Gift-giving and receiving. One would assume that this would be area of pure joy and excitement, and yet in my work with couples, it's often an area of conflict. How can giving and receiving gifts create arguments? Because what you can't see hidden inside the wrapping paper is an invisible layer of expectations, and where there are expectations, there's the possibility for disappointment.
"Angela" shares the following common scenario:
Ben loves electronics and I'm more of a traditional pen-and-paper type of person. Last year on Christmas, he gave me an iPad. He was jumping up and down like a kid; he was so excited to give it to me. When I opened the package, my face dropped. The last thing I wanted was an iPad. I think I said thank you but there was no enthusiasm in my voice. He was crushed, and we spent several hours feeling distant from each other. We got over it, but the whole experience left a sour taste in our mouths. It's so painful when that happens on a holiday.
Angela and Ben are far from alone. Couples everywhere struggle with a similar scenario where the receiver's disappointment triggers the giver's disappointment.
Gifts are an expression of love, and if you want your partner to feel loved it makes sense that you would give in a way that she or he can receive. One of my favorite movie scenes is from "Family Man" when Nicolas Cage forgets to get his wife a gift for their anniversary and he knows he needs to make up for it with a home run. He's talking to his young daughter in the kitchen later that morning, thinking aloud about his predicament:
"If I'm Kate, I can't afford the finer things. My husband's career is definitely a crushing disappointment to me. I'm trapped in suburbia .... Did he ever take her to the city?"
And he takes her to a beautiful restaurant in Manhattan, followed by a night in a five-star hotel, graciously sporting the knock-off suit (which he loathes) that she gave him for their anniversary. He knocks it out of the ballpark for giving and receiving gifts.
There are certainly times when you may want to take a risk and give outside of your partner's interests. You may have a sense that, even though your partner doesn't love sweaters, you've found one that may suit him in a way he never imagined. If you're on the receiving end of such a sweater, the loving response is to receive with gratitude, to do everything you can to put your possible disappointment aside and welcome the gift graciously.
If you find that your partner repeatedly gives you what he wants you to have instead of what you desire, you may choose to discuss this days or weeks after the birthday or holiday. As I discussed in a recent article, if you want to avoid a conflict, wait until your triggered emotional response simmers down before you approach your partner and broach a sensitive conversation.
To avoid a gift argument this holiday season, follow these three simple steps:
1. Learn your partner's Love Language by taking this test.
Does your partner feel loved by words of affirmations (a hand-written card)? By acts of service (a homemade dinner)? Thoughtful gifts? Something store-bought or homemade? Considering your partner's Love Language will help inform your gift-giving so that you can give in the way that makes your partner feel loved and appreciated.
2. Give what your partner would like, not what you would like him or her to have or what you would secretly love.
You may believe that your partner would love the latest non-toxic cookware, but if you think about it for a few minutes you may realize that that's what you would love. Put yourself in your partner's shoes like Nicolas Cage did and imagine what would bring a genuine smile to your partner's face.
3. Receive graciously.
No matter what you feel in the moment when your partner gives you a pen when you were hoping for a computer, smile and access your gratitude. Focus on the effort and thoughtfulness your partner put into the gift, even if it falls short of your expectations.
Gift-giving and receiving is more of a skill than we think it is. Sometimes it can take years in a relationship to hone this skill so that you can give and receive in a way that brings joy and connection. In the meantime, practice the skills above so that you don't taint your holiday with an argument.