How To Get On The Same Page As Your Partner About Exchanging Holiday Gifts

by Laken Howard

Whether you're ready to admit it publicly or not, everyone can at least privately agree that getting and giving gifts is one of the best parts of the holiday season. But even though shopping for someone like your best friend or mom (or yourself) might be a breeze, trying to find the perfect gift for your significant other is often much easier said than done — especially if you and your partner have totally different expectations surrounding gift-giving in your relationship.

"As you prepare for the holidays, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of your partner’s gift-giving style to avoid feelings of disappointment when it comes time to exchange presents," Jonathan Bennett, relationship and dating expert at Double Trust Dating, tells Bustle. "This is especially true if you are just beginning a new relationship and you’re not sure about your partner’s expectations regarding gifts."

Of course, not everyone struggles when gift shopping for their partner, but if you do, you're certainly not alone. According to a recent holiday gifting survey by Tophatter, only 20 percent of women said their spouse is the *best* gifter in their lives — compared to the slightly more optimistic 35 percent of men who felt that way about their partner. No matter how you look at it, the fact that even long-term couples have difficulty nailing the perfect present from time to time is proof that gift-giving in a relationship is trickier than it seems.

The good news? Being an excellent gift-giver (both within the context of a relationship and outside of it) is a skill that can be learned — all it takes is a little communication.

Why Does Getting The Right Gift Matter?

If you've ever been on the receiving end of a really bad gift (and haven't we all at some point?), you'll know just how disappointing it can feel — and when a bad gift comes from your partner, that feeling of disappointment can be even more intense. After all, your partner is supposed to know you inside and out, so if their gift is totally out of left field, it can feel like a personal slight against you, as if they were saying, 'I don't know you well enough to get you a meaningful gift.'

Although one bad gift certainly isn't worth ending a relationship over, if your partner has a habit of getting you gifts that are lackluster or just plain bad, that can be a sign of a larger problem in your relationship. In a healthy relationship, both partners are attuned to each other's wants and needs, and being able to pick out a great gift for your significant other is a clear sign that you're in sync. It's also crucial to note that being disappointed by a gift doesn't mean you're ungrateful, selfish, or materialistic: as long as you communicate them, it's healthy and normal to have gift-giving expectations of your partner.

"It is important to be honest in all aspects of your relationship — even the small (but not-so-small issue) of gift-giving," Audrey Hope, a celebrity relationship expert, tells Bustle. "People are often afraid to speak up for fear of seeming superficial or caring too much or wanting too much. What if you stood in your heart's truth and owned it? Things would go so much easier because your high self-esteem and self-love would cut through any fears or dishonesty."

Ultimately, craving a meaningful gift from your partner is about so much more than just wanting something material, and it's certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It's also worth remembering that, for some people, gift-giving is their number one love language, and if that's true of your partner, it's even more important to put time and effort into giving them gifts that you know they'll love and appreciate.

How To Figure Out Your Partner's Gifting Preferences

Studio Firma/Stocksy

Although fun in theory, shopping for a gift for someone you love can feel unnecessarily pressure-filled. Gift-giving is inherently a very personal thing, which means not everyone likes to give or receive gifts in the same way. While some people like over-the-top, expensive presents, others prefer something a little more low-key — and still others would rather have an experience-based gift over anything material.

"All people have different styles of gift-giving and expectations about what they would like to receive," Bennett says. "For example, some people want lavish, expensive presents while others would be turned off by such ostentatious displays. Some individuals prefer personalized, homemade items, while other[s] might consider such gifts to be beneath them and even thoughtless."

So how can you know for sure what kind of gifts your partner prefers? If you'd prefer not to outright ask your partner what they'd want in a gift, you can subtly do some sleuthing: all you have to do, Bennett says, is focus your energy on being more observant of what your partner currently enjoys and use your instincts to decide what kind of gift they most want or need. If you take care to stay tuned into what they care about in the months leading up to the holidays, getting them a thoughtful, well-received gift should be a no-brainer.

If you're still stumped, the best course of action also happens to be the simplest: be upfront and direct about what you'd like or want in a gift, and ask your partner about their preferences, too. "When it comes to your gift-giving expectations, say what you mean and mean what you say," Dr. Jess O'Reilly, Astroglide's resident sexologist, tells Bustle. "Don’t tell your partner that you don’t want a gift if you’re secretly hoping for something grand and thoughtful. You can’t expect them to read between the lines or read your mind. If gift-giving is important to you, explain why."

The bottom line? Being direct and honest about what you like and dislike where gift-giving is concerned is the only surefire way to not wind up disappointed during the holiday season — so don't be afraid to communicate your gifting expectations with your partner. You don't have to hand them an itemized list of what you want, but you should be able to give them some insight into what you'd like. If you know what you each expect of the other, it's a win-win: you both get gifts you love, and neither of you feels anxious about 'messing up' the gift-giving.

How To Talk About Gift-Giving When Your Incomes Are Mismatched

Another factor that can complicate gift-giving in a relationship? If your income is much different than your partner's, buying gifts for one another can be a touchy subject, particularly for the partner who earns less.

"When partners have different income levels, gift-giving can be stressful because the partner with less money may feel that they should be spending more than they have, just to keep up," New York–based relationship expert and author April Masini tells Bustle. "And sometimes the partner with more money doesn’t realize that the partner with less just doesn’t have the same ability to buy expensive gifts... all of this can create relationship strife."

Being able to talk to your partner about money is crucial in any relationship, and budgeting for gifts is just one facet of a much larger financial conversation. If you suspect money will be an issue in your gift-giving plans this holiday season, Masini says it's best to bring it up with your partner ASAP, be honest about you can (or can't) afford, and come to an agreement together about what you're both comfortable spending on one another.

"Sometimes in life one person has more and one person has less," Masini says. "Things aren’t always equal or even equivalent. Address your own discomfort and try to be OK with differences. A meaningful gift that doesn’t cost a lot, is just as good as a pricey gift given by someone who is easily able to do so."

No matter whether you decide to purposely keep gifts evenly matched or to spend whatever you're each comfortable with individually, the most important thing is having that conversation to get on the same page, so everyone knows what to expect when it comes time to unwrap your presents. Regardless of how much you plan for it, though, it's possible that you or your partner might still miss the mark with a gift —and that's OK, too. In the event that one of you gets you a gift that the other is less than thrilled about, it's fine to express that dissatisfaction, as long as it's done in a gentle, constructive way (e.g. 'next time, this might be a better choice').

"If your partner is going to hold your gift against you or you feel that’s the case, then you have to ask if the relationship is right for you," Bennett says. "A happy couple should love and respect each other regardless of what gifts are exchanged. If a gift or its cost becomes a sticking point in a relationship, I’d be asking if it’s really a strong bond at all."

Absolutely nailing the perfect gift for your partner is such a satisfying feeling, but it's not the end-all-be-all sign that a relationship is healthy or happy. This holiday season, don't let the pressure of finding the 'perfect' gift get to you: instead, trust your instincts and genuinely consider what you think your partner would most appreciate in a gift. As long as there's thought behind it, any gift — no matter how big or small —can be meaningful.