12/10/2012 12:22 EST | Updated 02/08/2013 05:12 EST

Couples Work: How to Survive Holiday Gift-Giving


Last Christmas, my best friend's spouse bought her a pair of furry, leopard panties -- size XXL. He's never lived it down.

But even that unfortunate purchase is eclipsed by a gift one of my clients received from her mate: a pair of nose-hair clippers, sent, with love, from "The Nose Hair Fairy."

The truth is, the holiday season can be a hazardous one on the homefront. For many couples, gift giving is a minefield of potential conflict.

Why? For some people what's inside that gift-wrapped box is something that can't be measured by a credit-card statement -- love. For these people, nothing says, "I love you" quite like the rustling of tissue paper.

Of course, not everyone equates loving with gifting. And therein lies both the problem and, mercifully, the solution. What we perceive as a gesture of love is entirely subjective. Unload my friend Alyson's dishwasher and she's over the moon. (Fix her dripping tap and she's yours for life.) Not me. After 14 years of marriage I still need to remind my hubby that while his attention to the dripping taps is great, for me nothing beats a few minutes of his undivided attention.

The thing is, we speak love in different languages. Specifically, we speak love in five different languages.

Dr. Gary Chapman revolutionized couples therapy when he first described what he calls "The 5 Love Languages" (Words of affirmation, Acts of service, Receiving gifts, Quality time, Physical Touch). Many a marriage has been saved thanks to his insight. Dr. Chapman suggests that in order to have our intimacy needs met, we need to know which love language speaks to us. (It doesn't hurt if you learn to speak your spouse's language, too.)

Picture yourself as a giant receiver with a tuner set to a specific frequency. If your mate is set to a different frequency, all you get is static on the line. You don't have to vibrate on the same frequency as your loved one, but knowing how you hear love, and how he does, helps avoid miscommunication.

So, while you may feel loved when your mate presents you with pretty parcels, his channel might be set to physical affection, or an act of service (doing his laundry for him), or your undivided attention, or affirmative phrases, like, "I love you."

Becoming fluent in your own and your darling's dialect is a good way to downgrade holiday gift-giving disasters. So...

1. Learn your language. Go to and figure out your own frequency. Is it gifts? If so, own it. Appreciate that your mate may not be speaking the same language, though, and help the poor guy out. If you were visiting a foreign country you'd take a translation-dictionary, right? Similarly, provide your mate with a primer. Spell out what you'd like to receive--leaving nothing to chance (no cryptic messages left in dog-eared jewelry ads). Don't think that's romantic? Get over it. Nothing is as romantic as being truly heard.

2. Learn your lover's language. If a box with a satin bow sends shivers up your spine, great. But it may not for her. Attune your receiver so you hear love in her language. Airing out your hockey equipment could have been a stunning act of sacrifice, for her. Spooning you while you watched late-night news might have been downright steamy in her books.

Listen, the bottom line is that love comes in many currencies and we'll all be a lot richer if we learn to cherish it in all its guises.

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