Some people are amazing gift-givers. I have a friend who always buys the perfect present, no matter the occasion. Her birthday gifts are always thoughtful, practical, beautiful, and perfectly wrapped.
When my friend’s birthday comes around, I start to feel nervous because I don’t have this art of gift-giving. When my husband and I have birthdays, we often just buy ourselves something and tell the other person what they “got us.” Luckily, we’re on the same page- gifts aren’t much of a priority for either of us.
If your partner cares more about gifts than you do, though, you might start to feel like they’re taking advantage of you. What’s the big deal about presents, anyway? You don’t need material items to feel loved, why do they?
Perhaps you’re the one who values gifts, and your significant other continues to blow it every birthday and anniversary. You feel unloved when they continue to either forget a present altogether or hand you something that was obviously a last minute effort.
Gifts are important in a relationship because they show your partner that they are valued and known.
A mismatch between your gift-giving priorities can lead to unhappiness, so let’s start by talking about love languages.
- The Five Love Languages
- Gifts Help us Feel Known
- Gifts Help Us Commemorate Important Occasions
- Gifts Help Us Show We Care for Our Partner
- Gifts Help our Relationships Feel Tangible
- Tips To Improve Your Gift Giving
- Related Guides
The Five Love Languages
The Five Love Languages is a 1992 book by Gary Chapman that hit a nerve with many couples- and sold over 13 million copies. In the book, Mr. Chapman explains that every person has different ways they communicate and receive love. The five main ways (or ‘languages’) he outlines are:
- Quality Time- spending time together, talking and connecting.
- Acts of Service- taking care of things, like chores or meals.
- Words of Affirmation- giving compliments and sincere praise.
- Physical Touch- back massages, holding hands, sex, etc.
- Gifts- giving presents
Understanding your “love languages” helps you identify how you feel loved. Understanding your partners’ love language enables you to show love to them.
My husband’s love language is words of affirmation. Mine is quality time. When I want to show my husband I love him, I write him a note or send him a text message, telling him how much I appreciate him and why. When he wants to show me I’m loved, he sets aside time to watch movies with me and hang out together.
It’s essential to speak your partner’s love language to them. My husband could send me a million text messages complimenting me, and it wouldn’t mean as much as him planning a day together (and vice versa,)
If you and your partner are having disagreements about the value of presents, it’s likely that one of you “speaks” the love language of gifts and the other doesn’t. It’s okay to have different love languages! The trick is to figure out how to speak and value your partner’s love language.
Gifts Help us Feel Known
We can only feel loved as much as we feel known. It’s easy for people who don’t know us well to think well of us, but their opinion doesn’t matter much. But when our best friends, siblings, and significant others know all our quirks and faults and still love us- that is what makes our relationships so meaningful.
When I asked my friend about her gift-giving prowess, she explained that receiving the perfect gift shows her that the people in her life know her well. “I’d rather not receive a gift at all than get something that is thoughtless,” she told me. To my friend, a gift is a way to measure how well her loved ones knew her.
We all want to feel known in our relationships, whether they are romantic or platonic. We want to know that our loved ones pay attention to us, our wants, and our needs. If your partner values gifts and you drop the ball, you are saying that you either don’t know them very well or don’t care about them very much.
Gifts Help Us Commemorate Important Occasions
What’s the difference between a regular Saturday date night and an important anniversary? To some people, the answer is gifts. A well-chosen present can help you observe celebrations in a meaningful way. It doesn’t have to be an anniversary or birthday- sometimes, a simple, thoughtful gift can help celebrate the more minor victories in life, like a promotion or an accomplished goal.
Gifts Help Us Show We Care for Our Partner
Giving a gift requires thought, planning, and time or money. When we give gifts to our significant others, we are showing that we care about them enough to provide them with these things. If your partner values gifts, it’s not that they want valuables.
Instead, they want you to show that you think of them when you’re not around them. They want to know that you put energy into making plans that will make them happier. They want to feel worthy of your time (and yes, your money). All of these things make someone who values gifts feel loved.
Another friend of mine feels deeply offended if someone regifts items to her as a birthday or Christmas present. In her eyes, that person viewed her special day as an inconvenience. They couldn’t be bothered to take the time and choose something special for her.
Gifts Help our Relationships Feel Tangible
One of the favorite gifts I’ve ever been given came from a boyfriend in high school. He purchased me a slightly oversized hoodie sweatshirt and told me to think of him when I wore it. I loved to snuggle up in the hoodie when we weren’t together because it made me feel warm and safe and reminded me of him.
Likewise, even though gifts aren’t vital to me, I love to look at my engagement ring and wedding band. My marriage is an emotional connection but having a physical reminder of that bond helps me feel connected to my husband. Your partner might want tangible items to see, hold, smell, and taste that reminds them of you. This can help you feel connected even when you’re not physically together.
The Five Love Languages puts it this way: “A gift is something you can hold in your hand and say, “Look, he was thinking of me,” or, “She remembered me.” You must be thinking of someone to give him a gift. The gift itself is a symbol of that thought” (Chapman, 1992).
Tips To Improve Your Gift Giving
So, your partner is a gift person, and you’re not. All hope is not lost! Even if “gifts” is not your native love language, you can learn with practice and eventually become fluent. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Pay Attention- and Take Notes
When you’re talking with your loved one, listen carefully for gift ideas. For example, they may mention a love of a specific candle brand or that they need a new watch. Open a note on your phone to jot down these ideas before you forget them. That way, when a special occasion comes around, you already know what you should buy.
Use the Internet
If you’re short on ideas, look no further than Google. There are curated gift lists online for every imaginable hobby and interest. Is your partner a hiker? Look up REI suggestions for hiking gadgets. Movie enthusiast? There’s a list for that, too. A gift doesn’t have to be perfect to make an impact.
Handmade is Okay
Unless your significant other is very materialistic, gifts can be homemade. However, the effort put into a homemade gift should be appropriate for the occasion. For example, say it’s well within your budget to buy your spouse a vacation for your 10th anniversary.
Instead, you choose to make a handmade card. In this case, you’re going to come across as cheap, not thoughtful. If you’re broke, you’re not off the hook with a cheap homemade gift, either. Instead, try your hand at crafts, such as woodworking or jewelry making, or quality art, such as a song or painting.
Don’t Make Them Choose
I mentioned that my husband and I often choose and buy our own gifts, and that works for us. However, it wouldn’t work well if either of us were particular about gifts. There’s a fine line between asking for gift ideas and making your partner choose their birthday present.
Unless they are dropping heavy hints about wanting one particular thing, plan on figuring it out independently.
Ask Their Friends
If you’re really stuck and there’s an important occasion coming up, reach out to your partner’s best friends and closest family members. They may have heard your significant other mention a present they’d love to receive and can help clue you in.
Just Because is Reason Enough
If your partner is a fan of receiving gifts, don’t feel like you have to wait until Christmas or their birthday. Sometimes a gift given on a regular ol’ Thursday means more. Gifts given unexpectedly are extra special simply because the giver does not feel obligated to give them.
“Just Because” gifts are also great because they don’t have to be big or flashy. Stop by the bookstore and pick up a how-to on a hobby your partner mentioned wanting to try. Or grab their favorite wine and magazine for them to enjoy in the bathtub. Little presents like this mean a lot when they come when they’re not required.
Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute
There’s nothing worse than waking up on your anniversary and realizing that you’ve forgotten to get your partner anything. Last-minute trips to the mall will probably not produce the special gift your partner deserves.
Set reminders in your phone a few weeks ahead of every momentous occasion- birthdays, mother’s day, holidays, etc. If you need to special-order something online, do your research to ensure that your gift will arrive in time.
Thinking of gift ideas far in advance has the added benefit of giving you time to shop around. You can wait for the items to go on sale or find an excellent secondhand deal. Alternatively, you can budget a small amount monthly to save up for your partner’s gift.
If you see something on sale that would be perfect for your significant other, don’t hesitate to buy it, even if you don’t have a special occasion coming up. You can stash the gift in your closet for a few months if you don’t want to give it as a “just because” present. Just don’t forget you have it- a reminder in your phone can help with that.
Don’t Neglect the Other Love Languages
Humans are complex creatures, and most people “speak” more than one love language. Just because you nailed the birthday gift does not get you off the hook for continuing to nurture your relationship in other ways. For a love that lasts, remember to continue spending time together, doing things for your partner, complimenting them and connecting physically.
Caring about presents in a relationship doesn’t make you or your partner a “gold digger.” Gifts are a legitimate way to build friendship and intimacy in romantic relationships. Giving presents is ubiquitous in almost every human relationship.
Gary Chapman says in the Five Love Languages, “I examined the cultural patterns surrounding love and marriage and found that in every culture I studied, gift giving was a part of the love – marriage process” (1992). And it’s not just limited to our species- there are many examples of gift-giving behavior in the animal kingdom, including penguins, monkeys, and dolphins.
You don’t have to care about gifts the same way your partner does. If you want your relationship to last, though, you need to learn to speak their love language.
Being willing to ‘up your gift game’ even when it’s not essential to you is a great way to show your partner that you value them. And even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, you can learn to be a thoughtful gift giver.
Megan Cornish is a licensed clinical social worker in Washington State. She has worked in the field for 10 years after receiving her MSW from the University of Washington. She has experience working with children, teenagers, and families.