I admit it. Early in my marriage, I screwed up a present to my husband. Big time.
I wanted to give him something really special and personal for Christmas (I believe it was our second or third Christmas together). I reflected back on gifts that my loved ones had given me through the years and decided that my absolute favorite gift was the photo album of my life that my parents put together for me.
Given that my husband's parents had died several years before we met, I thought it would be the perfect way for me to get to know him and a beautiful memento of his life that he would cherish forever.
I spent hours after work secretly rifling through a box of photos I found, gathering the best shots of him, his family, his homes and his beloved dogs. I hoped he wouldn't see any part of my project before it was over since I wanted him to be totally surprised. I took pride and delight in my project. My heart overflowed with love and I could hardly wait for Christmas morning when he would open it and laugh, cry, and appreciate me all the more.
Every other gift had been exchanged and I saved this last one—the one that I had poured my heart and soul into. This was "the big gift!"
Michael opened the box carefully and looked at the photo album incredulously and said, "Who's that?" He was referring to the photo of the boy named Michael on the cover (the name Michael was written on the photo so I knew I wasn't wrong!).
I said, "What do you mean? That's you!"
He said, "No, it's not. I don't know who that is."
He then turned the page and said, "What dog is that?" "What house is that?"
I wanted to scream, "What are you talking about? This is your life, your pets, your homes, your friends, and your brothers!"
But it wasn't the case. In the end, I got a few correct photos but far too many of them were of people, places, and things Michael had never seen before.
I told my husband that I had found a box of photos in the garage. He explained that his mother had a collection of photos but, in addition to the family pics, she had photos of children from the daycare center she ran after he and his brothers were out of the house. These photos were of her daycare children! The dogs were the daycare children's dogs!
I was mortified and sad. Rather than feeling adored, after such a build-up, Michael felt let down.
It hurt me deeply that I could miss on such a grand scale. And it hurt him. Of course, we recovered and laugh about it now, but some people don't. Gifts can actually be a barometer for how well your relationship is going, so pay attention to what you feel around gift-giving time.
When things between you and your spouse are in a good place, you can handle a couple of hits like this and be fine. But when your relationship is on the rocks, bad gifts take on symbolic proportions. When times are bad, bad gifts tend to mean, "You clearly don't get me," or, "You obviously don't love me anymore." Likewise, when your spouse nails it, you feel loved and connected to your mate.
When one spouse gives another a vacuum cleaner, most of us are inclined to think that the romance is gone from the relationship. Yet, if one spouse gives the other expensive jewelry, we assume that all is well.
But should we jump to conclusions that the giver of the vacuum cleaner values their spouse any less than the giver of the jewelry? Or that there's trouble in paradise? Should the measure of a gift be based on the dollar amount spent (or, as in my case, the amount of time put into creating it)?
That's not really fair, either. A vacuum cleaner may cost more than, say, a sweater, but if the sweater is one that the receiver loves, does it matter how much was spent?
I once worked with a couple where the husband—who was wheeling and dealing the family finances, and who was quite verbally abusive to his wife—gave her an Audi SUV for Christmas. On the outside, it looked like a grand gesture of love, but behind the scenes, it was more likely a function of the desire to maintain control over his wife, and perhaps even appease her so that she wouldn't ask questions about where his income was going—a kind of hush money.
I know of another couple where the wife bought her husband a beautiful ring for an anniversary at the beginning of 2017—and they filed divorce papers at the end of 2017.
Presents represent a lot and they can also be misleading.
The bottom line is to pay less attention to the actual gifts themselves and focus instead on the meaning you give the gifts you receive.
Pay Attention to the Stories
If your spouse continuously gets you the wrong gift, what do you say to yourself about it? Do you say, "Oh well, they've never been a good gift buyer." Or do you say, "I wonder what's going on? He (or she) used to give me such great gifts and now, I don't think s/he puts any effort into it whatsoever."
If your feelings are hurt, and you find that you are making up stories about how your spouse doesn't mean you well, you should absolutely check in with him or her about it. It could all be a simple misunderstanding. In fact, it usually is.
One couple, whom I'll call Kyle and Dana, came in to talk to me about a particularly bad dynamic they were in.
About eight months earlier, Kyle had told his wife that he was going to set up a vacation for them to celebrate their 10 years together. Dana took this to mean that this vacation would be their gift. While away on the cruise he arranged, he gave her additional gifts but Dana had none to give him.
Kyle's feelings were hurt, to get nothing from her—especially in light of his planning this special trip. Yet, he said nothing about it. Instead, he got a story going in his head that he was putting all the effort into keeping the marriage together and that she could care less about him.
He began to get quite mopey and sometimes even downright mean. Dana wanted to find out what was wrong, but when she asked him, he always said, "Nothing. I'm just stressed."
Finally, Dana requested that they come see me to talk about it. When I asked how long the dynamic had been going on, they were able to trace it back to coming home from the cruise. As it turns out, Kyle was honestly unaware that he was bothered by what had happened because he had shoved his hurt down and didn't want to feel it. When the truth came to light, it all made sense.
Dana had no clue that he had expected a gift from her since he never said anything about it. They were ultimately able to see the humor in what happened, and she was able to rectify the situation by giving him a day at Sears Point (a raceway north of San Francisco).
Not everyone can repair in this way. I've seen cases where one spouse cannot give the bad gift giver the benefit of the doubt, and things just continue to devolve. The gifts are simply too representative of what each "gives" to the relationship.
Talk and Act Sooner
Don't let bad feelings pile up year after year, event after event. If your mate is really missing when it comes to getting you gifts you love, let him or her know. A trap that many spouses fall into (especially if you've been together for a long time) is that the other "should" know what you want or like.
So, far, I've never seen a person who has mastered the art of mind-reading. Yet, I continue to see people feel let down because their spouse couldn't read their mind. This dynamic is a function of the fact that we have raised the bar of what marriage (and our partner) is supposed to fulfill so high that it is actually unattainable.
My recommendation is to stop harboring bad feelings and let your spouse know that you are hurt.
If he or she can't hear you, doesn't understand, or deflects what you are telling him or her, get some professional help. You don't have to wait until you have a stockpile of problems before seeking help, and you certainly don't have to wait until you are on the brink of divorce.
Enjoy the holidays and may most of the gifts you give (and receive) be home runs.
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