We are the couple in the family who have been there in every emergency, always sharing our money for loans, cars, trips. And oncewe tried to protect the children caught in a divorce -- they had practically grown up with us -- and we nearly ended up with no one speaking to us.

These children, who are grown now, have never sent us a thank-you or an invitation to dinner, or given us birthday gifts. If we don't show up at Christmas (we couldn't last year), they don't even mail the little last minute things they get for us. Their mother is the same. She hasn't even repaid the loans we made to her.

Most of these relatives have also ignored us when we had two serious illnesses in our family and when one of our close relatives died -- someone who wasn't related to them. When I asked them why they had ignored us, two of them said they were "very busy."

My child and my spouse tell me to "forget them," "back off," and "stop torturing yourself." They say these relatives don't love me, that all they wanted were the "things" we gave them. They want me to be polite, but to cool it. What should I do?

The gift that's truly given is like unconditional love. It has no strings attached.

This is, however, a difficult goal -- human nature being what it is -- for we all need to be appreciated.

Your own family is trying to protect you from this rejection by telling you to back off, but it's your decision and right now you don't seem ready to make it.

You may be able to understand them better, however, if you look at their behavior -- and yours -- objectively.

Giving, and giving thanks, can be terribly hard for people who haven't been taught to be generous, either with hospitality or appreciation, and this is especially true if they feel they can't possibly give as good as they get.

Your relatives, who had to ask for your help for years, surely wanted to put this memory out of their minds when times got better. If you want to keep giving to these relatives, you have to make it easier for them to give in return -- preferably to give themselves.

If you're going to let yourself be leaned on, you have to lean on others, if only to balance the scales. You say you're there for every emergency, but do you ask them to be there for you? Did you call them when you and your spouse had to cope with those illnesses and the death?

You should even ask them for help when there isn't any crisis. Requests as simple as how to wire a lamp or where to find the best firewood will let them know that you value their advice and experience.

It's particularly important that the children know how much you need and care for them, by specifically asking for their help; by confiding in them as adults; by letting them see that you are as vulnerable as they are and by sending them warm and immediate thank-you notes for even the smallest, last-minute trifle they give you, no matter when it arrives. Young adults have more time than money and they don't budget either very well. Any encouragement they get now will help them develop better habits later.

You can't ask, or even expect, any presents from them, however, but you should expect -- and require -- thank-you notes for the presents you give.

At this late date, tell them that you're finally going to set the policy you should have set when they were young -- if they don't like your gift well enough to send a thank-you note, you'll assume they won't like the next one either -- and you won't embarrass them by sending it.

Forgiving can be the best giving of all.

Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

1987, Tribune Media Services Inc.