Let me start by recognizing that this is a very petty thing to complain about. But my long-term boyfriend truly sucks at gifts, to the point where I sometimes wonder if he even really knows me, or cares to. Sure, I know he CARES about me — he is kind and sweet, etc. But I put a lot of thought and effort into getting him gifts for his birthday and the holidays and other special occasions (yes, I guess that gifts are my “love language”), and his lack of reciprocation bothers me. For example, for Christmas I made him a special photo album and got him tickets to an event he was really excited about, and he got me socks.
I’m not asking him to read my mind — I will literally show him a picture of something and be like, “If you’re ever thinking of getting a gift for me, this thing would be good!” and he still just … doesn’t? We’ve been together for five years and this has always been the case. At first I chalked it up to him being in grad school and not having any time or money, but now he’s got a great job and could afford to do better. I recognize that maybe I’m being a brat about this, but in my darker moments, I do wonder if it says something about our compatibility. Is there something I can or should do about this?
My spouse also gave me socks for Christmas, so I relate to your quandary (they’re nice socks, but still). Having a significant other who doesn’t share your enthusiasm for gifts can be disappointing on multiple levels — you’re upset with them for not trying harder, but also with yourself for getting hung up on material trappings. Either way, if it’s bothering you, don’t ignore it. I think the bigger point is that you wish your partner would put more effort into making you feel seen and celebrated.
There are a couple of ways that you could deal with this. One would be to accept that gifts are simply not your boyfriend’s forte, and make peace with the fact that he shows his appreciation for you in other meaningful ways. (Of course, this only works if he genuinely does.)
I get the sense that you have already tried the zen approach and can’t fully get onboard. That’s okay! Wanting something more or different doesn’t mean you want “too much.” If that’s the case, it’s time to bring this up with him more directly, instead of dropping hints.
The point is not to hit him over the head with how great you are at giving gifts and how bad he is by comparison. “I would keep the focus on the future as opposed to the past,” says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist who often works with couples. Incidentally, Clayman has struggled with a similar gifting dynamic in her own marriage (I’m sensing a pattern) and agrees that it’s thorny territory. “In the earlier years of our relationship, we went through the stage of him buying me gifts that I hated, and that was very delicate,” she recalls. “We both felt bad about that.”
I understand that you don’t want to play into the tired trope of the girlfriend who expects to be showered with roses and jewelry. But assuming your boyfriend actually knows you — which, after five years, he probably does — that shouldn’t be a problem. (Also, you could tell him just that; nothing neutralizes a fear of how you’ll be perceived quite like saying it out loud.) Or, as Clayman puts it, “You want to be with a partner who is able to work with your preferences for how you feel loved. That’s a lot bigger than just wanting a person to buy you stuff.”
Contrary to popular perception, most couples do not innately speak (or even know) each other’s “love languages” and need some coaching and reinforcement. One tactic is to point out an example of something that worked well: “Remember when you gave me that thing? That meant a lot to me, and I would be so happy if you did it more often.” It’s also worth acknowledging his perspective: “I understand that gifts are not something you care about, and I’m not asking you to care about them, but I am asking you to care about me enough to do this thing that makes me feel good.”
Meanwhile, don’t be too serious. Some people have a lot of anxiety around finding and buying gifts (my spouse is one of them), and it won’t help if you apply more pressure. Instead, Clayman recommends that you lower the stakes. “As an act of love, it isn’t necessarily about the gift itself. It’s more about wanting to feel like your partner really gets you,” she says. “Make sure he understands that the gesture is the most important part.”
Remember, gifts are fun. They can even be collaborative. “The best birthday gift that I ever got from my husband was when he picked out a new boutique in a cool neighborhood, and he took me into the store and said, ‘Pick out something you want and that will be your present,’” says Clayman. It was a great move for a variety of reasons — he had done enough research to know that she’d like the store, but didn’t have to take the risk of selecting her something. Plus, it was a nice date.
I believe in being up-front about what you want — I’m all for sharing a wish list before holidays, for instance — but I can understand if the surprise element is important to you. If that’s the case, you could enlist a third party for help. One of my husband’s friends reached out to me to suggest some stuff that he might enjoy for his birthday, and I was super grateful (as was my husband, when I presented him with new golf shoes that I would never have known to buy for him otherwise). If you have a trusted friend who could do something similar, it’s a win-win for everybody.
Of course, there’s the possibility that you could try all of this stuff and your boyfriend doesn’t change anything. I wouldn’t downplay that, either. Presumably, no one breaks up over a bad Christmas gift, but if it makes you question how much effort he’s putting into your relationship, that’s valid. You get to decide whether it’s enough.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org.