Bah Humbug? Why Gift-Giving Is Crucial To Your Relationship

love, gift-giving
Love, Family

Even the most cynical among us can agree that the holiday season has an element of magic to it: It's a respite from our daily routines, a time to bask in our love for one another, forge traditions and make longlasting memories. But before a single egg is nogged or Christmas goose stuffed, before the menorah is dug out of storage or the strings of lights untangled, there's that little matter of buying gifts. And that is when, for many of us, the magic disappears.

Yes, gift-buying and gift-giving can be fraught with anxiety—so much so that it's not uncommon to hear of people who eschew it altogether, even in the face of tremendous societal pressure and the tit-for-tat mentality that's so pervasive around Christmas and Hanukkah.

But here's a very good reason not to throw up your hands and admit defeat this holiday season: Experts say that gift-giving is an important part of human interaction, one that helps define relationships and strengthen bonds with significant others, loved ones and friends.

In other words, if you withdraw completely from the gift-giving fray, you hurt your chances of improving your connections with the most important people in your life. In fact, your Scrooge mentality may even signal to your partner that you don't care enough to think about him and the things he enjoys.

Think Before You Gift
This brings me to my next point: What should you buy for someone you love—and how in the world do know if it's right thing? Perhaps you've been swept up in the holiday shopping melee and had that moment where you thought, Can't I just buy something, anything, and wrap it? Do I have to really think so hard about it? Well, yes, you do...or rather, you should.

Why does the art of gift-giving matter so much? Psychologists say that purchasing a gift without really considering its intended recipient (beyond basic things like gender and age) may come off as manipulative (for instance, the woman who buys her couch-potato boyfriend a gym membership because she's secretly disappointed that he's let himself go) or even downright destructive (the man who purchases a 10-pound box of chocolates for his dieting wife so he can feel superior to her when she fails to lose weight).

When confronted with the inappropriateness of their gifts, people who shop on autopilot always seem shocked that their choices come off as offensive. They swear they meant no harm, which may be true, but doing something harmlessly is different than proactively choosing to do something meaningful.

What Your Gifts Say About You
So, how to keep from being thought of as an insensitive, uncaring lout of a gift-giver? Admitting you have a problem is the first step, of course. But also, recognize that the gifts you give show your loved ones not only how you feel about them (good and bad), but also how you feel about yourself.

According to Dr. Susan Locke, a psychology professor at Baruch College in New York City, "Gifts that convey a lack of emotional investment and sensitivity to the needs of the receiver often reflect a lack of self-worth in the giver." In other words, if you grab the first obvious, generic gift (or gift card) you see, you're really signaling that you don't think you're smart enough to figure out what your significant other deserves or would like to get from you.

The Bottom Line On Gift-Giving (And Surprises)
So what is the perfect gift, and how do you go about snagging it? You may be surprised to learn that a great gift should be just that—something that satisfies a need or desire in the recipient, but is something they would not buy for themselves.

Surprise gifts can be really magical and meaningful, but only—and this is important—if you're absolutely sure the recipient will love what you're giving.

Case in point: For my 35th birthday, my husband hired a person dressed as a giant (spring) chicken to deliver a singing telegram to my office. I had just started working at the company and didn't know many people there, so needless to say, I was mortified! I remind him of the miserable failure of this surprise "gift" regularly, and blessedly, he has never repeated the mistake.

The moral of that story is if you're not quite sure how the recipient will react to a surprise gift, rethink it, because even if your present is not a bolt-out-of-the-blue surprise, it can still be what Dr. Locke calls a 'healthy' gift. "A healthy gift," she says, "is one that shows you understand the other person and you know what would bring him or her pleasure. It's an extension of a healthy relationship."

Wow. Heavy realization, isn't it? What the doctor is really saying boils down to this: To be the consummate gift-giver, at least where your significant other is concerned, you need only be the caring, attentive partner (we hope) you always are, which means you need to:

1. Listen. Has your S.O. ever mentioned something he/she would like, even in passing? Has he/she ever pointed to an item in a shop window or a favorite gift catalog? If the answer is yes, you have (good) surprise on your side. If it's no, try to visualize the person with a gift you think he/she would like. Picture your loved one opening it. What does the person's facial expression and body language reveal? Can you picture the recipient using and enjoying the gift? Does his or her interaction with it seem natural? Finally, ask yourself, if the tables were turned, would you want to receive the gift?

Listening worked really well for a friend of mine whose husband was always after her to do exotic things in the bedroom. So using a transit pass punch card as a model, she created her own punch card listing all the sexy "services" her husband could access any time by simply presenting the card. She gave it to him for his birthday, and he was totally thrilled. Who knows if it ever got "used," but the thought behind the gift was spot-on (and a great surprise!).

2) Be aware of the recipient's needs/desires. This one's a no-brainer if you take the time to listen on a regular basis (see above), but, hey, we all lead crazy-busy lives, so just in case, it’s okay to ask the recipient what he/she needs/wants, i.e., the holiday "list." We do this at my house, but with a twist: My husband and I will often use our lists as a jumping-off point, deviating from it slightly to reintroduce an element of surprise. For example, if I ask for jewelry (and I always do) and what he picks out is not quite to my liking, I don't mind because it gets me into the jewelry store, where I can exchange the gift for something I really love. And sometimes, I tack on a little extra "something" to the tech gifts my husband always requests. These surprise extras aren't huge or expensive (usually the device is costly enough on its own!), but something that I know will make him smile—and let him know I put some thought into his gift.

3) Cook/shop/create/plan ahead. I know this is a common refrain during the winter holidays (and don't you just hate those people who are done with their shopping by Halloween?), but being really, well, present when you're buying presents takes time and patience. Saving everything for the last minute results in hasty purchases—and hasty purchases, as we said, just make you look like an insensitive, careless clod. Not quite the Grinch, but along those lines. So do yourself and everyone else a favor: accomplish what you can ahead of time, even if it's just planning what you'll give to whom (see points 1 and 2). That's the most difficult part, anyway, and you don't even need any special equipment, just a pen and paper (or the digital equivalent).

That's really all there is to it. Three easy steps to make every gift you give memorable. It's not too much to ask considering the benefits you'll receive in return: the authentic smiles, the heartfelt you-shouldn't-haves (which really means they're glad you did!), and the unsurpassed feeling of self-love—the greatest gift of all.

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