Ellyn Bader

With the holiday season around the corner, the necessity of gift-giving is on most of our minds. Many of us feel pressured to provide and ‘prove’ our love for others in a strictly material way.  But, gift-giving is much more than just spending.  If done thoughtfully, it can provide a wonderful emotional, social & spiritual effect on you and your loved ones.

The actual definition of a ‘gift’ is the transfer of something without the expectation of payment. A gift is meant to be free! The term gift can refer to anything that makes the other happier or less sad, especially as a favor, including forgiveness and kindness.

When I was growing up I learned that giving gifts was a quintessential way to show how much you loved someone, with the caveat that the bigger and better the gift, the more you loved.  The gift was expected to be both expensive and the exact thing that would thrill the receiver.  (No pressure at all!) I would try desperately to figure out what others were buying so I wouldn’t look like a ‘cheapskate’. I would never have considered limiting my spending or forgoing gift-giving. Going into debt during the holiday season, on the other hand, was a given. I’ve spoken with lots of folks who have similar experiences, some of whom have decided to put their heads in the sand and come up for air once the holiday season is all over.

However, buying out of ‘obligation’ is a trap you can get yourself out of. It does little to enhance your or the other person’s quality of life. People who feel obligated to buy, most often get it all wrong.  According to a British survey some of the gifts men buy for women that are ‘all wrong’ include: incorrectly fitting underwear, exercise DVD’s, kitchen utensils, cheap jewelry, chocolates, shoes or slippers. The gifts women buy for men that are ‘all wrong’ include: unwanted clothes, gadgets, man bags, jewelry and framed photos. I’m sure most of us have been guilty of this ‘quick fix’ approach at one time or another. Being on the receiving end you may have wondered why on earth they even bothered – you’re never going to use it!  In a time of increasing social and global consciousness, this practice is simply wasteful.

Pull out of the cultural hype of bigger = better and use this gift-giving season to make a meaningful connection to someone who matters while staying within your values and your budget.  Give to define your relationships and strengthen your ties to family and friends.  Measure your gift-giving in terms of the amount of joy you can spread.

Start by setting a budget.  Make a list of the people you want to give gifts to and how much you would like to spend.  Keep the list close to you at all times for easy reference, and do your best to stick to it.

Here are a few ideas for creating wonderful and affordable gifts:

  • If you know a family that struggles with finding the time to do things together, get them a family pass to an activity or place that everyone can enjoy.
  • Sign up for a yoga or relaxation class with a friend and use this gift as an opportunity to spend time together.
  • Get family members to exchange names and agree to homemade gifts with a spending limit.  You can sew, paint, carve, build or bake something for each other that won’t set you back financially and will get you thinking about what your family member might enjoy from you.  This gift will have special meaning because it came from you.
  • Take a family vacation in lieu of expensive gifts.
  • Send the same book to a group of friends and start a virtual book club that will keep you connected throughout the year.
  • Invite someone you know who has no family to your home for a festive meal.
  • Organize a charity drive among people you know to help those less fortune – those that may live close by but are struggling during hard financial times.
  • Buy cooperative games for children and spend time playing with them. When I play these games with my grandson we laugh and help each other throughout the game.  This is a far cry from the standard competitive games that often leave him frustrated, sad and feeling like he’s ‘losing’.
  • Make “coupons” for your time.  Offer your babysitting services for a couple who have small children so they can go out and enjoy time together.
  • For Couples  – you can design a date that you feel will really make your partner feel special.  It doesn’t have to cost a lot, it’s more the fact that you have thought of them and put in the time to do it, that means the most.  For example, you can plan a ‘winter picnic’.  Get a basket, fill it with food and drink, get a table cloth, some candles and soft music.  Spread the table cloth in front of your fireplace or on the living room rug.  Hang out together enjoying a romantic and affordable time.

Remember that mindful gift-giving has a positive psychological and emotional effect on us.  It reinforces our feelings for another person and allows us to communicate that we care.  It helps us to share something unique about ourselves and our relationship to others and by doing so, creates a sense of belonging and safety. Whenever we feel safe, our nervous systems can relax and we ‘feel better‘.  It’s a scientific fact.  As Oprah says, “What delights me most about the holiday season is that people are more open to giving and sharing. And actively thinking about how to spread more joy.  There is no better feeling, for sure”. (Oprah.com)

So go ahead, spread more joy, incur less debt and enjoy your holiday gift-giving.

Best wishes to you this season,

Sue Diamond-Potts

Sue Diamond Potts, M.A., has a private practice in Vancouver, B.C. where she sees couples and individuals struggling with issues of unresolved relational trauma and addiction.  She has assisted Ellyn in her on-line training for the past several years by answering blogs, providing supervision and teaching on addiction issues in couples therapy.  She offers training in the Bader-Pearson model to therapists in the Vancouver area.


Comment below – how does this change your gift-giving attitude?


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.