Giftless in Durham

Dear Sensible Midwestern,

I have been happily married for seven years, and first started dating my husband 13 years ago. My husband is a great guy – he is funny, and loyal, and emotionally there, and a good provider, and not hard on the eyes. HOWEVER, my husband is terrible – I mean really a total disaster – in the area of gift-giving. And his deficits in gift-giving skills have been apparent from the beginning of the relationship, but my resentment has grown over time about this (in my view) ridiculous situation.

He procrastinates until the last minute, and then produces some incredibly lame offering from (literally) whatever store he happens to walk by the day the gift is due. Last year, no lie, my main Christmas gift from him was a Christmas ornament. I did not receive a Valentine’s Day, birthday, anniversary or Mother’s Day gift from him in 2013.

I have tried everything a sensible midwesterner, in my mind, would try, such as telling him that it bothers me, giving him concrete suggestions a month in advance, and just buying myself stuff at holidays. I have found no relief yet.

As you know, Sensible Midwesterner, it is challenging to sustain “romance” in long-term partnerships and marriages, and while I consider myself mostly immune to the shallower notions of love and courtship and romance, I have to confess my melancholy at knowing my Christmas gifts next week will be scant and randomly chosen. It just doesn’t make a lady feel all that special.

I am wondering if you have words of advice or solace for me, O Sensible Midwesterner?

Best to you,
Giftless in Durham

Dear Giftless in Durham,

I’ve been thinking about you and how your Christmas went. I was sorry to receive your question too late to publish before the big day, but perhaps it’s best. We can focus on the future.

Much like the neatnik and the slob, the gift-averse and the gift-loving seem to have a perennial opposites-attract thing going on. While some movement can be made in either direction, it does seem, from my anecdotal observation of those around me, that adults have a bit of a set-point that’s tricky to move much in either direction.

Gifts are a form of social currency. We use them to express, in a physically manifest way, that we were thinking about the person to whom we give them. The more thought and effort (in time, money, connections, etc.) they entail, the more they mean to the savvy receiver. Because of this, the lack of a gift or the lack of a thoughtful gift can quite reasonably feel like a lack of thought or feeling from the giver.

The flip side of this, as far as this Sensible Midwesterner can parse, is that mandated gift-giving isn’t really all that thoughtful. “It’s December 25, you need to get your wife a present” doesn’t exactly equal romance. That’s why the thought counts. The giver needs to go past the prescription of the holiday or event into the realm of showing that they know the person – what they need, what they may like, what could delight them – to truly succeed at gift-giving.

Since buying gifts for yourself hasn’t offered you any relief, you seem to know all this already. You know that it really is the thought that counts. That’s the problem. The thought counts and you aren’t seeing any. That stings.

While plenty of sensible midwesterners would fully take your side and say convention and tradition should win the day, that your husband should simply get on-board the gifting train like all the other grown-ups, that approach doesn’t help much. He’s not the one writing in, so I can’t give him advice (for the record, it would be “It seems that it would mean a great deal to your lovely wife if you bothered to buy her presents; it’s a fairly easy thing to do for marital accord; you may find it silly or unnecessary, but who cares? Don’t know what to get? Ask one of her friends.”).

This Sensible Midwesterner is willing to consider the fact that your husband (who sounds delightful in so many ways!) may find the practice of gift-giving onerous, unsatisfying, or it may even dredge up seriously negative feelings. Perhaps he came from a family that didn’t put much stock in it and never learned how important it can be to people. Perhaps the idea of trying to put his thoughts about you in a gift form is ludicrous or overwhelming. Perhaps he’s so worried about getting it wrong that he skips it entirely.

I’m glad to hear you’ve tried talking about it directly. Since you put it in the form of “that it bothers me,” I’m a bit concerned that it’s been a fairly negative conversation. The word nagging comes to mind.

After the new year hits, try sitting down and talking about how you each see and understand gift-giving. Instead of approaching it as something he’s doing wrong, try thinking and talking about it as something that as a couple you haven’t gotten quite right yet. The two of you clearly have wildly different expectations on this subject and it’s time to lay them out. Gifts are all about reciprocity, so if your practices are different, it’s surely adding to the problem (both his reluctance to give gifts and your bitterness about it).

Without knowing what his take on gifts is and why he’s essentially backed out of giving them at all this year, it’s difficult to suggest a specific solution, but various possibilities come to mind: scaling back the number of gifting occasions (nothing says couples have to exchange gifts on Valentine’s Day or anniversaries, for example), joint gifts for shared holidays, more experiential gifts (this approach would also work with joint gifts – fancy dinner out, tickets to a performance, a trip), both adding cash to a savings jar (or account) on gifting occasions towards a bigger item you both want, setting up a conversation a week or month before a holiday about “what we’re doing about gifts this year,” giving up on gifts on set occasions entirely but perhaps exchanging tokens in a more random way. These solutions all address different issues of pressure or resentment that are often in play for the gift-averse.

I would also keep all conversation about and reaction to gifts extremely positive. Gift-giving should be fun – at its best it is even more fun for the giver; you may need to demonstrate that.

With all that said, I can’t imagine a solution that doesn’t involve, to some degree, a shift in your expectations. I can see why your resentment has built, why the entire subject might make you feel bitter. Midwesterners of yore may have told you to stamp those feelings way down deep, keep them down with a shot of whiskey or a big piece of cake, and hit the hay. A better solution may be to acknowledge your own feelings about gifts, accept them, and then let go of them as quickly as possible. I would be more concerned if this seemed to be the symptom of something deeper or symbolic of some discord between the two of you. It doesn’t sound like you think it is.

And that leads us to the solace you ask for: For all the delight a well chosen gift can bring, it pales in comparison to being able to honestly write the words “happily married.”

3 thoughts on “Giftless in Durham

  1. I have a similar issue with my husband. He wants to give wonderful gifts but the anxiety about getting it perfect renders him immobile. (Back story: his mother was always very obviously disappointed in gifts from him, even when he’d put a lot of thought and effort into them. Those emotions have a way of lingering and run deep.)

    My solution has been to plan something that I want to do (we’re child-free) for the times when a gift is to be expected. I’m a planner so it’s very satisfying for me and we both get to do something exciting! For Valentine’s Day, we’re leaving town. For Christmas, we rented a beach house for 5 days which was a gift to and from the both of us. For my summer birthdays, I plan a road trip to a lake that I’m interested in.

    I learned a long time ago that nobody was going to throw me the kind of party that I wanted so I started throwing my own…even if that party is just me, the hubs, and the dog floating on the lake!

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