Do You Buy Your Spouse the Same Thing Every Year? What Your Gift-Giving Habits Say About You

If you can't find a gift for your significant other, does it mean your relationship is on the rocks?

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Ah, the holidays. That time when we express ourselves not in our words or our actions but in our shopping chops. We consulted a gift-giving expert to decipher the hidden meaning behind what we give — or don’t give — to those we love.
 I have no idea what to give my significant other. Does that mean I don’t know my partner well enough?
Actually, it’s the opposite. You can’t pick a gift because you’re anxious over finding the right one. “The more the relationship matters, the more we worry about getting it right,” says Karen Pine, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in Hertfordshire, England, who actually studies the psychology behind giving gifts. “The more we value the other person, the more want the gift to be an accurate reflection of the strength of our feelings towards them. And what we don’t want to do is give them a gift that’s a poor sympbol of the importance of the relationship.”

My best friend gave me a gift I hate. Do my friends not know me as well as I think they do?
We think someone is our closest pal, and then they gift us with something that makes no sense. What went wrong? According to Pine, there may be a disconnect in how we think they see the relationship. “The way we think someone sees us is not necessarily how they see us. That becomes manifest in the gifts that they give us sometimes. That can be a bit of a surprise, and sometimes not a very good one,” says Pine. And maybe warrants some more together time to figure things out.

Of course, it could also mean that your BFF is simply a bit selfish — and was giving you the gift she’d like to receive. “Sometimes people choose gifts that they quite like themselves, and it gets a bit egocentric. We think that because we like it, other people will too,” says Pine.

Every year, I take a lot of time picking gifts I think my family members will like. But they always appear disappointed. What does that say about our relationship?
You mean well, and you probably do know what they like, but you may be going over the top. “Sometimes we pick something too personal,” says Pine. “We pick a certain category. For example, Aunt Mary loves big earrings and she loves cats. So, you get her big earrings with cats on them. But she doesn’t actually want that. We put the wrong things together.”

My romantic partner never gives me sentimental gifts, like jewelry. Does that mean he’s not committed?
Gender differences — big surprise — play a big role in gift giving, which is something Pine has studied extensively. Women tend to be more sentimental about giving gifts and attach a lot of meaning to specific presents. Men, on the other hand, tend to desire and give gifts that are usable, pragmatic and functional. “Oftentimes, for example, a man finds it easier to buy an iPad for his wife. If he thought she wanted a piece of jewelry, he would have no idea how to choose it. He doesn’t necessarily know what type she likes. It puts him in a retail experience that’s awkward and unfamiliar to him. But he does know how to buy a gadget,” says Pine. So don’t read too much into that new microwave that’s under your tree this year.

I only buy giftcards. What’s the big deal?
It depends on who you’re giving them to. Once again, gender differences tend to come into play when it comes to whether gift cards are appreciated, as well as who is giving them. A woman is less likely to appreciate a gift card from a romantic partner because it lacks the sentimental factor. Pine has seen this play out in her research. “A woman recently said she desperately wanted her husband to buy her jewelry, so she hinted she wanted jewelry from him. When the big day came, he gave her a voucher for a jewelry store. He was being practical, and thinking, ‘I don’t know what to buy, but you can buy what you want yourself,’” says Pine. “For her, that completely missed the point. It was the sentimental value that she wanted.”

What does re-gifting say about me?
Basically, it says exactly what you think it does — that you don’t care. If you don’t get away with it, you’re putting a relationship at risk. “Being a recipient of a gift that someone is just passing on to you violates all the laws of gift giving, especially that you should make an effort and choose a gift for someone,” says Pine. “If you’re discovered, the person receiving the gift usually feels quite hurt and insulted.”

I can never tell when people don’t like my gifts. Am I out of touch?
No–it’s really hard to tell when someone truly doesn’t like a gift, especially if they pretend that they do. But there are some body language signs that can tip you off. Pine videotaped several people opening gifts, and asked them afterward whether or not they liked them. She and her team then studied what characteristics were common among people who appreciated their gifts and those who do not. A giveaway for a dud, for instance, might be lack of eye contact with you as they’re praising the gift. “Since our faces often betray our true feelings, we don’t want to have sustained eye contact with the giver because we might disclose how we really feel,” says Pine. When a gift is unpopular, the recipient also tends to put it back in the box, or start re-wrapping it. (You can’t start too soon readying things to return.)

If a person really likes a gift, they make eye contact, and will interact with the present. “They may smell it, or hold it up against them if it’s something like a scarf. When they truly love it, they will leave it out on show,” says Pine.

How do some people always pick the perfect present? Are they just better people?
A person who always gets it right is very uncommon, so don’t beat yourself up about it. “In my research, just about everyone gets a present that they don’t like. Even people who know them well will sometimes get it wrong. The person that always gets it right is a rare being,” says Pine. “They likely spend an awful lot of time doing the research and looking around. I don’t think they get it right by charm, I think a lot of work goes into it.” Sometimes, such people are also very intuitive, and have a greater emotional intelligence, making it easy for them to pick up on when someone drops a hint.

So look at the holiday season as an opportunity–to learn more about what your friends and families like and dislike–and make your relationships stronger. Just avoid those big cat earrings.

7 comments
cynthia1
cynthia1

What I appreciate about this article is that it relates gift giving to the sentiment behind the ritual. Gift giving is one of the languages we as a society use to communicate our love for each other. Your gift habits will either tell you that you are a good communicator or a bad communicator. That's about it. Gift giving is all about the message behind the gift, what do you want your gift to say? As with all languages, gift giving takes time and practice to become better at it. 

okayfine
okayfine

I disagree with almost every word of this article. The best gifts are purchased on the spur of the moment. not because Oh-God-it's-almost-Julie's-bday-again. They jump off the shelf into your hands & scream, "Get me for Julie!" Gift cards stink not because they're not sentimental but because they show no effort or thought. It means you're giving a gift because you feel you HAVE TO, not because you WANT to. 

And re-gifting can indeed fall along the same lines. But, if it's the thought that counts, why do people against re-gifting feel so adamant that the gift must be paid for for it to be a "real", a "good" or a "meaningful" gift? I have been on both ends of inspired re-gift-giving & everyone was happy. I've also received terrible re-gifts & was hurt not because I was let down by the booty, but because it showed a lack of interest from the gift-giver - it was a TERRIBLE gift for ME.


I have received" sentimental" gifts from the wrong person & found them off-putting. I received the same gifts from the RIGHT person & was delighted.


This article is just silliness.

ATLShutterbug
ATLShutterbug

Seeing the craziness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday just reinforces my belief in adopting a Gift-Free Christmas. Let's face it, most of us have all the "stuff" we need...we should focus on spending time with friends and family instead and take the stress and debt out of Christmas.

okayfine
okayfine

I love buying gifts for people! It's not at all stressful because I enjoy finding the right gift for the right person. And who says a gift needs to be "stuff"? Nah, you just dislike the process the way you define it. I think I would, too, if I defined it like that! Have a great holiday, though, however you choose to spend it! :-)

ATLShutterbug
ATLShutterbug

@digitalclips1 @ATLShutterbug

Ha! Oh I spend enough the other eleven months out of the year to more than make up for it! :D I am just tired of stressing about finding the perfect gift for someone and spending more money than I should. Last year's gift from my husband was...drum roll, please...a universal remote. As you can imagine, I was less than thrilled! After initally being disappointed, I realized that he was trying and that the whole holiday had become too focused on gift giving. If I had small children in my family I might feel otherwise, but I have to say it has been nice to focus on eachother and spending quality time with friends and family rather than who has the best sales on electronics this year.