How to manage gift-giving pressures in your relationship


You were hoping for a ring, but you get a blender. He was hoping for an Ipod, but he gets a sweater. Not every gift is a hit, but what does it say about a relationship if they're usually misses? Family therapist Rachel Sussman has advice for managing gift expectations.

How to manage gift-giving pressures in your relationship

Gifts come in many different sizes, shapes, packages and prices. They can also come with an agenda -- real or imagined -- unless you think through the issues surrounding your gift giving. For example, are you a chronic over spender on gifts? Under spender? What are you really trying to communicate? Notice me? Love me? Here I am? Are you setting yourself up for hurt feelings if your partner doesn't respond appropriately?

  • The best way to avoid misunderstandings is to communicate and establish ground rules as early in the relationship as possible. Openly discuss your gifting philosophy and budgets so neither of you is surprised. For example, do you want a gift that is something you need? Do you want to be surprised? Do you prefer experiences or things? At anniversaries and holidays, might you both prefer dinner and a hug rather than another thing?
  • Don't be victimized by marketing hype. A more expensive gift does not necessarily mean that more thought went into it.
  • Sometimes, less really is more in the context of a relationship. Giving a gift that is especially appropriate, or requires the investment of time rather than 'just' money, can be a thoughtful and gracious expression of the strength of the bond between you.
  • What if you don't like ANYthing that your partner ever gives you? First, be gracious when you receive the 3rd blender or 5th sweater or tie that you don't want or need. Give a big smile, and then think about when the right time might be to have a frank discussion about gifting moving forward. Secondly, be sure to make the effort to keep expectations in check.
Gift-giving in relationships can be fraught with anxiety, and there can be pitfalls. However, it's an important custom for many of us and those occasions can be a wonderful way to bring us closer to those we love.



DENISE: Hi there, I'm Denise Richardson for howdini. Thank you for being with us. We are talking about something that's near and dear to many of your hearts, maybe even mine if I'm honest. Gift-giving in a relationship, now it seems like an easy thing, but our expert Rachel Sussman who is a relationship therapist will say there are lots of issues around gift-giving. True?

RACHEL: There are a lot of pit-falls around gift-giving; you wouldn't think so right? You think it's the easiest thing, but you know gifts come in many sizes, shapes, and packages and many agendas as well.

DENISE: And agenda, let's go there. What kind of agendas can be attached to gift giving?

RACHEL: I have a couple that I work with and the woman in the couple is an overspender and the husband in the couple is an underspender. She buys him these very elaborate, over the top gifts and there is more than generosity involved: it's about "notice me, love me, here I am." And she goes over the top and buys him all these gifts and if he does or says something that hurts her feelings: "Oh my gosh, how could you say this to me, how could you do this to me, after all I've done for you, after all I've given to you."

DENISE: What's appropriate when it comes to gift giving from the level of married couples to people that are dating? Because you think, oh I've been going out with him for six months, I'll spend two hundred dollars...he shows up with a pen.

RACHEL: You know, it's a very interesting comment and everyone knows the story, everyone has a friend whose boyfriend bought her a blender, you know, for Christmas. So, you know, I think that couples eventually need to have rules and discuss these things. First anniversay, you know it's complicated, you don't really know. So, you could bring it up to your partner and you could say you know our anniversay is coming up. You know how would you like to spend this anniversary? What is your philosophy on gift-giving?

DENISE: It's really interesting that people are so almost "victimized" by marketing.

RACHEL: Absolutely.

DENISE: And marketing people say, the better the gift, the more thoughtful you're being. If he gives you the ring, the necklace, the bracelet, he really cares about you, when in some cases, that's really the kind of gift-giver he is.

RACHEL: And you know you're really setting yourself up for great disapointment with that type of philosophy and that's why it really makes sense to talk to your partner and say, you know, traditionally what kind of gift do you like. Do you like gifts that you need? Do you want to be surprised with something? Should we forgo gift-giving and go on vacation instead? Go to a fabulous play and a dinner afterwards?

DENISE: Have you had those patients that say, "I don't like anything that he gives me."

RACHEL: Yes, and I think I'm one of those people myself.

DENISE: We're going to get ugly now, huh?

RACHEL: And you know that is a complicated dynamic, you know, some of us women tend to be very particular with our wants and needs and the poor man can never live up to what we want. That's again...that's great to have a discussion. For some couples like that, the way they solve the problem, they go shopping together and maybe that takes some of the spontaneity out of it, but that can really become a great tradition also. When you want a piece of jewelry or when a special anniversary comes up, shop together for it.

DENISE: Interesting, so, give us two things right now that relationships, people in relationships need to do when it comes to gift-giving over these holidays.

RACHEL: Be gracious. And if you do get something that you don't like, when you open up the blender, give a really nice smile and a really nice thank you. And what all couples, they say, choose your battle and choose your moment, if you decide that's the fifth blender you've gotten you need to say something. Be gracious, wait a few days, sit down and have a talk about what the holidays mean to you or what birthdays or anniversary means to you. So that's one thing I would say and the other thing is you know, keep your expectations in check, communicate with your partner, and create your own wonderful traditions.

DENISE: And you know, less can be more.

RACHEL: Absolutely.

DENISE: Rachel Sussman thank you very much for being with us.

RACHEL: Thank you Denise.

DENISE: I'm Denise Richardson for howdini.

meet theexpert
  • Rachel Sussman LCSW

    Rachel Sussman LCSW Marriage and Family Therapist Rachel Sussman, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage/family therapist. She has helped people improve their emotional well being, enhance their ability to engage in interpersonal relationships, and take control of their lives. more about this expert »

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