How to Be a Better Gift-Giver to a Partner

Moments that reveal and shape the relationship.

Much of our inner thoughts revolve around ourselves what's going well, what we're worried about, what's on our agenda. Gift-giving occasions are rare instances where our focus shifts to the inner lives of others.

However, this shift is often fleeting, akin to a tourist quickly observing a foreign land rather than a thorough archaeological excavation. That's understandable when the stakes are low. I don't need to engage in a deep conversation with my mail carrier before deciding what kind of treats to give him for the holidays. (Don't get me wrong, I'd love to have such a chat if only to gather gossip about my neighbors. But I don't need it.)

To truly delight those closest to me a partner, for example, I'll need to deeply understand them. That takes curiosity, attentive listening, and plenty of time.

You can see why some gift-givers might be seeking a shortcut. Retailers are adept at addressing this issue by offering products that create an illusion of understanding.

The quintessential example is the Pandora Charm collection. These are small pieces of jewelry designed to reflect a significant personal trait, like the Craftsman's Range charm or the Sombrero Hat charm. (If you've never encountered one of these charms in person, you've likely seen the annual line of women waiting to return them to Pandora on December 26th.)

In the hopeful imagination of an otherwise frustrated gift-giver, these charms demonstrate a caring attention to detail. But in reality, well, I think "Saturday Night Live" captured the profoundly disappointing message conveyed by these types of gifts in a 2017 satire:

"At Pandora Charms, we take one small fact about your partner and turn it into jewelry. If it's a thing, it's a charm. Pandora Charms beautifully convey your heartfelt messages, like acknowledging her profession as a nurse or recognizing her love for a good drink.

Another tempting shortcut is simply asking the gift recipient what they would like and then getting it. At first, this seems like a highly risk-averse approach, designed to avoid gifts that are so bad they rock the very foundation of the relationship. It's certainly true that the sting of a bad gift — a gift that suggests you don't really understand the gift recipient can linger. This reflects a fundamental principle of social science known as loss aversion: Bad gifts have a stronger impact on the relationship than good gifts.

However, upon closer inspection, the "just ask" approach comes with some significant risks. It's very easy to ask that question in a way that suggests you view the whole gift-giving process as a burden. For example, consider the following way someone could ask their partner what kind of gift they would like:

"Alright, I guess your birthday is coming up. You didn't like what I got you last year, so could you please tell me what to get you this year?"

How romantic. This wording might seem overly negative, but these requests are often made in a moment of frustration. Cory Stieg, a writer, recounted the story of how her boyfriend asked her to make a list of potential Christmas presents because she didn't like his previous Christmas present.

He ended up getting her every single item on her list, including some expensive items. The message seemed to be, "There, is that enough for you? No more complaining, right?" They broke up less than a month later, and she donated the gifts to Charity.

Simply giving a requested gift deprives you of a potential opportunity to communicate what you understand and appreciate about your partner. A study conducted by Amie Gordon and her team reveals that married individuals tend to value their partners more than they express appreciation for them. And even when we express gratitude and admiration for our partner, we rarely do so with a lot of specificity (saying, for example, "I love you because..."). Gift-giving occasions are crucial moments that reveal and shape how the relationship is going.

Furthermore, asking potentially negates the element of surprise. Good gifts require surprise. "Why do Americans buy so much wrapping paper each year? When making gift lists, keeping requests vague adds to the element of surprise."

For example, "If you mention items like 'something from Taylor Swift's collection' or 'a trip to an undiscovered city,' there's still ample opportunity for the gift-giver to bring joy and excitement." These vague hints make for a much more rewarding gift-giving experience than sending your partner a link to the item you'd like to receive. A joyful middle ground is truly possible.

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