Another holiday? What do I get my partner this time?!

This post is about a common relationship issue, though an uncommonly discussed issue: gift anxiety. With the Hallmark holidays constantly expanding, men and women in any significant relationship — girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives — are all in the same boat of constantly looking for new ways to make their significant other feel special on a gift-giving occasion. But what isn’t always discussed is the anxiety that many people feel in having to generate new ideas and still have them be meaningful. I mean really, how many times can an Amazon gift card really do the trick, right? 🙂

Couples — whether in the beginning of a new relationship or in a 40-year marriage — each have their own dynamic, and some have ways of diminishing  their anxieties about gift-giving. For example, one of my friends has an agreement with her boyfriend that they don’t buy each other gifts on any day except for a birthday. While this is in some ways good and shows that the couple is on the same page, it can also create more problems. Couples in this situation often end up worrying that if they don’t do something special, even with the agreement in place, it will seem like they don’t care. So the avoided gift-giving anxiety ends up turning into a “will-it-look-like-I-don’t-care?” anxiety.

So now that we’ve established that avoidance usually just triggers other forms of anxiety, what’s the solution to the gift-giving anxiety? Thankfully, there are several ways to approach this issue, and if you’re committed to seeing the option(s) you choose through, you should be able to not only quell your gift-giving anxiety, but also make your partner feel special at the same time.

Let’s attack this head-on:

— Keep a List:

Yes, we get to play Santa for our partners! The most effective way to approach this issue is to be in tune with your partner. If we really pay attention throughout the year (and granted this is often harder for men), partners give plenty of clues as to what they would like. What are your partners hobbies and interests? What websites attract their attention? Do they discuss things they’ve been wanting but haven’t gotten around to buying or doing (remember not all gifts need to be tangible — spas/massages, music lessons, weekend getaways)? These clues often come scattered throughout the year. When they surface, write them down on a constantly growing list that you keep in a special place. It only takes about 15 seconds, and you’ve just eliminated a piece of anxiety simply by having one option.

— Ask your partner’s friends:

This might be an old-fashioned and a tough one to get motivated for — it risks some ego injury to admit to our partner’s friends that we don’t know the “perfect” gift. But these clues described above are often found with friends. And with facebook around, it’s easy to just drop a quick message if the idea of a phone call makes your gut scream, “Awkward!”

— Remember the past:

Sometimes we forget the things we’ve done with our partners can lend a tremendous hand with gifts. Was there a meaningful vacation, outing, food, or place? There are many creative ways to work this into a gift (i.e. photo collages, personalized games, photo albums, even fully re-creating an experience, etc.). If you have the meaningful moment from the past in mind but not the creative idea, this is also a good place to check with his/her friends for help.

— Ask your partner directly:

But doesn’t this ruin the element of surprise? The answer is: it depends on when you ask. If you ask the week of their birthday, then it could. However, if you ask randomly during the course of the year, then you have a list started that he/she could likely forget about by the time the next occasion arrives. And then you could always add to the list when clues start to surface.

— Do a list exchange:

This is tied to the one immediately above, but lists exchanged by both partners (during a random time of year) can actually do wonders for anxiety and comfort. Instead of feeling inadequate, by both doing a list it puts you on the same level together of giving and getting help. Neither one of you is perfect and this allows you to experience this acceptance together. Preface this by actually telling your partner that you want to make him/her feel special but that you become overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, and a list exchange would really be helpful for you. This would also allow you to see that often your partner’s expectations are not quite as hefty as we may believe.

— Radical Acceptance

Gift-giving anxiety is mostly linked with idealization and perfectionism. The perception is that there is a perfect gift that will give the reaction we desire in our minds, and anything short of this gift is a failure. The problem is that the fantasy is often split off from reality. This is a struggle for many people, so you are certainly not alone here. But practicing accepting that a “very nice and thoughtful” gift need not be the “one perfect” gift is very helpful. It will open doors to gifts that normally would be dismissed as “not good enough”. The more options you open yourself to, the less the anxiety will be.

Finally, when you’ve decided what you’re going to do, always remember to give yourself credit for doing your best! Actually say out loud, “I really put in a great effort to do something special for my partner,” and allow yourself to be wrapped in comfort with these words. And when all is said and done, just remember why you’re doing all of this work in the first place. Love is what is driving our emotions (and making us anxious.). You want to show your partner how much you love him/her by doing something meaningful to make them feel special on these special occasions. So when you give the gift that you chose to put your time, thought, and effort into, remember to say “I love you”. After all, that is really what you’re trying to say anyway.

4 thoughts on “Another holiday? What do I get my partner this time?!

  1. This is a huge source of anxiety for me, mostly on the receiving end. I am going to work to practice radical acceptance. Will let you know how it goes!!!

    1. Hi, Melissa! Thank you for reading, and definitely keep me posted on how practicing radical acceptance goes. It can take a little bit of time, so don’t be concerned if it doesn’t take effect immediately, but you sound really motivated to make it happen! I look forward to hearing more. — Nathan

  2. Good suggestions on your post. I think it comes down to being observant, paying attention to the people in our lives. BTW, I automatically expanded to all gift giving, not just romantic partner; women in our culture tend to feel tremendous pressure at this time of year. We carry a burden of feeling we have to make all others in our lives happy and the gifting is part of it. Also, people are very sensitive sometimes about being receivers too (u did mention this part). I have seen someone try and tried myself, to change the tradition by introducing a new gift exchange agreement—whoa! Upsets.
    Anyway, I did write a post on this topic once myself; my suggestion was to ask yourself what does this gift choice say? It’s an interesting way to help you in the selection process.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Paula! It’s amazing (and unfortunate) how much stress gift-giving can create — to the point of becoming less of a gift and more of an imposition or emotional burden in the end. Part of the issue also is that gift-giving occasions are calendar-marked. People have pointed out that they like giving gifts when they’re not expected — it removes the stress of both an expected quality (based on the occasion) and the deadline. Something quite paradoxical about being told when to give a gift. I like what you said about “paying attention to the people in our lives.” It would be a thing of beauty if that were automatic in the world. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and share your thoughts, Paula. — Nathan

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