| Published: February 4, 2004
Bringing home the mastodon
A guy's view of gift giving
by Peter Pearson
14, 1980, is a day I will never forget -- because that year, I
did forget it.
On Feb. 15, I found myself explaining to Ellyn, my wife-to-be,
why I ignored Valentine's Day. It was the standard men's response: "It's
an event created by Hallmark," or "My love and affection
are demonstrated in other ways."
Ellyn let me know what she thought of my reasoning, and, well, let's just say
I immediately decided that overlooking Valentine's Day was a mistake I didn't
wish to repeat.
That experience exposed a bigger problem that has plagued me for most of my adult
life: How to find the right gift to give at the right occasion?
If I only needed to select a gift a couple of times each decade, I think I could
handle it well and do it with joy. But every year, relentlessly and inevitably,
the special occasions arrive and demand that I celebrate the event with a gift.
I know better than to give her power tools for Christmas, and I know she likes
clothes, jewelry and sometimes flowers (no candy). The problem is not that I
am insensitive, stingy and unfeeling. It's just that I want to please her with
the right gift at the right occasion. Unfortunately, like people who are tone
deaf and can't sing, I seem to be missing the gene that finds the gift to make
her eyes sparkle.
I'm hypersensitive to her facial expression -- the extremely quick flash
that says "Uh, I wonder what you were thinking when you got this." Ellyn
rarely has such a reflexive response, but I seem to automatically sense this
reaction whenever I'm shopping for her. It's what makes shopping such an
Last year I finally put all my cards on the table and described my dilemma. Surprisingly,
she understood. She generously suggested that because I enjoy getting things
for her, I didn't have to surprise her with the gifts; if we shopped together,
I could get the gift she desired and wrap it up for later, or I could give it
to her then and there, and she could enjoy it immediately.
A part of me felt a big relief at the idea, but another part of me still felt
guilty about avoiding all the positive symbolism and meaning of gift giving.
I was curious to know if my feelings were unique among our friends, so I did
an informal survey. The first responses were quite reassuring. All the guys hated
the process of figuring out what to give. They all described experiencing various
forms of pain multiple times a year. I liked what I heard -- definitely, misery
loves company. Maybe none of us has emotionally evolved much beyond being a knuckle-dragging
There is genuine affection in these relationships, but just like
me, the other men didn't want to risk giving a gift that would
be a disappointment.
an uncomfortable feeling of confusion and failure when hearing the
dreaded response, "Really
honey, I don't mind taking it back."
Two guys said they actually enjoyed the process of understanding what their wives
might want and then looking for it. But when pressed to explain why they enjoyed
it, they couldn't say. Perhaps it's the thrill of the hunt -- a prehistoric gene
that wants to make a mate happy, and a gift is a symbol of bringing home that
mastodon. Or maybe they have that special knack for picking the right gift every
Although my questions didn't unearth any usable insights that would untangle
the psychological and cultural complexities of giving and getting gifts, I did
come to some unscientific conclusions: Most men struggle with special occasion
gifts most of the time. Most women wish this wasn't the case.
It's a fairly primitive problem: Most men want to please their mate, but each
success raises the bar for the next gift. This means failure is inevitable. With
several gift giving occasions per year -- and Valentine's Day creates the greatest
expectations -- men are bound to present a few duds. The pain of the duds often
outweighs the joys of the successes.
Most men wish giving was as simple as the cave dweller "Ug" bringing
home meat from the hunt. His mate would celebrate and rejoice that Ug was a provider.
Ug wouldn't worry if she would return her share. Ug felt good about giving. Ug
went to bed feeling happy.
-- Peter Pearson and his wife Ellyn Bader are both psychologists, and founders
of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park.