Men & Women: The Great Gift Giving Divide

Dave in Mexico

Late last night I finished today’s post. I asked Dave to edit it (as he always does) and by the time he finished reading I could tell something was up.  When I asked, he said,

“Well, it is a good read. [insert raises hands up in a swooping motion here] I’m not sure. It just doesn’t feel complete.”

“What do you mean?”

“I wanted more. I wanted you to go deeper. I wanted to understand.”

“I know. I wanted to convey the fact that many women feel or have felt like I do, especially when it comes to holidays and gift giving, yet I did not want to out anyone else by sharing their personal issues. How do I convey both and make sense?”

“I think it is ok to mention that this topic came up while you were at dinner with a bunch of women and I think you should talk about yourself and how you deal with it.”

We talked a little more and then Dave went upstairs. In an effort improve my writing and to understand what Dave meant, I paused, thought about my post and followed him upstairs and sat right next to him. I asked him to pause the television and said, “I have been thinking. I want to get this right. I am not sure if I can. Tell me what you mean?”

“You imply that women are unsatisfied, but what does that mean?  I just want to know what we men can do?”


“That’s it, Dave. That is what I am trying to say. Men and women are different and I don’t know if we can ever really be on the same page.  (My page lives in an urban setting and your page lives in the mountains.)  Being direct and always communicating is the only thing I can imagine that will bridge the great male/female divide. I bet, for instance, that women would read the initial post, nod their heads and totally get it.  You are a dude. You read my post and felt confused and unsatisfied. The cool thing is that we are talking about this disconnect, right?  The answer  (as vague as it may sound) is talking and when you open your mouth, be real. Yes, women get dissatisfied and men often do not understand why. Bottom line is that we (all women) are different in what we expect and how we perceive. And like you, we also change. What I wanted fifteen years ago is not what I want or need today. I wish I could solve the mystery for all of us.”

So here is what started our conversation:

The other night I went out to dinner with some girlfriends. There we sat in the Park City Café Rio, four adult women, different ages and all married.  One is newly-ish married and has no children. Another’s children are grown. The friend who brought me and I have children about the same ages, except she also has a seventeen year old daughter.

Maybe it was something one of them said. No. I just think it was in the air. With Valentine’s Day coming up, the conversation somehow moved to the space where I was talking about all the women who expect magic (and mindreading from their significant other) on February 14th. And when the magic does not happen hearts are inevitably broken because remember, “MEN ARE NOT MIND READERS!” And then I shared a little secret (which led me to a much bigger question and realization),

I have so many friends who say how awesome they think Dave is and how cool he is because he remembers things like Valentine’s Day. I always have to laugh. Yes, Dave is awesome! I love every inch of that man. This being said, I tell them, “I do not love Dave because he remembers every holiday and does everything I fantasize that he will do. Fifteen years ago if I waited for him to bring home flowers, if I had not opened my mouth and told him that I would like him to bring me flowers, I would still be waiting. I love Dave not because he is a mind reader. He is not a mind reader. I love him because he he handles it when I tell him what I want and does his very best to fulfill my greedy dreams.”

Dave in Mexico

“Dave.” I say.  “It is Valentine’s Day. If you do not get me flowers and a card, I will be very, very sad. The end.” It took a few years for him not to push back and tell me that to make more money, Valentine’s Day is a shameful, greedy and consumer-based travesty thought up by greeting card companies. Now, however, when I remind him that Valentine’s Day is next Tuesday, he keeps most of his strong opinions to himself and follows through. I love Dave for that. It is about give and take, isn’t it?  If you want it, ask for it. I laughed. They laughed.

Feeling like I was on a conversation roll and dreading any sort of lull, I had to ask, “So ladies how do your husbands handle the holidays?” The newly-ish married woman immediately piped in about her husband’s pink circa 1980′s skis and how they had been only married for a month. She knew he needed new skis and knew he would love them.  So she stealthily bought him a new pair of skis while they shopped at REI. You ask, “How could she buy him a new pair of skis and he did not notice?” And I tell you, “I have done the same sort of thing many many times. They are dudes and believe me, they will not notice.”

“What did he get you?” We all asked.

“You do not want to know,” she said.  “Since then he knows I always buy my own presents, wrap them and put them under the tree.”

I sensed we were onto something like say hitting a big fat marriage nerve when the woman who has been married for thirty years said, “He takes me shopping for birthdays and holidays. It took him twenty-five years, but he figured it out.” She continued to tell us about the first gift her husband gave her. It was something about her birthday and not knowing it was her birthday.  He abruptly left her birthday dinner to buy her a present. In his rush, he ran through a department store and bought her a random high priced kitchen item. When she unwrapped it, she burst into tears. “He is much better now,” she said.

We shared our deep dark gift-giving horror stories. I felt for the woman who was not even there. She loved Wild Flowers.  To give her husband a hint that she would love for him to bring her home a bouquet of wild flowers, every time she and her husband went into the woods she would comment on how pretty the flowers were. I had to pipe in. “I bet everytime they were in the woods the husband did not get the hint, but instead would agree that the flowers were indeed pretty. If you want it you have to say, bring me home some wild flowers.”  We all had a story and at first I was surprised that I was not the only one. We talked about bread makers and stair steppers.  Not one, but two of us were given unwanted pairs of long underwear.  When Dave and I had been dating for about six months he was going home for the holidays and invited me to fly back to DC on Christmas Day.  I arrived. I met all of his friends. We still talk about the basketball game when Geoff had my back and Justin’s brother scared me.  Dave’s mom had no clue that we were dating and in her words (once we were engaged a year later), “I know you came to DC for a few visits (once for three weeks, by the way), but until you were engaged, I had no idea you were dating.”  On that first Christmas, I was excited. I had the very special boyfriend. I felt touched and honored that he invited me home to meet his family. Because I come from a family where Christmas was and means everything, I made and bought him several gifts. We went off by ourselves to exchange our presents. Of course I assumed Christmas meant the same to him as it did me. I made him his own stocking. I bought him a really cool print and some other awesome stuff. He loved everything and then said, “This is too much.” I felt sheepish as he handed me my present. I unwrapped it and there I saw a packaged pair of long underwear. “I know you could really use a pair. This is a good brand.” I waited. I waited some more and that was it. I burst into tears.  “What’s wrong?” Dave kindly asked.

“It’s Christmas! You are my boyfriend. I gave you all these thoughtful and special gifts and what did you give me?  A pair of long underwear.” By then I was sobbing. As I think about it now I do not feel sad for me. I feel a little embarrassed. Dave did a great job and you know what, fifteen years later and I still wear those long underwear.  In that very first moment Dave and I began to unravel the mysterious of male female gift-giving.  It has taken years and we both have acquiesced. It has been a long, arduous and continuous discussion. It took years for us to figure out why my expectations were so high. My expectations had nothing to do with Dave. The basket my family put all of its eggs in was Christmas.  I grew up poor and Christmas was the time we received new things like underwear, pajamas, socks and items we could return to Target for cash. I loved having my own cash. Christmas was filled with a lot of disappointment, tears and yummy yummy food. It was also filled with gifts my parents could not afford and stockings that were always stuffed to the brim. It was an emotionally charged and BIG GIANT holiday. Dave, on the other hand, comes from a family where his wants were afforded.  Even when Birthdays are sometimes forgotten Dave’s family lets it roll off. They are easy that way.  They had enough. Sure, Dave worked through high school, but he did not go without. I am confident that when he needed a sweat suit for gym that his mom did not sew him a sweat suit out of clearance material from the fabric store. His parents were able to buy him Air Jordans, Parachute Pants and Girbauds when they were fads.  They paid a big chunk of cash towards his Auction-purchased Pontiac Fiero.  Me, I worked from age eleven. I am not kidding. I babysat full time in the summers starting at age eleven. I shared the-ever-changing-ever-breaking-down family car with my brothers and sisters.  Often carrying extra water in the car to fill the over-heating radiator at each stoplight. (True story. That did happen.) When I wanted something new, I bought it myself. Christmas and my birthday were times that things were bought for me and for that and because I think our culture has taught women to have very high expectations on holidays.  I put high expectations on Dave.

Dave in Mexico

My friend then blurted out, “I told them next Christmas there will be no presents. We will just go out of town.” To which I cheekily responded, I think I will tell Dave and the boys, “Next Christmas I am going out of town — by myself.” Not true. Dave and the boys keep me in business. We are far from perfect and have worked hard to get to this place. This Christmas,  did I really want the carryon bag that had space for my laptop? Absolutely not.  Did I want a new carryon bag? Absolutely! When there are kinks, Dave is willing to work them out. When he only hears part of my request, he doesn’t fight me. He has learned it is happier to simply adjust.   This year he graciously took me to the luggage store so that I could exchange the laptop-holding carryon for a bigger sized, more-to-my-liking carryon. When I found the one I wanted it also had a bonus wet pocket (a pocket to keep swimsuits so nothing else gets wet), a place to clip in extraneous jackets on the outside (kids are always handing me their jackets) and no laptop compartment. A woman needs that space for clothes. It is always about the clothes.   Thank you Davy!

Remember women. Men do not read minds and they may not even understand what I am saying here. Really. However, unlike us, when you tell them what you want, they will not fall apart or be crazy passive aggressive.   They can deal with our ever-changing expectations and they will.  Sure, you may have to remind them all the time, but they can deal.  Open your mouth and tell them how you feel. Yes, you may have to place the wrapping paper and presents in their hands and then supervise while they wrap them, but they can handle all of this. Why? Because they are dudes. Be open and tell them what you need. Go team!

14 Comments

  1. My boyfriend blows hot and cold when it comes to gift giving. He’s gotten to the point now that if I mention how much I really like something as we’re casually walking through the mall, he will have bought it for me. I’ve learned to be very cautious about expressing admiration for things, especially if it’s beautiful but just not for me. Early on though, he had the typical guy mind that was very practical. He even bought me jumper cables for Father’s Day one year! (which is kind of sweet because what woman expects a gift on Father’s Day? Bottom line is that now we talk about our gift giving and receiving expectations. He actually bought AND RETURNED the socks he bought me for Christmas last year without any input from me. We’re making progress. So glad to know I’m not alone on this one.

  2. Kim,

    It is nice to know that I am not alone either. I was delightfully amazed as I sat and listened to all the stories. It almost seems inescapable. Men will go through a learning curve and I guess, so will we. Really? I shouldn’t be surprised when I state it like that. When Dave was transitioning his gift-giving self, I had years where he gave me at least on Homer Present, you know, a present addressed to Homer (Simpson), given to me and really meant for Dave (or to help Dave). At first I was annoyed and then I realized Dave was compromising. I think one of the Homer Presents was a grabber claw thing so he could reach stuff in high places. Why would he need that? HE is so tall. Wait. He wanted me to have it so he wouldn’t have to reach things for me anymore. Nice try. I believe the claw was followed by a back scratcher and the back scratcher suffered a mysterious disappearance. Go you and your boyfriend. He sounds super cool! Thanks, Kim!

  3. Also, he got me the best Christmas gift EVER this year. He called my hair stylist and bought me an entire year of haircut and color. I just make the appointments and show up. He knows how happy I am on the days on go to the salon, so this is just one example of how he “gets it” now.

  4. Oh Kim. He beyond gets it! What an awesome present. That is so cool! Go im’s boyfriend!

  5. I get a mention? Or at least I think I do… though I can’t say I remember the game.

    Thanks for the timely post… I need to go Christmas shopping before this Sunday. Yes, for this past Christmas. The last of four family Christmas gatherings this/last year. But we’re doing a grab-bag gift exchange, so it’s a little tougher to ask for specific advice on a present since I don’t know who will end up with it.

    I suppose I should go Valentine’s shopping, too. Maybe a nice pair of long underwear…

  6. This is a huge topic, Beth! Have you ever read the Five Love Languages? Well, it’s helped me with my hubby and gifts. I pride myself on thoughtful, useful gifts. I will not buy crap for someone just because I need to get them a gift! He often opens a gift and then sets it aside uneventfully. Like “meh.” But then I realized that gifts are not his love language. If I clean and detail his car, he says thanks and that is it. Service is not his love language. He is more of a words of affirmation and physical touch person. Toss a little bit of quality time in there too. Now what I’m saying is not that I have my hubby completely figured out, but rather I can adjust my expectations/reactions now that I know what makes him tick. I can anticipate that he may not be thrilled with my thoughtful gift (which he will use by the way) and then I can try not to feel let down.
    It’s funny. He and I were just talking about this the other day. He has gifted me with some great surprises in the past few years–a new bike, a digital SLR (!), and a bracelet at Christmas. These are all on the more expensive side. I told him in a gentle way that while I love and appreciate these things, it would me so much to me if he got something inexpensive and thoughtful for me, and didn’t wait until the night before to buy/wrap it. It would mean the world to me if he planned ahead and put some deep thought into a small gift. I guess I would appreciate it because I feel like I am good at giving such gifts. I know that after 17 years he knows what makes me tick but this would really warm my heart.
    I don’t ask for much or hint at things, but for years he has resisted getting me the few things on my unofficial Christmas wish list (often kitchen things that I don’t want to just go out and buy). He has finally started to do so and it makes me happy. They are things I need and will use, so I guess I’m practical that way!
    As far as Valentine’s Day, I honestly usually don’t get much/anything. I buy my hubby and son some little chocolate thing with a note. We are low-key and my hubby thinks it’s a Hallmark Holiday. And part of the reason I get the shaft is because my birthday is two days afterwards. This year I’m in a new town and new state, and since I’m turning the big 4-0, last night as I was doing the dishes, I exclaimed as a reminder: “I’m turning 40 next week!!!!” My hubby laughed and said he knows. I think it’s normal to want to be recognized. Thanks for letting me spew about all this!

  7. Yes, Geoff, you definitely get a mention! Justin invited Davy and I to play basketball somewhere in Maryland. It was an unusually humid night. Todd was there and scared the crap out of me. He was super aggressive and Justin kept saying something like, “That’s my brother. He’s really competitive.” You were on my team, kept talking to me, letting me know I was safe and you actually passed me the ball (more points for Geoff). It was hilarious! I will never forget it. You are a good soul, Geoff!

    Gift Exchanges are low pressure. I am sure you will do great. Definitely a pair of long underwear or maybe a table saw or a nail gun, perhaps? Wait! Nail guns rock! Have you seen how they shoot nails? Good luck. Say hi to the family!

  8. Andrea, You say a lot and I love what you say. Several people have recommended the Five Love Languages Book. Last summer I walked with a friend who often talked about it. Through her, I felt like I read the book. I have read some excerpts online.

    As far as gift giving goes, I think what you are saying is there is not one right answer. I feel the same. What has worked for us is communicating and adjusting. Dave made me a necklace for my birthday last year. He actually made two of them. I asked him to make an asymmetrical one, which completely blew his logical, methodical mind. It was groovy, beautiful and unexpected. A few months later, I found a beautiful, symmetrical nearly finished necklace stuffed in our jewelry making supply box. It was stunning. I asked Dave about it. He told me he stopped working on it because he wanted to give me what I asked for. I was touched and also learned about the importance of letting go. He probably does not know this, but I carry the symmetrical & partially made necklace around in my purse.

    I think forgiveness and perspective go a long way. Just because I think I convey that I want something a certain way, does not mean that he will hear it that way. I have learned to ease up and when I do, it gives Dave the space to follow through. Does that make sense?

    Happy Happy 4-0, by the way! I hope it is wonderful and I hope you get everything you want [wink wink]. You can always spew here. I love it!

  9. I can top your long underwear. He who shall not be named gave me a glass measuring cup for Christmas. Just a small one cup, couldn’t even splurge on a larger one.

    Thankfully I have come a long way. My husband and I shop together. We each pick out what we want. Many Christmas mornings are spent with us ‘opening’ our shopping bags. Sure, the element of surprise and the ripping of paper is missing. But, there is no stress, no disappointment, and no standing in line for returns.

  10. Brenda, that is so funny NOW about the small glass measuring cup. I love that you guys shop together and open your shopping bags Christmas Morning. I agree. No stress! Thank you for weighing in! Beverly thanks you too [wink wink].

  11. Ahhh, gift-giving. My stepdad taught me…give the man a list. A very, very detailed list. He can pick and choose from the list, but he should not deviate from the list unless he has a VERY SPECTACULAR IDEA.

    Sad: I have had a super-tough time financially lately, and my boyfriend has helped pay bills that I can’t pay. I’d still like a gift, but it seems like a lot to ask when he just shelled out $700 for various bills due. Can I still ask for the romantic gift?

    (He’s not going to get me the romantic gift if I don’t ask…right?)

  12. Michelle, Your stepdad is not only a freaking genius, he should write a how-to book for dudes. I agree with the list and that the list has to be extremely, super duper, very, very detailed down to pictures and maybe even an audio recording.

    Spell it out for him, sister! YOU ARE NOT SAD for asking for a romantic and yes, you should ask. I am SAD that you have fallen on hard times and am very grateful you have a sweet man who haves your back. You are awesome!

  13. One of my favorite comments:

    “Here’s all you have to know about men and women: women are crazy, men are stupid. And the main reason women are crazy is that men are stupid.”
    ― George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

    @Michelle ~
    This is where you can get creative, assuage your (undeserved) feelings of guilt, give to the relationship, and have a cool V-Day: give him a detailed list of the most romantic things you can think of for Valentine’s THAT DON’T COST ANY MONEY.

    Why “undeserved” feelings of guilt? Because if he’s giving happily and willingly and neither of you is manipulating the relationship — consciously or not — then don’t worry about it. In fact, one of the best things you can do is to accept his gift, whether the gift is actually the money (read: he doesn’t expect you to pay it back) or the giving (read: he’s using/risking his resources to help you and take care of you because you’re important to him) or both.

    @All of us ~
    One of the biggest things we all can do to build ourselves individually, feed others’ spirits and strengthen relationships is to stop throwing up dams in the flow of giving. So often we obsess about maintaining some perceived position in a relationship (not just a marriage) or image of ourselves that we reject GIFTS — that is, someone offering to add their life, energy and resources to ours.

    Sometimes we hamper giving in less-than-obvious ways, like feeling inadequate or needy (that feeling is perceptible to the giver); resenting the giver’s ability to give or our inability to do so; expressing regret or guilt that we didn’t give first/as well/in return; criticizing (for lack of a better word) the giver’s thoughtfulness or generosity, even if we think we’re just being modest or deflecting attention from ourselves, etc., etc.

    Just the other night, my wife and I were talking about the generative power of unbridled gratitude — the way our unqualified acceptance of and gratitude for gifts engenders in us a sense of well-being, confidence, happiness and abundance. And when we express our gratitude without restraint, we give the giver — with no effort or expense but our expression — all those same things, while also reinforcing the relationship and opening ourselves up to greater reciprocal giving.

    Just think about our experiences of giving, big and small: when someone expresses thanks without reservation, how much more willing are we to attach ourselves to that person and look for more and better ways to give again? The same happens for the receiver.

    Of course, giving and receiving freely is something we can (and have to) learn to do better, as this post and thread show.

    @Beth ~
    Christmas and holidays. Exactly the reason my wife and I always advise people to date at least a year, in the same city, before getting engaged — so you can go through all the holidays, birthdays, seasons, changes in work/school schedules, physiological/hormonal cycles (for both sexes), etc. face to face, day in and day out. I’ll never forget the couple I met who didn’t discover their wildly different views on Halloween until a few months after they were married — and spent several agonizing months trying to work out all the related viewpoints and attitudes that then rose to the surface.

  14. CD, are you and your wife marriage therapists? I love what you say. You mentioned something about what you and your wife “advise” people to do. I love your Halloween Couple story. Who would have thought.

    This is my favorite: “One of the biggest things we all can do to build ourselves individually, feed others’ spirits and strengthen relationships is to stop throwing up dams in the flow of giving.” Get it and needed to hear it.

    It seems like it really is the art of giving and the ability to openly receive. Thank you for sharing your sound words of wisdom.

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