What Will Your Gifts Reveal About Your Relationship?

Mr. ToughMoneyLove has a certain fascination about money and human behavior.  I enjoy reading the psychology of money blog.  This month the blog published some hard truth research about gift-giving that is particularly relevant to the holiday season.

The research targeted how men and women in a relationship reacted to the gifts they received from each other.   What I gather from the results is that as guys giving gifts to our ladies, we are in a very precarious if not impossible position. 

You can read the article for yourself, but as I understand it, if a man gives his wife or girlfriend a gift she likes, it reinforces the perception that they are “kindred spirits” and therefore meant to be together.  That’s logical.  However, the research also established that if the woman thought that the gift was “bad”, her short term reaction was the same as for a “good” gift.  Apparently, women in a relationship are inclined to create self-defense mechanisms for that relationship, subconsciously pretending that the relationship is better than it actually is.  This defense mechanism initially produces a quite genuine “that’s nice” response to even the lamest stuff we guys give our ladies.

So how does this put the guys in an impossible situation?   Apparently, there is lots of other research showing that repeated episodes of “bad” gift-giving can wear down a relationship in small chunks.  So, if a clueless man makes a habit of giving gifts that his lady doesn’t like, her short term reaction will remain outwardly positive but her long term reaction will be inwardly and subconsciously negative.  Eventually, it may all blow up in the guy’s face and he won’t even know what he did wrong.  (We guys are quite skillful at not knowing what we did wrong to our women.)

Mr. ToughMoneyLove has made plenty of gift-giving mistakes with Mrs. ToughMoneyLove.  ( I distinctly remember the Christmas of 1979 when genius me gave her a pot hanger for the kitchen topped off with fuzzy cover-all pajamas.  A bad gift double-whammy.)  Apparently, I mixed in enough good gifts to help keep the marriage going for 31 years.  I can’t be 100% sure which gifts were winners and which were losers because my wife has been nice about all of them.  (Thanks babe!)  But as a “duh” tip for you other guys out there, jewelry seems to work OK.  My bonus tip is to be sure to let her know that she can return what you selected for something sparkly that she likes better, then go with her when she shops for the replacement.  That way, you get credit for the good gift to balance out the subconscious blame for the bad gift.  Based on the cited research, you need to keep that gift ledger well-balanced or kaboom!

I suppose that another takeaway from the psychology of money and gift-giving research is that if you want to end a relationship quickly without having to actually say anything, giving just one intentionally lousy gift probably won’t get it done.  Better find a less expensive strategy.

Good luck at the mall guys!  

Ladies – what do you think about this research?  Any advice as to how the guys should be allocating their gift money this year?

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8 Responses to “What Will Your Gifts Reveal About Your Relationship?”
  1. G. Jules says:

    As a general rule, any time you think “This is something she really *needs*! Of course she’ll like it!” it’s a good idea to back away. This rule will save you from purchasing a lot of danger items, including, e.g., the Webster telescoping cobweb duster. (Yes, that’s a real-life example.)

    In my opinion the only cleaning supply appropriate for gifting is a Roomba, and even a Roomba is more appropriate as a parent-child or family gift.

    Don’t buy gifts that require a great deal of future investment on the part of the recipient unless you’ve already discussed it with them and you’re 100% sure it’s what they want. This includes puppies, kittens, and cellphones.

    If your significant other has a hobby, getting them a gift certificate to a specific store they already shop at may be acceptable (e.g., getting a gift certificate to her favorite yarn store if she knits). General gift certificates, however, are Right Out as a significant other gift.

    Basically, the most important thing to signal with the gift purchase is that you pay attention and know things about her. In the gift certificate case, getting a certificate to her favorite yarn store works because it shows you know what that store is. Getting the random gift certificate doesn’t work because it shows you don’t know. Similarly, cooking equipment is appropriate if she’s an amateur chef, but inappropriate if she hates cooking.

    Also, think outside the gift = physical object box. It’s possible to gift experiences, like a hot-air balloon ride, a wine tasting, a cooking class, a weekend getaway, etc. (I’ve heard from my dad, who teaches people to fly, that a gift certificate for an introductory flight lesson can be an excellent gift.)

    It is permissible to break any of the general rules if you’ve gotten a specific request from the recipient. Asking for requests or ideas is a sign that you’re not 100% tuned in, but it’s still better than going ahead without ideas and really blowing it.

    I was going to recommend Amazon.com’s gift guide, but they’ve got a few turkeys on there (automotive safety kit? only if it’s a random extra and not the main gift).

  2. G. Jules – Thanks from all the guys for your excellent guidelines. The warning about having to ask for ideas is a new one to me but I agree that it helps if you can find at least one “good” gift that she didn’t ask for.

  3. G. Jules says:

    See, that’s what makes general rules difficult: there’s a lot of variability between different people.

    Personally I don’t mind people asking for gift ideas at all; I’d rather get something I like. (Hey, I don’t always know what I want, and I live in this brain.) I think most people I know are in this category as well.

    But I did know a few people back in college who were deeply bothered by someone asking for an idea. They felt like if their boyfriend *really* knew them, he wouldn’t need to ask. One person I knew would have been really bothered by her capital-S-Soulmate boyfriend asking her for a gift idea. I’m pretty sure it would have been easier for her to come up with a reason why she really loved a total turkey of a gift than to ignore the fact that Soulmate had to *ask* her for gift ideas.

    Soulmate came up with a decent gift, so things turned out well in the end, but — yeah. That was a really stressful holiday season.

  4. When it comes to “The Lady” it just makes good sense to pay attention to what she says throughout the year. I pick up lots of good ideas for gifts because she’ll forgo getting something for herself just to save a few dollars.

    I like what G. Jules says about “experiences” being good gifts. I always try to take her to a new play, comedy act, or concert in town as part of the Holidays. So far, it has worked. Just remember however, no matter how old a woman is, she still likes unwrapping presents and being surprised.

  5. doctor S says:

    Wow! G Jules. You just provided a handbook for many of us! I must say I am horrible at getting gifts for the lady, let alone anyone, during the Christmas time. If I just did a little bit of planning ahead of time it would be more helpful. This year I requested to my family and lady that they provide me with a Santa’s list! But so far I have received total resistance against it!

  6. Slinky says:

    Instead of getting a gift certificate, I’ll gift a shopping trip. That is, I take my fiancee to a store he loves, give him a general limit and set him loose. When we get to the register, I pay. This works especially well for stores where he often says we should stop at, but never actually do. I did this at Penzey’s spices. I told him he could get any X spices he wanted. It was very nice because we could both share our opinions on the spices.

    Also, I think it’s ok to ask what someone wants, or if they’d like X for Christmas, but don’t make it a habit! I try to listen to idle comments about things he wishes he had, or something that’s getting worn out and such. That’s the best kind of gift because you know they’d like it, and you get bonus points for listening and remembering it!

  7. Mortalmombat says:

    Mr. TML is exactly right, I think. Getting “bad” gifts does erode love and affection over the long haul. I have some expertise in this, as a woman. Looking back on several long term relationships that ultimately went South, I came to interpret the meaning of “bad” gifts as “he doesn’t know me at all,” “he doesn’t listen to me so he doesn’t have a clue to anything that interests me,” and ultimately, “he’s giving me something that shows no thought or effort–sending me a message loud and clear.” Buh-bye! But I did apply this hardwon knowledge in raising my son. He is a superb gift giver and has had a decade of happy women in his life. A gift “matched” to the woman’s wishes–something that will delight her–is the aim. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to be something she will cherish. At 95, my granny could recite (in order!) every birthday gift her husband gave her when they were courting. Also, men need to be aware that their beloved will be asked by family and friends what he gave her—RED ALERT! Women may look pleased (and talk themselves into believing they’re pleased) when they first get your gift. But when they get groans and aghast looks from friends and family, believe me, they will begin see you through others eyes. If you’re a good guy with a good track record, you can survive a few flops if your learning curve isn’t stone flat. Beyond this, you’re history and an anecdote.
    I have also given my share of “bad” gifts, and was pained even as I bought them–it was obvious to me the relationship was dying. I was giving out of obligation, not out of love or interest.

  8. Ann says:

    Just do what my husband and I do–say, “No gifts this year, right?” and enjoy the figs and punch. Spending on gifts is somewhat pointless after 15 years. Each year my brother-in-law is handed a laundry list of the exact items that my sister-in-law wants for Christmas. To the mall he goes…he drags my husband and me along for moral support. Oh, and underwear is even on the list. Ridiculous!

    So, guys, if you’re buying gifts for your wife, one thing you could try (but don’t tell her!)… taking along another female who knows and appreciates your lady’s tastes (preferably a related female!). Unless this is too much like the boss’ secretary buying his wife gifts?

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