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.