Together 2004
Published: February 4, 2004

Bringing home the mastodon
A guy's view of gift giving

by Peter Pearson

Feb. 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 ordeal.

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 cave dweller.

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. There's 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 time.

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.