In-Laws and Outlaws: the Impact of Divorce and Remarriage Upon Christmas Gift Exchange

ABSTRACT - While many issues pertaining to gift exchange have been explored, none take into account the changing nature of the American family. Because Christmas giving typically involves immediate and extended family, the high divorce and remarriage rates in America should affect the nature and extent of gift exchange during this holiday. The purpose of this paper is to begin exploring how divorce and remarriage influence gift exchange, by examining givers' motivations when selecting gifts for recipients affected by these changes. We interpret our findings, and offer suggestions for further study.


Cele Otnes, Kyle Zolner, and Tina M. Lowrey (1994) ,"In-Laws and Outlaws: the Impact of Divorce and Remarriage Upon Christmas Gift Exchange", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 25-29.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 25-29


Cele Otnes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Kyle Zolner, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Tina M. Lowrey, Rider College


While many issues pertaining to gift exchange have been explored, none take into account the changing nature of the American family. Because Christmas giving typically involves immediate and extended family, the high divorce and remarriage rates in America should affect the nature and extent of gift exchange during this holiday. The purpose of this paper is to begin exploring how divorce and remarriage influence gift exchange, by examining givers' motivations when selecting gifts for recipients affected by these changes. We interpret our findings, and offer suggestions for further study.


In recent years, many researchers have noted the inadequacy of the existing "family life cycle" models (c.f., Lansing and Kish 1957; Rich and Jain 1968) to explain patterns of household consumption. Authors including Andreasen (1984) Fellerman and Debevec (1992) and McAlexander (1991) have noted that the growing number of nontraditional households means the influence of status changes such as divorce and remarriage upon consumption patterns must be recognized. Indeed, Glick (1984) notes that in the United States, one half of all first marriages and 60% of all second marriages end in divorce. Nevertheless, "three fourths of all young divorced persons are likely to remarry" (Glick, 1984, p. 7).

For a number of reasons, the issue of how divorce and remarriage affects purchasing patterns is especially salient for researchers interested in gift exchange. Such issues as the amount of income available for gifts (Gerstel 1988), and the ways in which gift-selection tasks are delegated may be different than in intact families. Furthermore, the rates of divorce and remarriage in the U.S.Band the likelihood of consumers being affected by these activitiesBmeans their lists of potential Christmas gift recipients may be quite transient.

Likewise, Sherry (1983) notes that such factors as role structure and role incumbency can influence gift exchange within a dyad. Moreover, Otnes, Lowrey and Kim (1993) argue that the study of how roles and motivations affect gift exchange over the life cycle is a worthwhile endeavor. This issue becomes especially important, as one of the functions of gift exchange has been to serve as an agent of social cohesion within the family and community (Cheal 1987). Given the recent changes in the composition of American households, it is worth studying whether gifts still fulfill this purpose in American society.

Thus, our purpose is to begin exploring the issue of how divorce and remarriage influence Christmas gift exchange. Christmas was chosen because it is the occasion during which givers are most likely to include members of their immediate and extended families on their gift lists. As such, the following research questions will be explored:

1. How is the actual list of Christmas gift recipients affected by divorce and/or remarriage?

2. What direct or indirect motivations emerge when givers engage in Christmas gift exchange with divorced or remarried recipients?


The data for this study were collected as part of a more general study of gift exchange, and were acquired in two stages. In Stage I, fifteen informants were recruited from a university paper and a local paper in a Midwestern city (pop. 100,000). Fourteen of the informants were middle-class women and one was a white middle-class male. Informants' ages ranged from the early twenties to the late forties. Students were requested not to answer the ads. During November and December 1990, we conducted two in-depth interviews with each informant, and accompanied them on two Christmas shopping trips.

Interviews lasted about an hour and shopping trips ranged from one to two hours in length. Informants chose the sites for shopping trips; these included discount stores, department stores, drugstores and a variety of specialty shops. Interviews were taped and transcribed, and extensive field notes were created after the shopping trips. An incentive of $30 was offered for participation.

Although we did not specifically set out to examine the influence of divorce and remarriage upon gift exchange, the high incidence of relationships characterized by these status changes meant that the topic was worthy of study. Given the transient nature of the American family, we believed incorporating a longitudinal component into our research design would prove rewarding when examining how gift exchange was affected by divorce and/or remarriage. Thus, in Stage II, we asked five of our original informants to participate in a follow-up study during the 1992 Christmas season. All five of these informants were directly or indirectly affected by divorce or remarriage (e.g., either participants in these activities or closely related to a participant). The same research procedures were followed. When combined, both studies resulted in the generation of over 800 pages of text. A more complete description of our informants can be found in Otnes, Lowrey and Kim (1993).

Our data analysis procedure was qualitative. That is, we sought to identify themes or patterns in the text. The first and second authors arrived at our final understanding of the text through an iterative process of interpretation and negotiation. Moreover, the third authorBwho was not involved in the initial discovery and interpretation of the text for this particular topicBacted as auditor of both the text and of our final interpretation.


How is the Actual List of Recipients Affected by Divorce

and/or Remarriage?

Nine of our original fifteen informants appeared to be involved in gift exchange dyads affected by divorce and/or remarriage. Table 1 lists these recipients, and the overall strategies used by our givers for each. While some recipients were added to the gift list through remarriage in the family, still others were removed, typically after a divorce. Recipients were "lost" after the termination of a marriage and one child was removed because of fights over visitation.

The remaining recipientsBtypically our informants' own parents and/or childrenBhad been present on Christmas lists prior to divorce or remarriage. However, these status changes had caused these recipients' relationships with informants to be significantly altered. For example, after many of our informants' parents divorced and/or remarried, the results of these actions changed the roles the giver wished to portray through Christmas gift exchange.



Thus, the impact of divorce and/or remarriage was felt across a wide variety of giver/recipient relationships at Christmas. We now discuss the motivations that emerged, as givers engaged in exchange with recipients affected by these status changes.

Motivations For Exchange

We observed the motivations expressed by givers to those affected by divorce and/or remarriage could be positive, neutral or negative. Positive motivations were designed to enhance the relationship between giver and recipient, neutral motives were designed to maintain the status quo within the dyad and negative motivations served to actually hinder or destroy bonds between the giver and recipient. These categories will now be discussed.

Positive Motivations. Although divorce and remarriage can often result in negative emotions, we nevertheless observed that givers often attempt to express positive motivations when exchanging gifts in a dyad affected by divorce and/or remarriage. Three positive motivations were evident.

Compensation. The motivation for gift-giving in order to somehow "make up" for a loss experienced by the recipient has been observed in other studies (Otnes, Lowrey, and Kim, 1993; Wolfinbarger, 1990). In our study, we observed that compensation emerged for various reasons. For example, some givers feel compelled to make up material losses experienced by a recipient following a divorce. Anne described her fiance as follows:

He's been married and divorced twice. He's practically, in a sense, lost everything that he's I kind of feel like...I want to give him everything that he's always wanted.

That year, Anne showered her fiance with gifts such as a $500 leather trench coat, clothes, toy trucks and a statuette. Through such extravagant gifts, she admittedly attempted to make reparation for material losses experienced through his divorces.

The removal of a spouse from the home can also result in compensation strategies for the children involved. For example, Jane displayed compensation in her gift-giving for her daughter. Jane's ex-husband Bob has custody of their son, while Jane has custody of her daughter. In 1990, Bob was taking "taking their son skiing this year and [he] was going to get all sorts of ski stuff." Jane's compensation to her daughter for this trip was evident through her remark that she was going to buy her daughter "all this stuff," and was going to buy her son "only one game." In 1992, Jane also took her daughter skiing for Christmas, since Bob had taken her son skiing in prior years.

Sometimes divorces can result in a lack of resources or the loss of a previous gift-giving relationship. Without a husband to give her a Christmas present, Jane considered getting herself "something special." We interpret that this type of self-gift (Mick and DeMoss 1990) is compensation for the loss of a significant other with whom to engage in Christmas gift-giving. Furthermore, Jane worried that the lack of presents under the tree might make her young daughter wonder why Santa "forgot" Jane that year:

J: See, I've always bought for myself before so that there'd be presents from Santa.

I: So Santa, that was the reason in the past?

J: Yeah.

I: When you were married, you didn't do that?

J: No.

I: Are you going to wrap it up and everything for yourself?

J: Yeah, probably, so there'll be more under the tree.

Assimilation. Our informants often seemed intent upon using gift exchange to assimilate new relatives acquired through remarriage in the family. The essence of assimilation is that it focused around the giver attempting to enfold new people into the family. This form of gift-giving can be seen as a ritual act of sociability that reinforces group cohesiveness (Johnson 1988). We also observed that recipients could be described as being in various stages of the assimilation process.

For example, Anne is undergoing the first stage of assimilation with Kelley, her fiance's second wife and mother of Connie. The two women have slowly developed a relationship over the past two years. In 1991, Kelley gave Anne and her fiance a Christmas present. This act impressed Anne so much that in 1992, she bought Kelley a nice Christmas present. In this situation, gift-giving has been used to foster goodwill and serve as a symbol between Anne and Kelley that they can co-exist peacefully in the same family.

Various stage of assimilation were displayed when our informants selected gifts for stepchildren. In Anne's case, her sister's stepson was in the first stage. Anne's sister and her husband were denied custody, and Anne was "just getting reacquainted with him" after he turned 18. The hat, gloves, and scarf Anne gave him helped assimilate him into the family.

While Anne's unfamiliarity with her stepson made gift selection a bit difficult, Betsy's and Rhonda's efforts gift selection for stepchildren in the family could be described as routinized. Betsy's sister's stepsons had been part of the family for years, and her gifts to them merely reinforced their successful assimilation. Likewise, the fact Rhonda secured a list from her stepson when purchasing his giftsBand even bought him "gag" giftsBindicates she clearly regards him as "family".

Healing. Divorce and remarriage can often cause rifts within families. Interestingly, gift-giving can be partially responsible for the healing of past wounds. These wounds can be caused by past gift-giving errors or blunders, resulting from the frustration and confusion that divorce can bring to a family. As later gift- giving situations arise, they can become a forum for the repetition of past mistakes, or for the attempt to eradicate these mistakes through improved giving. As such, the actual exchange situation can be a microcosm of the status of the post-divorce relationship as a whole.

Hannah's parents were divorced when she was 13 and her father now lives in another state. Hannah reported in 1990 that she would select "something small" for her father. Indeed, that year she actually chose something for him that she collected. Later we learned one of the reasons Hannah apparently put little thought into his gift was because he had consistently "missed the mark" at Christmas and selected things she could not or did not enjoy (e.g. a wool rug that she was allergic to; a bound volume of an author she disliked).

However, in 1992, Hannah reported that the past Christmas, her father had actually had selected something she actually wanted:

Last year he got me this big humongous book which astounded me because my Dad is kind of cheap... He so thrilled me because it wasn't something I specifically asked for and he actually thought about what I might like... I mean I got this and was absolutely thrilled to death.

This gift from Hannah's father clearly seemed to result in a great improvement in their relationship. Hannah noted that "they had not had an argument in over three months and she had even called him [the prior] week (she usually only called at holidays or birthdays)." In fact, for the first time, Hannah anticipated Christmas being "nicer" because of their improved relations. Furthermore, the fact she was actually making a photo collage for her father indicated their relationship was on the mend:

Hannah and her mother had found some frames around the house and were planning to put together collages...with pictures that they had of family and events which would take some time to finish. Hannah said that her father had been very good lately and this was a way of saying "you are still considered family."

Thus, the process involved in Christmas gift-giving can be symbolic of greater rifts that result from divorce. Yet in Hannah's case, gift-giving both exacerbated the problem with her father and served as a vehicle for healing that problematic relationship.

Neutral Motivations

Acknowledgement. Otnes, Lowrey and Kim (1993) observed that Christmas givers often play the role of Acknowledger "to mutually commemorate the existence of relatively superficial social ties between giver and recipient." We observed this role to be most common when our informants offered gifts to recipients who had become "family" through remarriage. Because many recipients were "new" to the family or relatively unfamiliar to our informants, gift selection for them was often problematic. For example, Karen noted that she did not know her stepfather well:

He married my Mom after I moved out. I like the guy, but he's my Mom's husband...and it's sort of like, after a certain amount of flannel shirts and tools...I just don't know what the man wants.

Likewise, Cindy observed, "My stepmom, it's really hard to shop for her. A lot of things I like, she doesn't like." Thus, we interpret one motivation for acknowledgment to stem from the desire to present mere tokens designed to recognize the status of the recipient as a family member.

Interestingly, we also observed givers acknowledging recipients when engaged in reciprocal gift exchange relationships with ex-spouses. For example, Jane mentioned her ex-husband and new wife often got her a gift "from the kids." Likewise, in 1992, she selected a gift of comedy tickets "from the kids" for them. That these gifts are meant as tokens of acknowledgement is evident by the fact neither party was overly concerned these gifts actually pleased the recipient. Rather, Jane chose the tickets because they were something she liked, and discussed how she believed the gifts she received were selected:

J: I think [last year they got her] a heart-shaped thing that smells good that you hang up in the bathroom...That's what they always get me...

I: Is this something you like or something they are into?

J: I think that they're into that.

I: More than you are?

J: Yeah (laughs)

Thus, gifts may be exchanged among ex-spouses for the purposes of acknowledging their role in helping raise childrenBor possibly to appease the children during the holiday time. This type of acknowledgment supports Gerstel's (1988) statement that "it is parenthood more than marriage that draws together generations of adults" (p. 20). However, these gifts are seldom designed to appeal to the self-concept of the recipient (Belk 1979).

While acknowledgement is typically a "neutral" gift-giving motivation, its existence may also signify a strain in a relationship affected by remarriage. For example, Betsy described the rift between her and her sister, that had developed because her sister refused to attend any family functions if her father's new wife was present:

It's a real problem...And she blames Dad for it, and she blames me for it, and she says that if I would have never let her come to my house, it wouldn't be that way...The worst part is, it's the kids that are gonna get hurt. My kids are being pushed out of her life...And it really, really hurts.

Betsy's unhappiness at her sister's behavior was reflected in the way her Christmas gift selection had changed. In 1990, Betsy described how she loved seeking out unique gifts for her sister. But in 1992, the rift had become so deep that "It's almost like I want to get it over with. Be done with it."

Thus, while the circumstances leading to the acknowledgment in Betsy's case were negative, the fact Betsy was not totally willing to eliminate her sister from her gift list meant that she was attempting to maintain some relationship with her.

In summary, we interpret that acknowledgement could stem from one of three motivations in dyads affected by divorce and/or remarriage: 1) presentation of a token recognizing the existence of new family members; 2) serving to recognize the parenting role of an ex-spouse or 3) signify that a relationship had somehow soured because of a remarriage in the family.

Distancing. We also observed that Rebecca had eliminated most, if not all, of the relatives she acquired when married to her ex-husband. However, her son continued to buy gifts for his father, father's sister, and father's parents. Interestingly, all of Rebecca's recipients received gifts from her and her son as a "family thing." Thus, the fact her son selected some gifts for "his" relatives clearly indicated Rebecca no longer considered them to be her family.

Negative Motivations

Even in the best situations, divorce and remarriage are disruptive to families. Thus, it is not surprising some negative emotions were experienced by givers whose relationships with certain recipients were affected by changes in marital status.

Avoidance. It was clear one motive behind the lack of gift exchange was our informants' desire to distance themselves from certain recipients. For example, in 1990, Anne had given her fiance's oldest daughter several Christmas gifts. However, by 1992, the relationship between her fiance and this daughter had greatly deteriorated, so much so that Anne reported:

[The daughter] doesn't think of him as a father and always looks at him out of the corner of her eye like, "Maybe all those nasty things my mom told me really are true..." She's already said flat out that she wants nothing more than for him to give her up for adoption.

As a result, Anne had chosen not to give this daughter any gifts in 1992, while at the same time clearly striving to assimilate her fiance's youngest daughter into her new family.

Simplification. We also observed one motivation that apparently was not intended to have negative consequences, but its effect upon recipients was often quite devastating. This motivation was one of simplification, in which divorced parents attempted to somehow divide up the gift-giving tasks for their children among themselves. Berman and Turk (1981) note divorced people are often overwhelmed, expressing feelings of "not having enough time to do everything, and of not knowing what to do or how to do it" (p. 180). Clearly, the strategy of simplification was meant to relieve some of the duties during the busy Christmas season. However, in both cases where simplification was attempted, the effect on the children of divorced parents was quite traumatic.

For example, Jane and her husband had split custody of their childrenBwith their daughter living with Jane and their son living with her ex-husband. In addition to practicing compensation for her daughter, Jane also mistakenly assumed she could buy her son only a few presents, since her ex-husband would buy "his big Christmas." However, when Jane's son learned of this plan, she reported:

He just got real sad...and he had tears coming down his face. And when I asked him what was wrong, he said he just couldn't believe I was only going to get him two presents. He said, "You always get my big Christmas." And at first I said, "Well, Dad's only getting [her daughter] one present. And he said, "My Dad's got her several presents...." But he was so sad because he always expects his big Christmas here.

Eventually abandoning her attempt at simplifying gift exchange in 1990, Jane also reported in 1992 she now spent $150 on each child for Christmas gifts.

We also observed that when simplification was actually carried out, the consequences could be dire. Hannah described her most traumatic Christmas at age 13, the year her parents divorced:

[Her Dad] walks into the house with these gifts that are humongous, and I said "Who are those for?"...Well, they were not for me. My sister got a new robe, she got jogging shoes, she got a set of cookware...And I got an Andy Gibb album and a picture of my father, and if I wasn't going to put it up, he took the frame back...I went into my bedroom and just cried and cried and cried...And [my Mom said to Dad] "I thought you could have made some effort." And he says, "Well, I thought I'd buy for [Hannah's sister] and you'd buy for Hannah."

While this strategy was no doubt meant to ease parents' logistical and financial burdens of buying for children in two households at Christmas, simplification often had more potentially harmful side effects than any other motivation emerging from our text.


Our study reveals that many of our informants' gift-giving relationships were affected by divorce and/or remarriage. Furthermore, we discovered the motives for exchange with recipients affected by these changes can be positive, neutral or negative. Specifically, the positive motivations we observed were compensation, assimilation and healing; the neutral motivations were acknowledgment and distancing and the negative motivations were avoidance and simplification (which has unintended negative consequences). One might expect gift exchange to be a mechanism by which new family members are recognized. Yet our study also reveals that Christmas gift exchange is also used as a "bridge" between ex-spousesBas well as a means of acknowledging the existence of new spouses of ex-spouses.

Furthermore, our study reveals some gift exchange is clearly used as an attempt to signal to children that relationships between parents in general, and the holidays in particular, are as normal as possible, given the circumstances of divorce and/or remarriage. Finally, it is not too surprising that since changes in marital status often result in trauma for some family members, some negative motivations for Christmas gift exchange surfaced in our study as well.

Given our findingsBand given the sizeable number of Christmas gift relationships undoubtedly influenced by divorce and/or remarriage in American cultureBit becomes imperative to view gift exchange within the family as a dynamic phenomenon. It is important to realize that even within the same dyad, gift exchange behavior is not necessarily stable over time. Indeed, our paper reinforces the importance of taking into account changes in family status in order to truly understand how gift exchange varies over the life course. Furthermore, the influence of other changes in the lifespan besides those related to marital statusBe.g., the presence or absence of children in the home; changes in occupational status such as women entering or leaving the workforceBupon gift exchange should also be explored. Such issues may require more innovative and demanding methods of study, such as longitudinal work or the focus upon one family as a case study in changes over the life cycle. However, it is important that research in the area of gift exchange begin to reflect the complexity that is characteristic of American society.

Thus, future research could examine such topics as how gift exchange patterns evolve for dyads across even greater spans of time, and exactly what changes in the lifespan contribute to this evolution. Although this paper is exploratory and employs a relatively homogenous sample, hopefully it will lead to greater interest in the topic of how marital status and other changes affect gift-giving behavior across the lifespan.

All informant names have been changed to protect anonymity.


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Cele Otnes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Kyle Zolner, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Tina M. Lowrey, Rider College


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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