Last night, I binged on House Of Cards, the Netflix drama. Frank Underwood, diabolical President of the United States (Kevin Spacey), gave Claire, his equally evil First Lady (Robin Wright), a pair of 2 Carat diamond earrings. Big ones.
A sign of love? Hardly. It was bait. He needed her cooperation. How could she say no to these magnificent ear bobs? Is she a lucky lady or what?
Not so lucky, it turns out. Anyone watching got that creepy feeling we all get when someone is trying to buy our loyalty. Or coerce us. The writers touched a nerve. Why aren’t we happy when we get “stuff” from someone significant in our lives? We feel excitement initially, but after a while, it wears off. A sadness – even resentment – flushes over us. As Sheryl Crow sings: If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad. If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?
I thought of my clients, and the oh-so-frequent divorce complaints I hear as a divorce recovery coach: At my ex’s house, he/she showers the kids with all the stuff I can’t afford. They come home hyper and wanting more from me. Or: In our marriage, he/she gave me everything I wanted. I shouldn’t be bitter. Jewelry. Clothes. Travel. Why do I still feel empty? I guess what I never got was him/her .
That’s right. What you never got (and what your kids aren’t getting) is a time investment from him/her free of distractions.
It’s a temptation to throw gifts at people – electronics, money, clothes, cars, dogs, cats. Even travel becomes a “thing”, not an experience, when the person is physically present but mentally absent (distracted by phone, computer, too much reading, too many side trips without you).
Gift showering is like sugar. Initially, it creates an exhilarating high. After a period of time, however, the high fades into a hollow, empty feeling and a craving for more sugar (more gifts) returns. For kids during divorce (and for many partners showered with material offerings), constant gift giving feels good at first. I hear clients say, At least my ex is trying to be nice. Then comes that disturbing feeling in the gut. Something’s wrong here. Intuitively, you know your kids (or you) are hungry for something more substantial.
Divorce advice: If it makes you crazy when your ex gives the kids gifts, or when you’ve been plied with souvenirs of “love” in your marriage, there’s a good reason you feel uncomfortable. As human beings, we crave sharing the human experience over getting goodies. Simply put: we seek sharing over giving. Research shows us: people get a lot happier when they share experiences, instead of material things.
If your ex is dangling gift candy for the kids’ affection (or yours), here’s what to do:
You may not be able to control what your ex does with the kids. You can control your own world, however. You can adjust your thinking around what gifts mean – for yourself and for your children: less gifts, more intentional shared experiences.
Eventually, the glitz and glitter of the new phone, the new car, the trips to Toys "R" Us will wear off. When those hungry, lonely, gift-laden kids come home, you can be there to understand why they’re grumpy. Don’t disparage. Don’t make them take sides. Instead, take Michelle Obama’s advice and take the high road. Model the behavior that will bond them to you. Engage with them. In conversation. In a walk. In a shoulder rub. In helping with school work.
If you’re on speaking terms, talk to your ex about the real need of the kids right now: shared experiences. Here are a few ideas for both of you. These will say I love you more than any new video game:
The bottom line: Giving is one way, and ego-based. Sharing goes two ways, and it comes from the heart. When your children look back at their lives, they won’t say: My best birthday was when I got my iPhone 7. Instead, they might say: I remember my 15th birthday when we went hiking and it poured. Our baloney sandwiches were gross and soggy, but we ate them anyway. We laughed so hard.
You don’t have control over your ex’s gift showering, but you can control what you do, and the new memories you create for yourself and your kids.
Give sharing. Do stuff together. Those memories will never wear out, or need new batteries, or go out out of style. Instead, they will ripen and blossom in everyone’s heart for years to come.