Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Small Game and Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
Over the past five years or so, my husband has developed a tradition where he gives me a big gift every Christmas that’s a new piece of gear for something he thinks I would enjoy. It sounds nice, but the problem is that the gear is always expensive and it’s not necessarily for an activity that I enjoy enough to invest money in. Then, it ends up sitting around making me feel guilty. For instance, he got me skis one year, but we live about two hours from the nearest ski hill and maybe go once a winter, so I feel guilty whenever I see them. Another time he bought me roller skates because he saw someone skating and having fun and she reminded him of me. I tried them once and had fun, but not enough fun to get into it as a hobby, and now they’re sitting in the garage reminding me. I could have told him that I wouldn’t want roller skates, but he didn’t ask, and by the time I knew what he’d bought (I spotted the package) it was too late. I know he’s trying to be loving, and he’s excited that I might enjoy these things, but I find myself dreading whatever he’s gotten me for the “tradition” this year because I feel like it’ll go the same way and be a piece of expensive equipment that I feel guilty about and almost never use. (I grew up with less money than he did, so even though we can afford it, I find big purchases stressful while they don’t seem to bother him.) I tried to tell him gently that I’m not that into the gifts, but I think he just thinks, this time I’ll get it right. Is there a way to steer him away from this without hurting his feelings about the gifts he’s already gotten me?
One year, when we were first dating, my husband bought me grammar books for Hanukkah. They were beautiful—practically coffee-table books—and it’s true that I like words. But while he thought that I’d delight in parsing, say, elliptical constructions, I thought he was implying that my grammar needed work. It didn’t take long to settle the misunderstanding, and we still laugh about it, but the truth is that those books have been on my shelf for a decade now and I’ve probably opened them twice. I remember feeling a little bad, at the time, that I wasn’t more into them.
Of course, books are (usually) cheaper than skis. But gifts are tricky. People can overthink things, or worry about finding a jackpot: something that the recipient wouldn’t or couldn’t get for themselves, or that validates a part of them that needs recognition, or that delights them because it would never have occurred to them at all. The whole process can be nerve-wracking if you don’t know the recipient well—or sometimes even more if you do—and your husband is probably trying hard to get it right. Gift-giving traditions can also differ wildly between families, and it may be that in your husband’s family, gifts that are grand gestures, so to speak, are a way of expressing love.
By the time you read this, he’s most likely already gotten your gift for this year. Maybe it’ll be something totally different, but if it’s another piece of gear in the same vein, thank him, give him a hug, keep the receipt if you can, and commit to a more explicit gift conversation long before next winter.
I think your different financial backgrounds will be a helpful reference point in this conversation, because it’ll give you a chance to express your concerns and hesitations without making things seem personal. You can explain that while you appreciate the chance to try new things, it stresses you out to own equipment that you don’t use much, or that you don’t plan on using in the future. If you haven’t already, ask to agree ahead of time on a budget for your gifts to each other, and explain that sticking to a predetermined budget actually helps you enjoy the gift more, because then no part of your brain is worrying about how much it all cost. (This may be a foreign concept to him, but he should respect you enough that he doesn’t need to relate in order to agree.)
I suspect that part of your husband’s motivation for these gifts is that he delights in trying new things with you, or has fun imagining you discovering something you enjoy—which is adorable, but there are other ways to keep that same spirit. Maybe you have a friend or family member who could help plant some ideas in his head. Could he get you a gift card to a gear rental store, so you could try, say, a snowboard one weekend and a kayak later in the year? And of course, he could go all-in on gifting experiences over objects; if he got you a class or lesson in something you’ve been wanting to try, you’d still get that new-adventure excitement without the guilt and expense of equipment sitting unused at home. He might also seek out more versatile gear, like outdoor clothing, which you could use for lots of different activities over the course of the year.
If you think he’s so determined or clueless that he can’t take some subtle—or strong—hints, you can always fall back on that old-fashioned classic: a wish list. Write down some gifts you might enjoy, and let him know that you have a new resolution to not own things you won’t use—so if he could just stick to the list, please and thank you, that’d be perfect.
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