Avoiding Ex-Spouse Conflict During Graduation Celebration Season

Graduation Celebration Tips for Divorced Spouses

New graduates throw caps in air, celebrating graduation

Driving down the road these days, it’s common to see balloons on mailboxes and tents in backyards. With college graduations already in full swing and high-school commencement ceremonies on the horizon, it’s the season of graduation parties. Many divorced couples are encountering unique challenges when it comes to party attendance and gift giving. Here are a few tips on how to handle graduation celebrations graciously when former spouses’ preferences are not in sync.

Grad Gifting

Graduation gifting is no small potatoes. A Time magazine article, “Here Is Proof the Class of 2015 Is The Most Spoiled Ever,” cites a National Retail Federation survey that says, “This year’s crop of graduates are going to be raking in a record $4.8 billion in graduation gifts.” The article goes on to explain that the average American spent more than $100 on graduation gifts last year. Cash is listed as the most popular gift, followed by gift cards, clothing and electronics.

Another survey cited by the Arizona Republic in a May 22, 2015 article, “What should you spend on graduation gifts?” reads, “In a survey of more than 1,000 people by retailmenot, respondents on average said gifts worth about $111 were appropriate for high-school graduates, $243 for someone earning a bachelor’s degree and $256 for the recipient of a graduate degree.” cited an Investor Pulse survey that said, “Most people felt $50 to $100 is the appropriate amount to spend on both high school and college graduates.” While “suggests a range of $20 to $50 from relatives of graduates and $15 to $50 from friends of the graduate’s family and the graduate’s friends.”

These few studies make it clear that there is a huge gifting range, anywhere from $15 to $256. Obviously, the amount depends on many factors including the closeness of the relationship, financial resources and, to some extent, attendance at a party. Simple etiquette stipulates not going to a celebration empty-handed. That does not, however, mean that lavish gifts are an obligation. Heartfelt, thoughtful, funny, homemade, and sentimental gifts can be especially meaningful. This is doubly true if the gifter’s means are limited as is sometimes the case for newly-divorced spouses. No recipient wants to receive a gift that they know put the giver in an uncomfortable financial situation. The guilt of offering or accepting an “over-gift” takes away from the joy of the celebration for everyone involved. For creative homemade grad gift ideas, try Pintrest or Google “homemade grad gift ideas” and choose from more than 1.3 million pages.


For divorced parents, the question of gifting becomes even stickier when competitive gifting is introduced. To avoid getting sucked into the one-upmanship game, each individual needs to determine gifting amounts independent of the former spouse. Avoid determining the gift by how much you imagine the recipient is expecting or what other people, including your former spouse, are giving. Doing so often results in having to financially stretch to achieve someone else’s standard. The discomfort of financial strain detracts from the joyful nature of giving. Instead, prepare a personal overall budget for graduation gifts, party attendance, and travel expenses and determine a formula for how to split it up amongst all the graduates you intend to honor. For instance, you may wish a dear niece to receive 50 percent of the total with kids’ friends and neighbors’ children to split the rest. Gifting should be a glorious celebration, not a torturous burden.

Party Attendance

To avoid awkward encounters with an ex at an open-house style event, agree on a schedule for attendance. For example, maybe one side of the family goes for the first couple of hours and then the other for a couple of hours.

If the time schedule is not an option, agree on “turf.” Each spouse can carve out an “ex-free zone.” Respect each other’s space.

If it is a seated event and interaction with an ex would be uncomfortable, be honest and up-front with the host. When RSVPing, write a short note explaining that the preference is for the ex-spouses to be seated apart. Most hosts would be grateful for the insight. The small inconvenience of adapting the seating arrangements would be worth the larger gain of heading off conflict.

If you and a former spouse have trouble agreeing, and are already seeing a mediator for other matters, include upcoming social plans on the negotiating agenda.


If you anticipate encountering your ex on bad terms at a party, therapist Marie Hartwell-Walker recommends, “Be prepared. You already know which of your former spouse’s behaviors hook you. Write them all down. Think about ways you can react to each one that changes the outcome. You can’t change what he or she will do or say but you can certainly change what you do in response.”

She also counsels divorcees to have a support group at hand, take breaks from the stress of unwanted interactions, avoid drinking alcohol and have an exit plan in mind.

Reward Yourself

When the tents are packed up and the balloons deflated, give yourself a gift in acknowledgment of the hard work of behaving admirably under adverse circumstances. Plan an end-of-summer road-trip or get a massage.

You’ve earned it!