Guys Giving Gifts: The Darker Side of Valentine’s Day

February 15, 1980, is a day I will never forget. I was explaining to Ellyn, who was at that time my fiancée, why I ignored Valentine's Day. It was the standard response a lot of men give in that situation – it's an event created by Hallmark, my love and affection are demonstrated in other ways, etc.

After Ellyn let me know how she felt, I decided that overlooking Valentine's Day was a mistake I didn't wish to repeat.

However, that experience exposed a bigger problem for me. A problem that basically has plagued me for most of my adult life. How do I find the right gift to give at the right occasion? The problem is the thorniest with Ellyn.If I only needed to do it a couple of times each decade, I think I could handle it well and do it with joy. But every year, relentlessly and inevitably, the special occasions arrive and demand that I celebrate with a gift.

I know better than to give her power tools for Christmas, and I know she likes clothes, jewelry, sometimes flowers (no candy) but that's not a lot of help. The problem is not that I am insensitive, stingy, and unfeeling–although at times I would have to plead guilty. No, the real problem for me is that I want to please her with the right gift at the right occasion. Unfortunately, like people who are tone deaf and can't sing, I seem to be missing the gene to find the gift that really hits the bull's eye–a gift that makes her eyes sparkle just like the commercials.

When she opens the present, I am hypersensitive to her facial expression. That extremely quick flash that says “Uh, I wonder what you were thinking when you got this.” Even though Ellyn rarely has that reflexive response, I seem to automatically access that expression whenever I am shopping for her. That's what makes shopping such an ordeal.

This year I finally put all my cards on the table and described my dilemma. Surprisingly, she was quite understanding. She generously suggested that because I enjoy getting things for her, I didn't have to surprise her with gifts, but when we are shopping together I can get the relevant gift right then and either wrap it up for later or she can enjoy it immediately. Although a part of me felt a big relief at the idea, another part of me still felt guilty about avoiding all the positive symbolism and meaning of gift giving.

I was curious if I was unique among our friends so I did an informal survey. The first responses were quite reassuring for me. All the guys hated the process of figuring out what to give. They all described various forms of pain multiple times a year. I liked what I heard. Definitely, misery loves company. Then I did a quick analysis. Maybe none of us has emotionally evolved much beyond being a knuckle-dragging cave dweller. I eliminated that explanation, as there was genuine affection in these relationships. Exploring this phenomenon, it seemed that the guys didn't want to risk getting something that would be a disappointment. They didn't like the feeling of confusion and potential failure. They dreaded hearing the response, “Really honey, I don't mind taking it back.”

Then I got the bad news. Some guys said they actually enjoyed the process of understanding what their wives might want and then looking for it. Using my best clinical interviewing skills, I tried to understand how this was. No luck. However, it was probably similar to wives trying to figure out why some guys like to hunt or golf. My questions didn't unearth any usable insights that would untangle the psychological and cultural complexities of giving and getting gifts. However, going through the survey process did create some relief even if it didn't solve all aspects of the problem for me.

So here are my unscientific conclusions. Most men struggle with special occasion gifts most of the time. Most women wish this weren't the case. Most men wish giving was as simple as the cave dweller, Ug, bringing home the mastadon from the hunt. His mate would celebrate and rejoice that Ug was a provider. Ug wouldn't worry if she would return her share. Ug felt good about giving. Ug went to bed feeling happy.

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Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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