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How to navigate one person in a relationship being rubbish at buying gifts

Dec 17, 2021

It’s rare that in a relationship, two people are absolutely, perfectly matched when it comes to the skill of gift-giving.

More often than not, there’s one partner who is, to put it bluntly, absolutely sh*t at the art of buying presents, and another who is a generous genius.

While the brilliant gift-giver will manage to select the perfect thing for their other half – thoughtful, exactly what they wanted, referencing some kind of in-joke they had years ago – the rubbish one will be in a state of panic and guilt, knowing that nothing they wrap up for their beloved will be what they deserve.

It’s a bad situation all around.

The good gift-giver ends up with a poorly-chosen present, and starts to question if there’s something seriously wrong with the relationship (‘socks, again? Don’t they know me?’). The bad gift-giver has to deal with all the stress of yet another failure unwrapped on Christmas Day, plus feels increasingly terrible about themselves and their skills.

This might sound like a ridiculous problem to have, but it can have serious effects.

‘Lack of present buying ability can frequently become an issue in a relationship,’ says senior therapist Sally Baker. ‘Depending on whether you count anniversaries and Valentine’s Day as gift opportunities or not alongside your birthday and Christmas, that’s a minimum of six potential flash points per year for many couples.’

Resentment, questioning, and anxiety can start to build on both sides.

‘If the recipient needs objects as symbols for the depth of their partner’s love, then disappointment will grow if they are with a bad gifter,’ explains relationship expert Neil Wilkie.

‘The bad gifter will feel a continuing failure if their presents are met with a lack of appreciation.

‘A bad gift can get people into a downward spiral of mind reading and misunderstanding – “If they loved me of course they would know exactly what I wanted”.’

So, what can you do about this, whether you’re the bad giver or the good one in a relationship with someone who’s going to leave a disappointment under the tree?

Try these steps…

Agree a budget

If one person is spending a tenner and the other is going wild, splashing cash on a mound of presents to as tall as the tree, this is a recipe for despair regardless of your shopping skills.

‘Love does not have a price tag,’ notes Neil. ‘Much better to focus the energies on having great experiences together and set an agreed budget for buying “stuff”. This can unleash creativity rather than blind spending.

‘Try, for example, setting a budget of £100 for a present each and then a budget of £5 to be spent in a pound shop for some quirky stocking fillers.’

Ditch the competition

Present-buying can start to get a bit competitive in a relationship, with pressure to do better than your partner and than last year.

Quit it. Fighting to be the best isn’t exactly the point of Christmas/Valentine’s Day/birthdays.

Communicate your needs

Let’s say you’re the recipient of a truly disappointing gift from your partner, year after year. You’re feeling increasingly unappreciated and, let’s be frank, a bit pissed off.

Have you expressed this? Does your other half know they’re going wrong, or are they in a state of blissful ignorance?

You don’t need to go on a full spoiled brat rant about the quality of all past gifts. But it’s very reasonable to express to your partner that you care about gifts, they mean a lot to you, and you have a tendency to read into a bad one.

If you really want something specific, tell your partner. Give them a bit of guidance, and see if this sorts out the issue.

If it doesn’t, then it’s time to reassess.

‘If they are given feedback and subtle clues and still fail to get it then this is a clear sign that they are not understanding your needs,’ says Neil. ‘If you want a red Ferrari and they buy a blue one, maybe they like blue or there was a good deal on that colour. If you want a red Ferrari and they buy you a Nissan Micra, maybe they can’t afford it or think your desires are excessive.

‘Bad gifters can improve, with guidance, if they really want to.’

Ask what they want

On the flip side, if you’re struggling to choose a gift for someone you love, there’s really nothing wrong with just asking them what they’d like.

‘You’re not psychic, so stop panicking,’ Sally tells us. ‘Ask their friends or family to see if they’ve mentioned anything to them that they specifically want or bite the bullet and ask them.

‘You can ask for three gift suggestions so that the one you finally plump for is a surprise.’

Try not to spiral

When you’re on the receiving end of a bad gift, it’s tempting to obsess over what it means. Do they really love me? Is this relationship doomed?

Try to take a step back and reflect on the relationship as a whole, not just a gift as a representation of it.

Accept that some people are just not great at gift-giving, and remember that a good relationship isn’t all about what they buy you.

Neil advises: ‘See if this is just a small quirk or whether it is sign that they really don’t care or can’t be bothered to meet your needs.

‘If your life with them is otherwise full of love, communication and connection then hold onto those positives and nurture them.

‘Ask yourself, how important is that ‘stuff’ to you and what you can do to reduce the impact of their quirk of poor gift-buying.’

Become a better gift-giver

Bad gift-givers are not locked into this trait for all eternity. If you’re feeling guilty and wish you could be better, the good news is that you can improve.

Have a think about why you have this tendency, then work on fixing the problem.

‘Some people have never learned how to be a good gifter,’ says Neil. ‘Maybe their parents were unskilled or careless gifters and their childhood presents were a source of growing disappointment.

‘If this is the cause then improvement is certainly possible if they are prepared to go to Santa’s present giving school.’

Sally adds: ‘Many people have high anxiety about gift buying. This makes them doubt their judgement and procrastinate at making a purchase.

‘They often want their gift to speak eloquent volumes for them when in reality their choice of gift says nothing of note – least of all “I love you!”

Bad gifters are often time poor and gift-purchasing procrastinators which is the perfect storm for rubbish presents.

If time is an issue, make it a priority to start early. If you’re clueless about what your partner wants, as explained above, there’s really no harm in asking.

Try keeping note throughout the year of things your partner mentions they like, or items you spot that made you think of them.

Ask for help from your partner’s friends and family, who might have more ideas.

Remember that most of all, your other half wants to feel loved, known, and cherished. If gifting is a real blind spot for you, how can you convey your adoration in other ways?

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