good cheer.

  • Amanda H. December 20, 2012, 9:10 pm

    @Elizabeth (#59), the other option to separate finances is clear communication of where shared finances go. My husband and I share finances, but we never make ANY large purchases without discussing it first, no matter who is actually earning the money or who’s holding the credit card at the time. Even small purchases are made under a predefined budget, including Christmas gifts, so we rarely if ever go over. Chris and Sandra in the OP’s story were quite clearly NOT communicating the use of finances, at least not to the point where Chris would not have picked up the car without Sandra being on board for it.

  • Barbarian December 20, 2012, 9:32 pm

    I agree with Mich and Missy on this one. Chris got just what he deserved for pulling that selfish stunt on his wife in front of strangers. If I were the hostess, I would sympathize with Sandra and want to do anything I could to make her feel better even if she did lose her temper. I would just grin and bear it. Too bad she didn’t run over Chris in the new car – he was lucky to just get the tongue-lashing.

    My MIL has served up her own greedy car dramas during the holidays or visits:

    1. Hubby and I had an attractive large late-model car that was fully paid for. MIL asked hubby twice if we would give her this vehicle in exchange for her and FIL’s compact car on a loan with an inflated payment because of her terrible credit. She complained about the injustice about having to transport her elderly wheelchairbound spouse in a compact car around town. Never mind that the trips were no more than 2 or 3 times per week in the city limits within a 20-mile radius. Hubby said no-he needed the car for comfortable commuting. On the second request, he refused stating that our son would have his license in 2 years and need a large car for safety reasons. MIL lost it. “Well, maybe I’ll die soon and he can have my car”-sick passive agreesive garbage.
    2. I traded in my mid-size 9-year old car for a new one. When MIL heard about it, she lost it again. “Why didn’t you discuss this with me before? You should have given it to me. I had plans for it!” Unlike Chris, hubby stood up for me and told her firmly that the car was mine and I could do whatever I pleased with it without her input.

  • NostalgicGal December 21, 2012, 1:49 am

    My dad was one that traded up over the year from newer and newer used to finally the brand new car. You needed breathing permits to be near it; and when it got the first scratch he went on so long about it I finally put a bandaid on the car (3 to be exact, side by side to cover the scratch) and I caught it majorly for putting something on the car that MIGHT mar the paint. But it ended the three week rant about the first scratch…. however, that was budget planned over several 2 year tradeups, and not just spring it on one.

    I totally believe the FIL is the guilty one here, on what he did and how and why he did it. If I’d been her I would have excused myself, drug the other half to the car, drove it BACK to the dealership and reclaimed the other car… if indeed it was true about first week/300 miles tradeback. I’d have been about hoarse by the time I got to that dealership and he’d have been deaf…. so yeah I feel for the MIL.

  • Tracy December 21, 2012, 9:00 am

    “While Sandra’s outburst was what eventually spoiled the holiday for everyone, I don’t have the heart to blame her. This isn’t about having an ugly temper, this is about having a rotten husband.”

    I agree. I think blaming the victim and saying she should have handled it better is inappropriate and downright cruel.

    “I know this is after the fact, but MIL and FIL could have avoided all this drama for their entire marriage if they had just agreed to lease cars instead of buying them.”

    I don’t see how this would avoid any drama at all. They’d still have a car payment, which is what MIL didn’t want to have.

  • Michelle December 21, 2012, 9:14 am

    In my opinion, the only time a car “works” as a great surprise is when a parent is giving one to their 16 year old child!

  • Michelle December 21, 2012, 9:15 am

    Oh – and make that BOTH parents giving it to their kid.

  • AthenaC December 21, 2012, 9:57 am

    Reading the comments has been interesting. It’s quite clear who among the commenters has had experience being in / around dysfunctional relationships and who is blessedly inexperienced in that regard.

  • Kit December 21, 2012, 10:34 am

    My husband DID surprise me with our first car… this is to say, we had decided we were going to need a car, he had gone to driving courses, I had told him what I want of our car, he had done lots of research among cars that suited my conditions, but I didn’t know he was about to buy a car THAT day before he drove it home.

  • MichelleP December 21, 2012, 10:57 am

    I have sympathy only for the OP and her parents on this one. MIL and FIL deserve each other. There is no excuse for either of their actions. If they hate each other as much as they act like, they need to divorce and not put other people in the middle of their problems. They’ve been married long enough to know how the other behaves.

    The in laws finances and the buying of the car were not the points of this post, from what I’m gathering from the OP. The point was they had a screaming fight in someone else’s home on Christmas Eve.

    I have an ex-husband who was passive-aggressively cruel to me in front of my family. I can’t honestly say we never had a cross word in front of anyone else, but I never exploded like this in front of anyone to him, especially not on Christmas Eve in front of other family members as a guest no less.

    My sister and her husband fight like cats and dogs, and I’m so sick of it I no longer visit them. When they come to our parents’ home and my family is there, I tell them, as politely as I can, that I am not there to witness their arguing and screaming and to take it home. My parents have finally said the same.

  • MichelleP December 21, 2012, 11:28 am

    One more note: Yes, I know exactly how I would act in that situation, because I have been in it. MIL’s and the host’s. Yes, my ex husband was just as bad, in fact worse. Yep, went out and bought a truck for himself without a word to me and didn’t even disguise it as a gift for me, knowing due to deployment he wouldn’t even be home to drive it. One more bill, one more thing for me to deal with as a single parent to our toddler as a full time student. Pulled up in the yard with it with my sister and our kids right there. I smiled coldly and proceeded to act calmly. Until we left. Another reason for our divorce.

    As someone who has hosted and been around fighting relatives (see above), if it’s your house and hints don’t work, put your foot down. In someone else’s home, ignore it until you can’t then give them and the hosts and ultimatum: they stop or you don’t come.

  • Mr NiceGuy December 21, 2012, 12:22 pm

    What a pair of immature children. There’s nothing as awful as having someone you care for deeply and having that kind of family baggage come with him or her. I’m sorry OP had to deal with that, but my sorrow takes a backseat to my anger at the In Laws for such boorish behavior. Yes, both of them (though father was the instigator here).

  • Enna December 21, 2012, 1:11 pm

    Both MIL and FIL behaved badly but I think the main fault lies with FIL because he knew what was going to happen. Buying a car as a present is only a real present if you have the money to pay for it all up front.

  • Enna December 21, 2012, 1:13 pm

    P.S I also think OP’s hubby has got to understand that his in-laws are weary. Until his parents can show that they can behave themselves.

  • wyntersmama December 21, 2012, 4:08 pm

    Don’t care what the cost of this item is, everyone played unfairly.

    So, it’s a big item with a $ tag that MIL doesn’t like. Maybe it was for FIL. It was a gift, as such no one should have acted the way this went down. No excuses.

  • The Doctor's TARDIS December 21, 2012, 4:30 pm

    I concur with the posters who frown at the FIL. I honestly believe he gas-lit her right there in front of the family.

  • kingsrings December 21, 2012, 5:42 pm

    Add me to the list of people who detest those Christmas commercials about family members gifting brand new cars to each other. That is so fantasy, and not reality at all! A poor, unrealistic marketing ploy that is not well-thought at all.

    As far as the MIL, I can commiserate. My mom’s family is very high-strung and tempermental, and many family gatherings have been marked by their temper fits, arguing, and crying. There have been so many times when I’ve wanted to break in and say, “Please, can we just have a nice gathering without anyone fighting with each other??”. My aunt is now the worse offender who can’t seem to go to a gathering or social event without finding fault with someone else there and unashamedly proclaiming it. For years, I dreaded finding a mate and having to introduce him to my mom’s family. I would have to give Mr. Wonderful a big, fat warning about them before introducing him.

  • Red Cat December 22, 2012, 1:12 am

    FIL was selfish (saddling his wife with another payment they couldn’t well afford), disingenuous (pretending it’s a gift, when actually, it’s something he wants) and manipulative (using his DIL’s family to try and minimise his wife’s reaction, which he knew would be instant and OTT). He sounds despicable!
    I have some sympathy for MIL, though it’s mitigated by the OPs revelation that she frequently overreacts with violent outbursts.

    As for the husband, well, he doesn’t seem to realise that not everyone has a dysfunctional family with frequent blowups and angry behaviour. (Sadly, I do, but I know it’s not the norm.) To outsiders, this behaviour can be really shocking and more than a little frightening. He needs to understand that there are consequences to his parents appalling behaviour, and that some people cannot ‘just move on’ after such a disrespectful display.

  • Betty December 22, 2012, 3:08 pm

    I am confused as to why the Chris’s son, didn’t kick them out! He let them just freak out for that long in front of fairly new in-laws? I don’t care who the so called elders are, this behavior should have been stopped and the feuding couple sent home. I have no tolerance for anyone who would allow this to go on in his in laws house.

  • LadyPhoenix December 23, 2012, 1:55 am

    Sorry guys, but if I had a husband who did that to me, I wouldn’t hesitate to bawling my eyes out or strangling him right then and there. I think this is a case where things like etiquette are kinda small potatoes in comparison to a MAJORjoint purchase done in a DISJOINTED manner.

    FIL deserves the 10th level of E-hell:
    1. He made a MAJOR purchase when he and MIL are on strict budget
    2. He did #1 to TICK HER OFF (That would be a divorce right then and there)
    3. He does this at SOMEONE ELSE’S place, knowing full well buying her a car will TICK HER OFF
    4. He expected her to behave for doing #1 – 3 because they’re at someone’s home, NOT realizing things like EMOTIONS aren’t like on-off switches because you say so
    5. When she doesn’t, he basically messed up Christmas for NOT JUST HER but HIS FAMILY AS WELL
    6. He doesn’t take any of the blame for ANY of this

    No, the Father in Law made EVERYONE miserable so he could be a selfish jerk. Yes, the MIL should not have exploded, but I think that’s a bit uncontrollable given the circumstances. I’m surprised no one else kicked his butt out for the stupid stunt either.

    • admin January 1, 2013, 9:54 am

      So, in other words, your preference to have an epic reaction to the husband’s new car in someone else’s home, in front of gracious hosts, trumps the hosts’ comfort level? I expect small children to not have control over their emotions but adults have an obligation to behave like adults. Husband was quite wrong in what he did BUT the answer is not to add to the drama, play right into Husband’s hand and have an emotional tirade. As the guest in someone else’s home, you don’t have that luxury. Save it for the ride home and all the time you want in your own home.

  • Daphne January 8, 2013, 3:57 pm

    Lady Phoenix I agree with you. Etiquette is the least of these fools’ problems! What the MIL needs is a good divorce lawyer and FAST!!