We tend to measure the quality of our relationships on silly things like how good the sex is, the level of communication, whether you share the same values. But, at this time of year, we're all reminded of the true test of a relationship: giving each other presents.
The etiquette of gift giving in relationships isn't always obvious. Particularly when it's early in a relationship, or Christmas shows up before you've actually identified whatever it is that is going on between you as a relationship. Emily Post never included a rule for how many times you have to sleep with someone before they warrant a Christmas present.
And, should you decide to take the risk and give a gift to someone you've just started seeing, what you get them can be even more revealing. Something too personal might have too much meaning; something impersonal might not have enough. Something too generic is, well, too generic. Something too practical lacks romance; something too romantic is too risky. Spending too little seems cheap; spending too much is extravagant.
Before you know it, an innocent little gift has taken on the ability to define a relationship faster than you can say, "I hope you kept the receipt."
A friend of mine learned this lesson last Christmas. The guy she was seeing was about to leave the country for at least a year, but despite their attempts to avoid getting too involved before he left, they did, and she felt strongly enough about him to want to give him a Christmas gift. "I put a lot of effort and thought into a gift for him -- a homemade CD and a safety charm for travellers, wrapped up very lovingly. When I gave it to him, he said he felt bad because he hadn't got me anything. Of course, I told him it didn't matter, but inside I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach."
Yes, despite all that "to give is better than to receive" crap, when you're seeing someone, giving without receiving sucks. It screams "Obviously, I care more about you than you do about me."
Sometimes, a bad gift can be very telling. Once, a guy gave me a pair of sparkly, plaid Converse running shoes for Christmas after we had been going out (and I use the term loosely) for less than a month. Trust me, I'm not a sparkly plaid kinda gal. In fact, I'm not even a running shoe kinda gal. Right then, I knew it wasn't to be. I thanked him politely and shoved them into the Sally Ann bag in the back of my closet. We broke up a few weeks later.
But the politics of gift giving isn't lost only on the newly united. Even if you've been together for years, gift giving can speak volumes about the relationship. One year I agonized over what to get my boyfriend. I combed stores in two cities, searching high and low for that perfect gift. I finally found it: a vintage hockey sweater, the last one in the store -- maybe even the last one on the planet. This, I thought, would tell him how much I cared, how well I understood and accepted who he was -- a big issue in our relationship was that he was into sports and I wasn't -- and how much I loved him. I couldn't wait to give it to him. We didn't end up exchanging presents until after Christmas because he said he hadn't had the time to find something for me. Ouch! When we did finally exchange gifts, he handed me mine -- a gift certificate for a massage. Ouch again! This was what he needed extra time to find? Mind you, by this point I was badly in need of a massage, especially since the sweater didn't quite get the reaction I anticipated.
But the whole thing was a perfect reflection of what was wrong with our relationship: me doing backflips to make things work, and him forever responding with too little, too late.
Remember: "It's the thought that counts." As in, the amount of thought you put into giving your loved one a Christmas gift will directly reflect how much thought you put into the relationship.
Yes, when it comes to gifts for that special someone, you will be tested on the following criteria: uniqueness, originality, how much trouble you went to and your ability to pick up on the subtle hints she's been throwing your way for the last six months. What's up with that? No matter how much you ogle, coo and fawn over things when you're out together, beginning every second sentence with "I really need/want...," some people still insist they know what you want/need better than you do and they never get you any of the things you've been slobbering over.
Pay attention people. Especially when it comes to clothing. I avoid buying clothes for lovers unless something specific has been pointed out to me. Unless you're absolutely sure, don't put yourself in the position of having to ask, "Honey, how come you never wear that lime-green sweater dress I bought you?" This is especially true if you're thinking lingerie. I'm sorry guys, but those cheesy, butt-riding, scratchy, cheap lace teddies simply don't qualify. And gals, no Daffy Duck boxers please!
While buying guys power tools might be acceptable, buying women household appliances is best avoided, as far as I'm concerned. "Oh wow, a new washing machine. This will make doing all your filthy laundry so much more fun. Gee, thanks, dear."
That said, she may welcome certain practical gifts (In fact, one of my favourite gifts was a cordless screwdriver. Just make sure your gal's the power-tool type). A friend of mine admits that what she thought at the time to be one of the worst presents she ever got -- a sewing machine -- turned out to be one of the best. "I had to grow into in it."
But you don't have to spend big bucks. Use your imagination. How about a fruit basket with notes attached to each piece of fruit telling the other person what you'd like to do with it and the time and place you'd like to do it? A male friend of mine buys a nice little box and puts something significant to the relationship inside. Cheap and meaningful.
In fact, you could save yourself a lot of stress and potential disappointment and both agree to scrap the whole gift thing altogether. Get a bottle of wine, some take-out and spend all that shopping time in bed together for the day, with the phone unplugged. Now there's a good gift.