What do you do if your husband is absolutely terrible at buying Christmas presents?
Last year, a reader wrote in with this question about her husband who buys terrible gifts:
Do I keep enduring terrible Christmas/birthday/Valentine’s Day gifts for the rest of my life or is there something I can do about it? It sounds shallow, but giftgiving is a love language of mine and I work really hard to create and procure gifts that I think would bless my husband. I put time into it and thought and effort and love.
We’ve been married for 10 years and this year his valentines gift was the cheapest Valentine’s-themed stuffed animal he could pull off the shelf at Walmart. It’s absolutely not about the amount of money he spends, but about the amount of thought and care he puts into it.
We’ve had talks about it before and I always end up feeling like a jerk for bringing it up. But it seems like by now he should have listened. I’ve tried giving him hints, examples of what other people got, specific stores that he couldn’t go wrong buying from, etc. (All of those feel like huge compromises because I am wanting to feel loved by his act of giving a gift so when I pick it out myself it takes most of that away but at least shield me from some of the deeper disappointment.).
But he’s so pragmatic that he wants to check it off his list so he runs down to Walmart and grab stuff off the shelf… Mind you it’s been sitting in his car for two weeks so it’s not like it’s last minute because he forgot.
Anyway, it hurts every holiday and it doesn’t seem like anything I’ve tried as hoped. Any thoughts?
When a husband routinely buys terrible presents, and you have let him know that this bothers you and he still does it, you have four possibilities of the cause:
- A knowledge gap, where he truly doesn’t understand how important gifts are for you, and he truly doesn’t understand the toll that this is taking on you
- A skills gap, where he has difficulty knowing where to shop, what to buy, or how to figure out what you want
- A stress gap, where he is so overburdened that adding anything to the mix feels overwhelming and results in him feeling paralyzed, or he’s so scared of spending money that he struggles to know what to do
- A character gap, where he knows that this is important, he has the time to go, but he just doesn’t care or he’s too lazy to do anything about it.
Here’s what often happens: We tend to assume that the problem is #4, but then our solutions treat the problem as if it’s #1 or #2. So the solutions that we tend to offer for the problem often don’t even match what we assume the problem to be!
So let’s think this through:
If he buys terrible presents out of a knowledge gap
When you’re relaxing over coffee, or taking a walk, or when you have some down time, ask him what makes him feel special and loved. And then tell him that what makes you feel special and loved is to know that he’s put thought into gifts. Explain how it makes you feel to get a great gift (and maybe tell him a story of one of the best gift experiences you’ve had), and then explain how it feels when you haven’t received a special gift.
Sometimes the knowledge gap isn’t about understanding how important presents are, but instead understanding what types of presents you’d like. I’ve got some tips below on how to give him suggestions, but it’s a good idea to set some basic ground rules. Do you want something expensive? If so, what price range is normal for each holiday? $100? $200? $1000? Would you rather have something that costs less, but is more meaningful, like something with sentimental value? Or would you rather have something that would pamper you that you would never buy yourself? Or is there a category of item that you absolutely love but you would never want as a gift? Clothing, for instance, can be a dangerous gift, because often people pick the wrong items for someone else. So be clear about what the parameters are, and he may do better.
If he buys terrible presents out of a skills gap
Maybe he honestly doesn’t know what you want, or doesn’t know how to shop properly for someone. Maybe shopping stresses him out completely. Maybe he’s on the autism spectrum and can’t figure out what sort of gift you’d want. If that’s the case, make it easy for him to do so.
- Set up a wish list on Amazon.
- Create a “note” in Evernote (or another app) that you share with him where you write down stores that you like anything from.
- Give him the name of a sister/friend to call before he buys anything to run it by first.
If he uses a calendar app or a to-do app, even ask him to enter in that app two weeks before a gift is due that he needs to go shopping and check your wish list or check with your friend.
If he is on the autism spectrum, it may also be that you need to be at peace with the fact that he may not spontaneously think of amazing gifts for you, or surprise you out of the blue. This may be outside his wheelhouse. But he can still work with a list, and part of loving him is learning to be content with the effort that he does make.
If he buys terrible presents out of stress
Some guys truly want to buy great presents, but they’re so stressed at work or life that actually going out and buying something seems too much. And sometimes money worries paralyze them, as they want to buy you something amazing, but the mere thought of it sends worries about your credit card bill. If stress is the issue, then this is something you need to talk about outside of the gift giving scenario, because it’s not sustainable to live with that kind of stress. Perhaps he needs to change jobs, or you need to cut back on outside activities. Maybe you need to purge your life of toxic people.
Or if money is the problem, maybe you need to start budgeting together. Some men honestly want to buy their wives amazing things, and wives want amazing things, but the money just isn’t there. If the money isn’t there, then don’t be upset if the present is smaller. Budget now so that maybe next year it will be different! And the thrill of living within budget, and even saving something, can make up for not getting a huge gift you wanted.
But what if he buys terrible presents honestly out of a character issue?
And now we have our fourth category, which actually sounds like what our letter writer is dealing with: He’s just lazy, and he honestly doesn’t care. He knows this matters to her. He has the time to get her something. He has the money to get her something. He knows what she wants. But he just can’t be bothered to do it.
If this is the case, it’s quite likely that this is not the only area of your life where this is happening. It may show up most blatantly around holidays with gift giving, but chances are this is a recurring pattern in other areas of your life, too. What makes gift giving so blatant is that it’s something he’s supposed to do in secret, all by himself, for you. All of the other things that he’s supposed to do for the family you can partially do for him, or cover for him if he messes up, but on this one he’s all on his own. And when he’s on his own–he fails.
I can’t solve this big a problem in one post, but I will point you to two next steps. The first is to read these series that I’ve done on the blog:
Let’s Talk Emotional Labor and Mental Load. Last June I wrote about how women tend to carry the mental load and emotional labor for the family, and how this is exhausting and fundamentally unfair. If he can’t be bothered to buy decent gifts, this is very likely to be an issue in your marriage as well, and working through this series with him may help you have words to express the problem beyond just gifts.
The Iron Should Sharpen Iron Series: How marriage should make us better people. Marriage is supposed to help transform us, not enable selfishness. Often, though, we get into patterns of behaviour where one person’s selfishness grows and the other person covers for them. This series is based on much of the material in my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, and you’ll find that book helpful, too!
Do You Have a Difficult Time Standing up to your Husband?
And last but not least, I’d suggest seeing a licensed counselor.
If he is too lazy to get you a decent gift when you’ve asked, and he routinely doesn’t care about the things that you need, then talking to a third party is likely a good idea! It doesn’t mean your marriage is in trouble; it just means you have some things to work on, and it’s better to work on them early before they blow up.
Usually atrocious gift giving is NOT a character issue, but rather a combination of other things.
In your family of origin, gifts meant different things. You have different expectations on how much you should spend or how much work should go into this. You just have different values around gifts. And as you talk about it, it can usually get resolved–especially if you make it easy for him to find things that you do like.
And I hope that, with all the hubbub about gifts this year, that both of you, regardless of what’s under the tree, will be able to truthfully say that you are each other’s best gift.
What do you think? Have you gone through this in your marriage? What was your solution? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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