Help with inconsiderate gifts
May 4, 2012 10:29 AM   Subscribe

How to handle well-intended but inconsiderate and unwanted gifts?

I realise this is a rather petty problem but it's been ongoing for the past few years and I'm really frustrated. My partner and I have been together for 4 years, don't live together but spend lots of time togeher (weekends and some weekday nights. We're in our 30s). Birthdays and Christmas have become problematic because of gifts. Nearly every occasion he gives me a gift, it is something I openly do not want or need.

A couple examples: once he gave me a special edition of a book that we'd discussed at length--a book that I said I absolutely hated. When I got the gift I accepted it graciously and thanked him. This is what I would normally do. Because he is my partner and I want an honest relationship with, him, I decided to tell him the truth and told him as nicely and tactfully as I could that I didn't like that book but it was a nice edition. He was devastated. He cried and said he couldn't do anything right and then I had to make him feel better about the situation. I did not bully him, I was not mean about it as I am sensitive to how he'll respond (and why I just acted like I liked it initially) but this is a typical response from him. Another time he gave me a DVD because he said he knew I liked it so much and had wanted to see it. It was a film I had already seen, did not like, and had told him so at the time. I also have no TV or DVD player. Again, I mentioned this to him and he was devastated. There are a lot of examples of this but I feel like he isn't paying attention to me and not getting me anything remotely appropriate.

At Christmas I helped him pick out a gift for his mom and saw these perfect necklaces and showed them to him. He started crying, said he should have got me one of those for Christmas. Again, I didn't do anything to incite this. He is very melodramatic. I said it wasn't a big deal and maybe it would be good for my Birthday.

Well, it was my Birthday last week. About a month ago he asked me what I wanted. I was surprised because I thought he had this taken care of, but okay, he forgot. I told him that I sincerely did not want anything and he could take me out for supper instead. I know sometimes people say they don't want gifts when they do but I meant it. I am so tired of getting gifts that just make me feel like my boyrfriend isn't paying any attention to who I am, tired of pretending to like things or being honest and having to reassure him and I'd really rather just not go through the whole thing. He was insistent, said he wanted to get me something I could use and asked for a list. I don't make much money, he makes a lot more than me, and he said he knew this and wanted to do something for me. That seemed sweet and sensible so I thanked him and actually took the time to make a list, which I have never done before. I took the time to find links for the best deals to a few things that I really need and will buy anyway when I have the money, told him sizes and said I would really appreciate one item (one rather than the whole list). I would never give someone a list but he asked for one and said this was what he wanted to do. I felt good about this.

What he gave me for my birthday was a knockoff of a Hitachi Magic Wand. I already have a magic wand and do not want or need another one, particularly a knockoff. He knows I have one. He said he got me another one because it seemed like mine was on its way out (it isn't, it is fine, and if it does break I would look into replacing it then). He also got me a bottle of vanilla extract because I had listed "baking extracts & supplies". Vanilla is the one kind of extract I already have. That was it. The list was entirely ignored aside from that one small item (and to me, if someone had that on a list, I would have made up a package of extracts and colorings and maybe cupcake papers or things--one bottle of extract is bizarre to me but whatever). I don;t know why he asked for a list and I went to the trouble of making one if he was just going to ignore it.

I am beyond frustrated. On the one hand, they are just gifts and he chose to give them and I have no right to question them. But then--he is my boyfriend. He keeps getting me thoughtless and useless gifts and it's a waste of money and makes me feel like he isn't considering me at all. What can I do here? I don't know how to bring this up anymore without him crying and then I need to make him feel better about something that I felt bad about (and I never end up being made to feel better). I don't want this to continue for the rest of our lives.

Can anyone please give me any perspective, insight or advice here?

If I'm being ridiculous and just need to suck it up then I'll accept that but it's getting to where the situation is making me angry. It's not because I want better presents but because his gifts make me feel like I'm not being considered, he isn't paying attention or even trying. I always put a lot of thought into his gifts to get him things I know he will like or use.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (76 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Suck it up.

it was my Birthday last week. About a month ago he asked me what I wanted. I was surprised because I thought he had this taken care of, but

Wait, he asked you three or four weeks BEFORE your birthday...and you're dismayed because you thought he had already "taken care of" it?

Yeah, suck it up.... he's trying, and he's remembering these events... consider yourself lucky!
posted by HuronBob at 10:34 AM on May 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

It's not because I want better presents but because his gifts make me feel like I'm not being considered, he isn't paying attention or even trying. I always put a lot of thought into his gifts to get him things I know he will like or use.

While I agree that something needs to change on his end, it does sound like he is trying hard, and, as you are for him, "put[ing] a lot of thought into [your] gifts to get [you] things [he] know[s] [you] will like or use." It's just that he's really bad at it.

So, while the gift giving thing is an issue, you might be better off approaching it from a position of "He's trying really hard but is still not hitting his intended target" than, as you say, "I'm not being considered, he isn't paying attention or even trying."
posted by ocherdraco at 10:36 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another way I might put it is that the issue here is not that he's bad at gift giving and gives you bad gifts; it's that he's bad at gift giving and it devastates him that he's giving you the wrong gifts, even though he's trying extremely hard.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:38 AM on May 4, 2012 [15 favorites]

Some people suck at picking out gifts. It's not because they're a terrible partner who doesn't pay attention. I can't really explain why it happens, but I can say I am one of those people and my husband thinks he is one too. We have both just given up on giving physical gifts and stick with "experiences" instead, like a really nice dinner or a massage or something.

I think the solution is to just suck it up and maybe also work on getting your boyfriend to switch to giving experiences like nice dinners out instead. Something you guys can do together so you can both be involved in picking the place and enjoying it. I know you said you suggested it but I think it's fine for you to push a little harder. "No, really, going out to [awesome new restaurant] is the best thing I can imagine doing for my birthday. PLEASE LETS GO!!"
posted by joan_holloway at 10:40 AM on May 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

I think this is something you should try to handle with humor. If you think about it, it is really funny that he goes out and buys a book/DVD that you explicitly said you didn't like; asked for a huge list of presents and then went out and bought two seemingly random things. Think of it like a personal quirk -- he's trying so hard, but poor baby is just so BAD at this gift-buying thing. I mean ultimately, you're perfectly capable of buying whatever you want or need yourself -- think of his gifts as a way of supplying you with things to tease him about later -- not in an accusing way but light-heartedly.

My mom has long ago given up on getting my dad to pick out thoughtful gifts for her -- she just instituted new traditions where they go to the shops together and she picks out things she'd like him to buy for her. This seems to work very well for them.
posted by peacheater at 10:40 AM on May 4, 2012 [15 favorites]

I'm pretty sure the situation described above does not count as "trying". She made him a list of things she would like and he got her vanilla extract.

Maybe institute a "gift card" only policy and accept that he's terrible at giving gifts? My real advice would be to sit him down and tell him that you feel like he's not really paying attention to who you are because that is a valid concern, but if he's just going to get weepy and not address the situation like an adult then there's not a whole lot of point to that. I mean nothing against crying in general, but you need to be able to have an adult conversation with him--that's part of the real issue here.
posted by Kimberly at 10:41 AM on May 4, 2012 [61 favorites]

I don't know...does this level of inattention and overreaction tinge the rest of his life, as well? Plenty of people give lame-o gifts, but the forgetting of entire conversations (to the point of believing you said the exact opposite of what you did say) and the crying breakdowns strike me as psychological problems.
posted by juniper at 10:41 AM on May 4, 2012 [68 favorites]

My aunt and uncle have a good system. She comes home with something pretty and announces "Guess what you got me for my birthday!" They are both happy with this system.

They're married, though, so I guess it's different.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:42 AM on May 4, 2012 [32 favorites]

He cries? That's kind of weird. And really inappropriate given the context.

I know that some guys have a hard time with this stuff. I'm very practical and I don't like a lot of clutter, everyone in my family bitches about it, but I finally got my Mom to stop sending me crap I'll never use. We're all about "the consumable." Gift cards to Starbucks, Amazon or restaurants.

Also, Husbunny and I have a $20 cap on gifts. Unless we're going a big vacation, in that case that is Birthday, Anniversary, Christmas and Channukah.

Sit him down, again, and suggest that in the future you stick to these kinds of gifts. Don't say you don't like what he's given you in the past, or berate him for what is clearly off the mark taste and choices. Also, ask him how he likes the presents you give him. Ask him what he'd like to receive in the future.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:43 AM on May 4, 2012

Yes, the crying breakdowns would be the bigger problem. There seems to be some obstacle to communication going on. Either he's way too sensitive, or you're way harsher than you think, or some combination.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:43 AM on May 4, 2012 [24 favorites]

I don't know, I kind of expected to come in here and just say 'be gracious' but I do see your point and feel for you. Is everything else okay with him? I ask because I have someone in my past who would conveniently burst into tears whenever they got called on anything, which, miracle of miracles, meant they never had take responsibility for anything.

If he is otherwise great and your relationship is perfect, I'd say tell him next time to take you out to dinner and tell him the restaurant you want to go to and drop it. If he is both ignoring your wishes and preventing you from expressing them, I would look to see if that happens in any other areas.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:43 AM on May 4, 2012 [12 favorites]

The only way I see getting around this is as your BD/holiday approaches, start hinting heavily for one or two things at most that you want. Mention it a lot. Say, wow I reallllllly want a new {breadmaker}, and I saw this awesome model at {store}.

Then keep in mind that this might still backfire because your boyfriend seems like the type of person that wants gift ideas but still desires finding something similar or something he thinks you will like.
posted by Eicats at 10:43 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure the situation described above does not count as "trying". She made him a list of things she would like and he got her vanilla extract.

To be fair, "extracts and baking supplies" was on the list.
posted by 256 at 10:44 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Like juniper, I have to wonder if he's similar in other areas or if it's just in gift-giving that he's terrible. This sounds like a big bad control issue to me, especially with the accompanying drama.

I'm with Kimberly on the gift-card only policy, but dollars to donuts he ignores that too.

If this isn't accompanied by other problems, how much does it bother you?
posted by Currer Belfry at 10:44 AM on May 4, 2012

Maybe try a different tactic and ask for perishable items instead, like flowers or fruit basket or something equally as generic. I think part of the problem is that he's half listening. He heard you talk about the movie and the book and he didn't cement in his head the "hated it" part so he's panicking when trying to find gifts and those things you talked about are jumping to the front of his brain and he buys them thinking he's being thoughtful.

As for the extract, he sounds pretty literal in his thinking. You thought about a wonderful basket of goodies put together nicely with a little of this and a little of that. Maybe he's just not that creative? You asked for extract, he bought it.

Just keep it simple and straightforward and ask specifically for what you want each time.
posted by cyniczny at 10:44 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

you have to decide whether the other aspects of your relationship are worth putting up with this, and if they are, then suck it up. BUT, it would annoy me to no end because not only is he getting things you don't like, he is getting things you have told him you hate and then reacting disproportionately devastated because you—no surprise—don't like what he got you. i mean, seriously, wtf is that? you gave him a list after he cajoles you for one and then proceeds to ignore that list? i just think there is some funky control issue going on with him in how he views gifts and what giving those gifts—gifts you had previously told him either hate or don't want—means to him.
posted by violetk at 10:45 AM on May 4, 2012 [22 favorites]

Suck it up. The crying thing is weird. Bad gift giving is sort of typical for men. Either they don't give at all or they give badly. At least he is trying.

Next time you are out shopping with him (for a gift for his mom), and you see something you like, smile, tell him you are going to freshen up a bit in order to give him a few moments to purchase the item for you, to put away until the next big occasion, and then walk away.

Make certain to ask him where he is hiding it so that when he forgets that he purchased it, you can help him find it.

This isn't personal, this is just who he is.
posted by myselfasme at 10:46 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound like he is thoughtless and not paying attention to me at all. Every item you've mentioned has been something you've discussed with him. He remembers you in association with that thing but doesn't remember the part where you disliked thing. I'm the same with my BF and wine - if I'm looking at wine for him there are some brands that I remember him mentioning but I can't remember whether he mentioned them because he really likes them or because they're terrible. I avoid the issue by either getting something I definitely remember he likes or picking something I've never heard of instead. It sounds like he really is making an effort - just sucking at it and unless he's extremely sensitive in other areas, if he didn't care and was just buying you any old thing, it wouldn't upset him so much to know he got it wrong.

Do you perhaps talk more (or more 'enthusiastically') about stuff you hate rather than stuff you like - maybe that's why he remembers those things rather than the things you like.

(also how is asking you what you want for your birthday 3 weeks before it, 'forgetting'?)
posted by missmagenta at 10:49 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is a really bizarre and, I think, somewhat untenable situation.

You don't care about the gifts; you want to have a partner who listens to you (was he not paying attention when you originally discussed the book and movie?) and respects you.

He wants to make you happy, and either tries hard but still doesn't know you well enough after four years together to be able to do so, or just doesn't really care and phones it in. When the inadequacy of his overtures is pointed out, he cries inconsolably.

Again, leaving aside the trinkets, there seems to be a big gulf between the two of you.

I don't think you're at all in the wrong for feeling slighted here, and the posters who are suggesting work-arounds for the bad gift giving seem off the mark. There is a communication problem, and BF seems somewhat emotionally labile.

Deal with the relationship (if you want); the gifts are a red herring here.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:51 AM on May 4, 2012 [51 favorites]

In the meantime, keep with the lists. (Do not put anything on the list that is vague (ie not "baking extracts/supplies"))

Maybe talk about it. Tell him you saw he was upset that you weren't into his gift, so let's play a game where hypothetically it's your birthday, he has to think of something to get you, and the two of you brainstorm what it could be - but you don't reveal what you want, your interaction is prompting avenues of thought with questions.
Basically, have him engage in his gift-thinking-process verbally, with you present.
You get to coach his method without providing answers, and while you're doing it try to get to the bottom of why he remembers your dislike (bad interest) in things as just interest.

Chances are he'll learn a lot but it probably won't stick (next time he has to choose a gift he may get stressed again which may revert him to his (poor) instincts), however the two of you might learn about where the other is coming from, which might make things less frustrating for you and upsetting for him.

(I'm assuming without evidence either way that his upset is genuine, rather than attempted manipulation)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:53 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bad gift giving is sort of typical for men.

This is such an annoying cultural stereotype that many men seem to lean on to avoid having to put thought or effort into giving gifts. I know plenty of dudes who really take the time to get it right. Being thoughtful is not actually hard to do just because you have a penis.

I really don't know what's up with your boyfriend--he comes off like he really wants to please you (maybe this is genuine), but he's dropping the ball (not buying the necklace he knew you liked when he had a chance, not getting things off your list when you GAVE HIM A LIST). You really need to specifically tell him that you want him to listen to be more considerate, and you don't really care about the presents.
posted by leesh at 10:53 AM on May 4, 2012 [61 favorites]

At a time when gift giving and/or buying is not on the table you should sit him down and explain that his gift giving is becoming problematic in your relationship. Ask him what he is hoping to accomplish by giving you a gift. Presumably it is not disappointing you and emotionally devastating him, yet that is what repeatedly happens, so something must change. Since it does not seem fair, to me, to ask you to change your opinions on what constitutes a good gift, it falls on him to change his gift giving practices. I see three options he can choose from:
1. Give no gifts.
2. Give only gift cards to a designated retailer (perhaps you could give him a list of appropriate retailers he could choose from).
3. Give only items that have already been chosen by you, with no deviation. You could set up an Amazon wishlist that he could choose from, for example.
See which he prefers.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:53 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I see this:

he gave me a DVD [...] I also have no TV or DVD player.

as seriously weird. Either he is incredibly clueless or this is some strange control thing when viewed alongside the crying part.

I don't believe that you can chalk this up to a gender thing, as so many previous posters wish to do. This is a malfunction on a personal level.
posted by komara at 10:54 AM on May 4, 2012 [72 favorites]

I am so tired of getting gifts that just make me feel like my boyrfriend isn't paying any attention to who I am

Based on what you've described, that is reasonable. I would start by asking yourself this question: Is he really trying (and failing, obviously) to "get" who you are vis-a-vis presents; or is he pretending to try, maybe intending to try, but not really trying? Because those are two different problems.

Making a list is about as basic as you can get. If he can't hit the target even with a list in-hand, then I agree, you have a problem. But exactly where the problem lies is a finer point, and one that you need to figure out. You know him, we don't.

Your anecdote reminds me of something that happened to me. My wife used to ask me to make lists for Christmas and my birthdays, and it wasn't something that came easily to me. She kept on me about it, and finally I made a point of doing it: I sat down, made a Christmas list with a healthy range of presents ($–$$$), and gave it to her. When Christmas Day arrived, she gave me something completely different.

I felt annoyed. It took me about a year to understand what she had been thinking. But when I did, I felt like a jackass for being annoyed rather than grateful. She had taken the list I gave her as suggestion, not direction, and she had used that information along with what she knew about me to come up with what she thought was a creative, imaginative present. We say, "It's the thought that counts," and buying a present from a list doesn't require much thought, so my wife was trying to do both. From her perspective, it made perfect sense. I just didn't understand it at the time.

I'm not saying that's what is going on with your boyfriend. I have no idea. Your situation sounds different. But in my experience with relationships, when one person's side of the story makes the other person's action sound totally inexplicable, there is often some fundamental miscommunication happening.
posted by cribcage at 10:56 AM on May 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Studies have shown that the people close to us tend to be worse than random strangers at picking gifts that we actually want. The whole gift giving thing is so hopelessly fraught; we all want to give that one amazing gift that shows how well we know and understand the person we're giving it to, but you really only get to do that about one time in ten at best; most of the time you're either a near miss or a hopeless failure. I think you should just sit down and have a lighthearted talk about this with your partner (I realize the "lighthearted" might be tricky with the tendency to burst into tears all the time, but I'd try to keep it light). Try not to make this a "you have a problem" talk but a more general "aren't gifts a drag" talk. Tell him about some of the lousy gift choices you've made over the years (there surely must be some--don't use examples of gifts you've given him because I'm guessing he'll swear up and down that they were the best gifts he's ever received). And then make a pact that instead of buying each other gifts for birthdays etc. you'll buy something together. Maybe a restaurant meal, maybe a really nice wine, maybe tickets to the opera or a play. In any case, each time you'll make a joint decision and the pleasure will be doing something together.

Then the important thing is to stick to the policy. Don't see something in a store that you just KNOW will be PERFECT for him and get it as an "additional" present for his birthday or you'll just start the cycle over again. Then as your birthday approaches, remind him of the policy and start actively suggesting things you might choose to do: "how about this play I hear has been getting great reviews?" and so forth.
posted by yoink at 10:56 AM on May 4, 2012

This is not a gender thing. I know plenty of men who are great gift givers and plenty of women who suck at it.

I would just institute an experiences-only gift giving policy from now on. You can start - take him out for dinner on his birthday and say that you think spending time together is more important that buying things for each other, and that you'd like to make this a tradition. You can even go to the same favorite fancy place each time to make it more of a tradition. For Christmas, you can put the money together that you would have spent on each other and spend the night in a bed and breakfast. Or something like that. Since he's so sensitive, though, I would try to focus on this being a new thing you want to do rather than focusing on what you don't want (namely, the shitty gifts).
posted by something something at 10:59 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are the gifts the only thing he freaks out over like this? If so, maybe just have a "no gifts ever" policy.

But crying over you saying you didn't want a DVD when you don't have a TV or a DVD player? That's so strange! I, personally, don't think I could take that level of melodrama. I'm trying to think of what other awesome qualities a guy would have to have in order for me to be in a relationship with that kind of behavior.

However, your letter really puts the unwanted Harry & David packages I receive from my mom in perspective, so I thank you.
posted by mskyle at 10:59 AM on May 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Do you guys share any friends or family that you could maybe suggest he speak to?

I have a beloved boyfriend and was, for a while, in sort of the same situation as you. I'd get very strange inappropriate gifts which were clearly well-meant but wrong for any number of reasons. Clothes that were the wrong size. Snacks when I was trying to lose weight. A musical instrument when I don't play and it was the same one he'd gotten his son (who does play) a few months earlier. Like you, a vibrator and then another one. And, like you, I was friendly but also "This isn't really working for me. I'd rather have a meal out or a nice personalized card than any gifts at all." I think he really wanted to come up with something on his own but his vision of me is much more abstract when my likes and dislikes are a lot more detailed, and a gift would be something that might hinge on a detail. And really he's a loving terrific person who shows his feelings in a lot of other ways and so this was always a weird sticking point. Why was it different? Why wasn't it working?

So what worked for us was him checking in with my sister (who has good taste and knows and loves both of us) to say "Hey do you think this might be good for Jess?" and she'd give him advice. This is also good because it rules out more vibrators. And I've tried to downplay my own gift giving and expectations surrounding holiday time [when we're both sort of ragged anyhow] just so there's no pressure.

At some level his crying reaction may be something that needs to be dealt with separately. It's just setting you guys both up for a bad exchange and he needs to figure out why this sort of thing makes him so inconsolable. I used to have a boyfriend way back when who would actually get angry at me if I didn't love his carefully thought out gift and I just drew a pretty clear "no gifts" line in the sand about it, but he had other problems. If this crying thing only materializes around gifts, I'd just move to a no gifts policy instead. Me and the ex used to have a conversation along the lines of "I know you worked very hard at this. At the same time the effort was disproportionate to the outcome which isn't great for both of us. How can we improve this?" And he needs to become part of the solution not just keep up with this stupid dance where he is working hard (he says) to try to please you and then is disproportionaltely dejected when it doesn't pan out and where you keep giving him more and more input that doesn't stick for whatever reason.

But seriously, it's okay to think a DVD isn't a great gift if you have no TV or VCR, or to think a bottle of vanilla is a little on the odd side if you'd given him a list.

you're dismayed because you thought he had already "taken care of" it?

The word surprised and the word dismayed do not mean the same thing. The OP is fine with people telling her that maybe she's overreacting, but it might be worth seeing if you're reading something that isn't there.
posted by jessamyn at 11:00 AM on May 4, 2012 [20 favorites]

he gave me a DVD [...] I also have no TV or DVD player.

If it makes you feel better grandfather gave my grandmother diamond stud earrings for their 50th wedding anniversiary.

She didn't have pierced ears.
posted by raccoon409 at 11:04 AM on May 4, 2012 [19 favorites]

This is not a question about gifts. This is a question about communication.

- When she says, "I'd like X," he doesn't buy X.
- When she says, "I hate Z," he buys Z.
- When she says, "I feel hurt that you don't understand me better," he falls apart and puts the burden of making him feel better on her, instead of hearing that he needs to make her feel better.

I think the OP needs to seriously think about her relationship with a partner who does not understand her at all. She sounds very thoughtful and thinking, but he sounds just the opposite. I don't have enough information from the OP to know if this is all-pervasive, or just appears around gift-giving, but I'd doubt that the latter is true.

OP, if you reflect on this, and find that he's kind of like this all the time (and you do say he's very dramatic) you might want to consider whether having a partner who cannot hear you and cannot take responsibility for his own actions is the right man for you. Can you imagine solving a big problem with him, like how to raise an autistic child or whether to get radiation and chemo, or what to do if you're facing bankruptcy together? Hopefully you'll never have to deal with these major issues, but if you do, wouldn't you like a partner that can listen accurately, take responsibility for his role, and behave like an adult? I would.
posted by Capri at 11:06 AM on May 4, 2012 [49 favorites]

Hold on. You have a computer right? It doesn't play DVDs? He doesn't have a computer or DVD player that you could watch the movie together on?

My general rule of gifts is that if you don't like a gift, you suck it up, thank the giver and don't say anything ever.

The crying thing is weird, but asking you a month before your birthday is a good thing. It sounds like he's really trying to identify things you'd need and like without giving you precisely what you asked for (where's the fun or surprise in that?). You sound a bit difficult to please, to be honest. If I asked someone for a list and they included links to good deals, I'd be pretty annoyed. A list is suggestions and ideas.
posted by idb at 11:10 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

He is very melodramatic.

There's your answer.

You don't "have" to comfort him if you don't want to. Seriously. I suggest that the next time he starts crying over something like this, you say "well, looks like you need some time alone" and split. There is no point in rewarding this kind of thing if you resent it. It does neither of you any good. Sounds bitchy, which is why he gets away with this melodrama (at least until he gets dumped for it or whatever).

Anyway, in terms of the gift thing, some people suck at gifts (this is me). If you want to be with someone who gives good gifts, this is not the guy. If you want him to stick to a list, you have to tell him and ignore the tears. IGNORE THE TEARS.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:20 AM on May 4, 2012 [15 favorites]

Yeah, man. I sort of had this problem with an ex, except from both sides. It was the drama that ensued that was a red flag to me, and ultimately one of the (smaller) reasons we broke up.

I hate clutter for the most part. I would MUCH rather a picnic in the park, say, than a bunch of things I don’t need, even if they’re “sentimental.” However, the boyfriend LOVED little presents and sentimentality and adorable surprises.

And man, I really tried my best. For Christmas, I took an entire day off of work to wrangle a gift that I thought would be creative, thoughtful, funny, and sweet. And if there’s one thing that I don’t have much of, it’s time. My time spent, I felt, was part of the gift. Right or wrong, that's how I felt.

He got me some cheap stuff off of Amazon (a toy Mustang that reminded him of my grandfather’s, a t-shirt of his favorite sports team, and a book of poetry that he inscribed lovingly, and some other rando stuff.) I loved the book – that showed he was paying attention. But the other stuff? I wanted to toss them immediately. But I didn’t! I sucked it up graciously and never, ever brought it up.

He, however, thought that my gift to him was just a big pile of crap. Nevermind it came from a good place and I spent an entire day doing it. He couldn’t just suck it up, say thank you, give me a kiss, and never bring it up.

He cried so hard. I didn’t love him enough. I didn’t think of him. What I did for him wasn’t “meaningful.”

And as he was crying, I thought to myself, “Man, this isn’t going to work. We fundamentally just don’t get each other, and he’s freaking out. Not constructively coming to an understanding of how to be better partners for each other, but just freaking the fuck out for the sake of freaking out.”

And then I started to realize that it’s not about the gift. It’s that this is what he does in conflict. Cries, freaks out, doesn’t really communicate, never resolves anything. Bad news bears.

So, yeah – it’s the communication, not the gift or the situation itself. Thing is, you guys aren’t connecting on this. And that could be ok! Or not! Some couples just "get" each other right off the bat. Others need to work on it, and talk a lot. My guy, evidently, couldn’t work on "It." And I realized that it wouldn’t be right if I had to work on it one-sidedly while he just freaked out.

So: is this a larger problem than a silly gift? Probably. Can you work it out? Probably. But both sides need to be grownups, not freak out, and want to work on it.
posted by hubble at 11:20 AM on May 4, 2012 [17 favorites]

Oh and the reason I suck at gifts is because I don't pay attention and I'm not that thoughtful most of the time. That is reality. If you're going to resent the fact that he's not as thoughtful as you, okay, but it's probably not going to change. He's in his 30s, there are not going to be many surprises from here on out.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:22 AM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm with you: his gift giving would piss me off, and probably be a dealbreaker for me. I don't think you're being unreasonable. I think the people telling you to suck it up and your birthday isn't that important are being callous. When you get in your 30's, nobody buys you birthday presents anymore except your SO. It's not unreasonable to expect a little care to go into the gift picking. Even a gift card would be a major improvement here.

I would stick with giving him a gift list, but only put like 3-4 items on there, max. He may have been totally overwhelmed by the variety of choices you offered.

Either that or only ask for one specific thing and be very, very direct. "I want you to buy me a massage at X salon." "I want you to take me to a very nice dinner here." You may have to be a lot more direct about exactly what you want than you'd prefer. Then, when he delivers, be super happy and enjoy the hell out of whatever he got you. Thank him for listening to you. Give positive reinforcement.

Do not waver on your gift wants. Don't feel bad for offering choices only in a particular budget range and resist the urge to cheap out on yourself (I'm guessing the baking supplies on your other list were a cheap out). Do not give him any other gift options to confuse him. If he messes that up ... well ... get him to the doctor for memory problems?
posted by griselda at 11:22 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Those gifts are so bad, and so persistently bad in spite of feedback, that he must be getting you things you will actively dislike on purpose.

But what purpose?

I would guess he needs reassurance that you will continue to love him even when he fucks up and is totally unsatisfactory, and are not just keeping him around because of what he can do for you.

And so far it's working.

But it's causing a lot of unnecessary unhappiness for both of you, and impeding the growth of your relationship.

I suggest trying telling him how much you love him for just who he is, apart from anything he does that you want him to do. If that doesn't work, I'd tentatively think it's an issue left over from his childhood, and might be accessible to change only through therapy, if you see the relationship as being worth that.

The crying when you confront him with what he's doing leads me to believe it could be an unresolved childhood thing.
posted by jamjam at 11:26 AM on May 4, 2012 [11 favorites]

There's a lot here to unpack, and we don't have enough information to really dig into it, but maybe we can get you started in the right direction.

The overarching theme, as others have said, is there's some kind of serious communication block between the two of you. The gifts are just part of that whole issue. First, there's the crying. You two need to be able to talk about why he's so upset by the feedback. Is he very insecure and worried you're unhappy? Is he feeling defensive an reacting badly? Something else? That's something that you two should be able to discuss in a calm, non-judgemental way long after the crying (like, days or weeks). If you can't then you need to dig into why you two can't talk about it, because that's the core issue here.

Similarly, you told him no gifts and he insisted on getting one. Why did he insist? Is he hung up on the stereotype that "no gifts" is always a lie? Does he see himself as a provider and would be insulted by it? Is he trying too hard, and wanted another chance to prove himself? Again, you should be able to talk about it (not at the time, but later when emotions are evened out) and if you can't talk about it then that's the problem. Bear in mind that if you can talk about it, his answer may be uninspired. Maybe it will be, "people give gifts to the ones they love. That's how it works." Okay, so maybe there isn't a deep-seated insecurity, but now you've learned that he thinks this how it works, so you can either negotiate with him or just suck it up in the future because you know this is how he is.

(On preview) I disagree with this statement: I think the OP needs to seriously think about her relationship with a partner who does not understand her at all. She sounds very thoughtful and thinking, but he sounds just the opposite. We simply do not know where the communication problem is coming from, and since I suggested that the OP consider whether there is a communication breakdown I will also suggest that it could be caused by either or both of the parties in the relationship.

But there's this too: Birthdays and Christmas have become problematic because of gifts. Look, I understand why you're frustrated, but it's only a capital-P Problem if you let it be one. Last Christmas was my second one with my SO, and I gave her a terrible gift. I mean, awful, terrible, lame-as-possible, clearly-no-thought-went-into-this-one bad. It's been 4 months and I still feel embarrassed. You know what she did? She acted very excited and accepted it graciously. She found things to like about it. To this day, I have no idea whether she thinks what I gave her is a big a stinker as I think it is because she has been very gracious about it. Was our second Christmas "problematic?" No - we had a wonderful time, spent time with family and friends, and grew closer the whole time. So to some degree the problem is in one's head. Again, it's okay to be aggravated, and this may even be a deal-breaker for you. But you need to think about whether this is a Problem, or just an annoyance.
posted by Tehhund at 11:27 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, if the gift giving is the only time this type of behaviour crops up I'd say "take me shopping!" and he pays for your haul.

If you like shopping for stuff. I do.

Give up on the thoughtful gifts, it's not gonna work. With my own hubby I sometimes get the feeling it's a mixture of "she might like this" and "it's convenient for me, I can buy it right now!" He'd never walk into two shops, he'll pick the best option in the first shop he walks into.

However, the crying and not listening thing yours does is so weird.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:29 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't get people who are telling you to suck it up. I think your boyfriend should be the one sucking it up at this point, if he gets you a gift you don't like. You've specifically said you hate a thing and he buys it for you and gee, you still hate it. He asked you for a list and you gave him one and he buys you something else entirely and you don't want it. He doesn't get to be all dramatic in front of you about that. He needs to pay more attention. He needs to suck it up.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:30 AM on May 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

he gave me a DVD [...] I also have no TV or DVD player.

To be fair, anyone can watch a DVD on their computer these days, I bet that's what he was thinking of.

But yeah, approach it with humour, and make it a gift-card policy only.

I hate receiving bad gifts myself, so I completely feel for you.
posted by Dragonness at 11:32 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're not happy with the gifts. He's not happy with your reaction to the gifts. At this point, neither of you are happy with gift giving interactions.

Have a conversation about this. Neither of you are happy. Brainstorm together about how to solve this happiness deficit on both sides. Why is he unhappy with the gift situation? What does he want to get out of giving you a gift? How can you work together so you both get what you want?

Crucial conversations is the book to use if you need assistance framing the talk.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:33 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

PS - I would institute a flowers only policy, myself
posted by crazycanuck at 11:33 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

wait, he's messing up then crying like a baby and you are consoling him? Rinse repeat? Tell him to get over it. You have the right to dislike a gift, especially when you've already told him you dislike it BEFORE he even buys it.

He really needs to deal with this crying thing. It's not normal or healthy for an adult of either gender to cry over something so little. It's especially problematic if he keeps repeating the behaviors that lead him to crying. Stop enabling him.

Also recommending the "take me shopping" or gift-card only policy.
posted by Neekee at 11:34 AM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Why didn't he buy you the necklace for Christmas already? Had he already gotten you something else that couldn't be returned? I don't understand why he would start crying about it when he could have easily fixed that issue by just buying it.
posted by Neekee at 11:38 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I second that it sounds like he is actively trying to give you gifts you don't like, want, and can't use deliberately. He's the anti-gift-giver! And then throws massive crying shitfits that you don't like things that you flat out told him you don't want? And deliberately avoids giving you anything you told him you want? WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK?!

...Yeah, I don't know if this is a good relationship to stick with if he acts this way about gifts. Does he do this all the time with everything else too? If so, then I might be inclined to bail because life is too short to deal with a drama llama (who refuses to learn) that you aren't stuck with.

If he is fine on everything else but this, everyone else's recommendations of no gifts/buy your own/gift cards/whatever are good, but of course he'll cry about that too. When he does that, stand your ground. It's been four years and this goes way beyond "bad gift giver" standards. Hell, this is borderline "maybe we should go to therapy and find out what the hell is going on" here. The "maybe he half listens" theory isn't bad, and the "he's just doing it for reassurance" isn't either, but either way, something is pretty wrong here.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:39 AM on May 4, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm also noticing that the boyfriend makes a lot more money than the OP. I'm not sure how that fits in, but it would add an extra emotional thing for me if someone had a lot more money than I did, talked about how they wanted to buy me gifts and then persistently got me things I had explicitly said I did not want. Money inequality is already a little bit tricky in relationships and adding that in would be no fun.

Perhaps this is some kind of refusal of gift-giving? Like, he unconsciously feels that he ought to give gifts/be generous because he has more, resents that and is resisting that by fucking it up? Is he generous or care-taking in other parts of life, or are you always on the hook for that too?

What was the gift relationship in his family like? Was gift-giving super-fraught in his family to the point where he hates and resents all gift-giving?

I also don't like the "men are like that, so deal with it" theme upthread. Men who offload care-taking work onto women because it is too much trouble or not manly or whatever and then rationalize it with some kind of Mars/Venus nonsense are often not that great in other areas of life, either.
posted by Frowner at 11:47 AM on May 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Well, I don't know why your boyfriend gives you gifts with a side of angst but I can talk about why mine does.

My boyfriend is such a perfectionist. And for every occasion, he wants to give me the perfect gift. It needs to be the most thoughtful, insightful, charming gift I never-knew-I-wanted-but-always-needed. The problem is, my boyfriend also gets a bit anxious at times. And when he gets anxious, his thinking gets a bit scrambled....I think it is adorable and a part of who he is, but you can see how it might complicate the gift-giving process. The first couple of big events we shared, I wasn't crazy about his gifts - of course I said I loved them, but eventually he noticed I never really used them and got upset. It felt like failure to him, which only made him more anxious about gift-giving.

Then we went through a phase where he gave me gifts that I loved, but they were inappropriately expensive. Like, I'd find out that he was skipping meals for weeks to save up for my birthday gift or whatever. I started to catch on that the gift-giving anxiety was rooted in something deeper - he comes from a different financial background than I do, and in his family, gift-giving is a real financial sacrifice. When I didn't seem to appreciate the present he was agonizing over, it was more than just not liking his choice, it was not appreciating the sacrifice he had put into it (albeit hidden from me.)

We are working on it. Before big gift-events now we set a mutual budget - I think Valentine's Day this year we set a cap of $20 - and that helps relieve some of the financial baggage. I also take more time to remind him - every day if I can - that really, his continued presence in my life is the biggest gift he can give me. Cheesy but true. I have also learned to genuinely appreciate the thought and concern he puts into my gifts, and express that in a genuine way. I have also learned to use the gifts he gives me even if I do not like them. Because, I mean, it's not really about me. It is about how he expresses his love for me, and I feel like if I prize some material object over his deep level of care and consideration for me, I'm kind of missing the point.

Anyway, long story short, he might come to gift-giving from a different family/culture perspective than you do. Also, he might be more anxious about it than you realize, which could hinder his decision-making abilities. I hope you guys work it out.
posted by newg at 11:48 AM on May 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

I get emails from my wife with the Amazon (or wherever) link the the exact product, size, color, etc that she would like. It makes it kind of hard to screw up.
posted by COD at 11:50 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I haven't been able to read all of the comments, but I didn't see the first few responses mention that it's almost like he has to be doing this on purpose, consciously or unconsciously. He is getting it so wrong, despite you bending over backwards to help him, that I have to wonder why. Does this fit into your relationship dynamic in some other way? I mean, if he's going to be so devastated, why is he not using the information he asked for ot get you a gift you will like??

I am annoyed for you - my jaw was clenching up! I am at a loss for how to handle this one. I think you've got to tactfully start a zero gifts policy and really stick to it.
posted by mrs. taters at 11:57 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your tone clearly communicates that you think he's stupid/incompetent, at least in this area.

So, is it just this area? Is he otherwise a good listener, attentive, even-keeled? Thoughtful about your disparate incomes (by not putting you into situations where you feel pressured to spend money you don't have, etc)?

If so, maybe this is an area of anxiety and that's behind this emotional reaction. If he's gotten himself worked into a froth over this it might even be a self-perpetuating thing - he SHOULD know better, but having become terrified of fucking up he's letting his anxiety impede his ability to do this better.

If not, you have a different problem. If you think less of him for his emotional fragility then do him a favor and end it. He deserves to be with someone who respects his personality and you deserve to be with someone whose entire way of interacting with the world doesn't irritate the shit out of you.

If it's only the gift thing and everything else is peaches and cream then maybe you need to just ban gift-giving between yourselves. If you can't live with that then again, end it. It's not petty or wrong to look for a relationship that contains the things that are important to you - they don't have to be world-changing, they just have to matter to YOU.

Aside: I am really sad over the sexism about emotional reactions from a number of people here. The male/female gift-giving thing is just sprinkles on top of that steaming load.
posted by phearlez at 11:57 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm going to assume that he's just terrible at choosing gifts--not because he's a man, but just because some people are really terrible at choosing gifts.

What if you tried something like this: pick a moment when there's no gift-giving occasion coming up, and have a chat. Say that you don't think he's being malicious, and that you appreciate his efforts, but that his gift-giving style doesn't have the effect for you that he intends. You understand that he buys you gifts to express love, but it's just not working for you as a way to receive his expressions of love. He hasn't done anything "wrong," he's just doing something that doesn't work for you. So. You propose a new expectation within the relationship, that on a gift-giving occasion (birthday, holiday, whatever), he takes you out to dinner and does not buy you a present. You say that this will make you happier than any gift he'd buy you, and that you think it will strengthen the relationship. Ask if he'll agree to do it. If he insists that he needs to buy you gifts, reiterate that what he is trying to do with those gifts is not working for you, that he's not going to get it "right" with the next gift, no matter how hard he tries, because this isn't about right and wrong, it's about what works.

If he won't agree to that, then I think this points to something deeper. It's weird to insist on doing something ostensibly for your partner's benefit when your partner says, "No, please don't do that. I don't like it."
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:58 AM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Next time he asks, give him a modest sized basket, and maybe some tissue paper if you're feeling fancy. Tell him to fill it with items he thinks you would like, no minimum values, but the basket must contain items from at least three different stores. He will get you many things, mostly cheap stuff, hopefully one kind of nice thing at the bottom. Most of the stuff will be crap. But the point is the shotgun approach. You will get, even if it's just through random chance, some things that are thoughtful or nice. A perfume that you like, your favorite chocolate bar, a gift certificate to that place in the food court where you went for your first date, whatever, and he will feel good about making a good decision.

As you open the basket in front of him on your birthday, he will notice what gets put aside briskly, and what you a surprised and delighted by. And hopefully, in a few months at the next gift giving occasion, when he picks stuff for your next basket, you'll find some of the nice stuff again (and some new misses). If it works out well, you might even start getting tradition gifts, a box of turkish delight every x-mas or something else that's nice and reliable, that will become your thing, your standing gift.

If you ever want something a little more special, ask for some kind of general experiential gift to be included in the next basket. 'It would be nice if you got us theater tickets for my birthday this year,' or something like that.
posted by Garm at 11:59 AM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

My, what an interesting question. I am not sure I can offer advice so much as I can offer data points, and by data points I mean anecdotes.

1. Some people listen in such a way that they don't hear, "I dislike X for reasons." Or at least, they don't recall it that way later. So if you guys talked about the book or the movie for a long time, it is possible that he took away, "She talked about X and had many specific things to say about it. She likes it!" Someone I know in the early stages of her relationship told her new man "I like most kinds of sandwiches, except turkey." When he surprised her at work a few weeks later with a turkey sandwich, they determined that he was not trying to break up with her but that he had just flailed around at the deli until his mind came up with the sentence, "I like most kinds of sandwiches, especially turkey." So there's that. (Oh, they got married and have a grandkid now. They worked it out. I think she gives him lists still.)

2. For some people, part of the gift is the thought they put into surprising you with it. That's why he couldn't buy you the necklace. Any fool could stand next to you in a jewelry store and buy a necklace that you point at while saying, "Buy that necklace for me." Even if he got it for your birthday, you still stood there and said, "Buy that necklace for me." I bet that ruins it for him. That's why he couldn't use your list- you did all the work for him, down to finding the best deal. He had to surprise you with something else, then he got you the vanilla extract to show that he wasn't just ignoring you, he just wanted to surprise you. That is why I think you need a gift intermediary like Jessamyn has. You give THAT person the list, and they do not reveal that they have a list but instead can say something like, "Oh! You know what I bet she would LOVE?" He feels like he is surprising you and it spares his feelings.

3. His reaction to these gift failures seems quite odd. Only you can know if he reacts this way to every problem in your relationship or if gifts are just very odd for him, and thus whether this is a minor annoyance or a weird road block that casts a light on what your relationship might be like down the road.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:04 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound like the OP is upset about crappy gifts, it sounds like they're upset because after four years their boyfriend has no idea who they are, and no interest in finding out.

It's one thing when your crazy Aunt Mabel gives you something ridiculous, but not when it's someone you're sharing your life with - especially when you can't even have a proper conversation about it.

All that said, I think the bigger issue is that you're not being allowed to have your own emotions and reactions without major fallout. Whether it's conscious or not, that's emotional manipulation and that's the issue I'd address if you want to stay in this relationship.

That, and an amazon wishlist.
posted by Space Kitty at 12:10 PM on May 4, 2012 [26 favorites]

I'm not a big gift-receiver because historically, gifts in my experience have come with strings attached. However, I do like nice things and I like getting nice things from my spouse. Like the OP my spouse makes much more money than I do and tends to be more miserly than I'd be with that type of income. It took him forever to get that buying a gift isn't a "materialistic" thing, it's kind and appreciative and (most importantly to me) shows that you've been paying attention. I had to tell him specifically "For my birthday, buy me this perfume. Here is a link to the website where you can buy it." It worked much better than telling him I didn't care what he got me for my birthday and then being disappointed at getting grocery store flowers (I'm not a flower person.) I have been finding overall we are both happier when I tell him directly what I want.

I tend to agree with the OP that gifts of books she hates or movies she won't watch are beyond crumby and my paranoid little mind would start to wonder if the gift giver is paying attention at all. Throw in the reactions he has and something seems way off here. Either he has no ability to retain the things the OP tells him or just doesn't listen. I find it ultra-bizarre that he asks for lists and then ignores them. My brother had a GF like this who would give him (literally) stuff she found in the drugstore for birthdays, Xmas etc. He got her electronics, jewelry, made customized boxes and arts things for her. She'd give him a Chia Pet and a Hershey bar for Xmas. It was actually pretty emblematic of the level of emotional effort each was putting in.

OP, I'd say "Let's not worry about gifts. How about we go out to (restaurant/bar/concert) instead?"
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:15 PM on May 4, 2012

This is pretty bizarre behavior. Like, possibly get-an-MRI-bizarre.
posted by cmoj at 12:37 PM on May 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

I don't have the time to read through all of the other posts above, but if someone hasn't suggested it already, you need to lay the hammer down on him giving gifts to you. It could be that he is just tone deaf to your actual needs or he simply thinks giving you something he loves/thinks you need will make you love it too. After a few times, this is forgivable, but after years of repeated entreaties on your part, it can be manipulative. (Ex: One partner says that s/he is allergic to roses and yet their partner insists on giving him/her roses on every special occasion because s/he loves roses. Not cool. Not thoughtful.)

So, I repeat: tell your fiance that you don't want nor need any material gifts from him; the provision being (since he makes so much more money than you) is that experience gifts are wide open! He can splurge on a fabulous vacation for the two of you, or subscribe to annual museum or opera or baseball game tickets -- anything that you love and might see as something out of your budget (for the time being) and be a true hero.

If you tell him what you truly adore and he continues to buy you gifts that are the exact opposite of what you've expressed to him, consider that a red flag. He may be more interested in molding you into a partner he wants, rather than the partner he is lucky enough to have. Don't allow his crying and (possible) emotional manipulations to make you question your very legitimate doubts about your relationship.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 12:44 PM on May 4, 2012

Bad gift giving is sort of typical for men. Either they don't give at all or they give badly. At least he is trying.

Yeah, not this. I have a theory that men who are bad at giving gifts are generally so because they don't feel the same cultural pressure that women do to learn this kind of thing (same as men who "burn water," or don't know how to take care of their spouse when she's sick). Not that there aren't women who are terrible at gift giving, cooking, and caretaking, but there are a lot more incentives for them to learn about them. Women are taught to fuss about everybody and I think a lot of guys don't realize just how much thought and effort goes into that kind of thing. (I think this is changing a lot, but for now... )

I put a lot of thought and time into gifts and if my boyfriend didn't, that would be okay (I realize it's actually a fun pasttime for me and not everyone feels that way), but he's given me some great gifts in the past (without any prompting) and I can tell he tries really hard, even if it doesn't come "naturally" him. Your boyfriend bringing you a bottle of vanilla extract means that he 1) didn't ask you what you needed or snoop around in your pantry, 2) didn't ask anyone else even though he clearly knows very little about baking. If someone asked me for a set of paints for Christmas, I'd definitely try to figure out which paints they have first, even though I know nothing about painting. It seems like he just hasn't learned how to be thoughtful in this way.

it sounds like they're upset because after four years their boyfriend has no idea who they are, and no interest in finding out

Yeah, exactly. This isn't like, dopey guy gets the OP ugly jewelry or scarves or something (which can actually be kind of cute), it's like, not paying attention to what she says and also not doing the footwork to find out what she might like and then throwing a tantrum about it.

But you need to think about whether this is a Problem, or just an annoyance.

I mean, it is a problem if she now has to pretend to love a book she hates for the rest of their relationship. Or pretend she's never seen a movie she'd already seen and hated (and then, you know, pretend not to hate it). It's a lot easier to wear an ugly piece of jewelry on occasion than to lie about your favorite books and movies.

Also, yeah, the crying is weird for any adult, and even if he's legit sad enough to cry over it every time (which I guess I can imagine), he's doing nothing to actually make you feel better, he just wants praise. Which is sad, but you can see how his gift giving is much more about him than you, and you've gotta tip the balance a little bit to really give a thoughtful gift. Again, that is the kind of selflessness that looks easy from the outside but really isn't.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:50 PM on May 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

More anecdata: When I'm in a store looking at possible presents and I cast backwards in my memory, the names of X seem vaguely familiar... did he say he wanted that? Or that we already have it?

As a result, I shop for him from two lists: one that I notate in google docs whenever he mentions something off-hand that he wants or would be cool, and one that he maintains on Amazon's wishlists. Between the two, I usually succeed.

In this case, it really sounds like a communication problem. What's at the root of his crying? Does he have some deep-seated anxiety rooted in gift giving?
posted by bookdragoness at 12:54 PM on May 4, 2012

I would be very surprised if this weirdness (the inconsolable melodramatic crying, the forgetting of entire lengthy conversations) doesn't extend to other parts of your relationship.

I also think the people piling onto you are perhaps misreading your question. You've made it abundantly clear that this is not about your material wants. There are people getting hung up on irrelevant details, such as "But you can watch DVDs on a computer!" when the bottom line is really you already saw the movie and did not like it and explicitly told him so. You offered him a perfectly reasonable alternative to gift giving (going out for dinner), which he rejected, then insisted you make him a list, then got you a crappy gift that sort of conformed to your list (the main gift being something you did not want and had no use for) and in even then only in a technical sense (one bottle of vanilla

So, back to the weirdness. The crying, to me, seems outright manipulative. He's effectively shutting down all communication, and making the whole ordeal so terribly fraught that after 4 years together you still haven't been able to talk about the underlying issues of this problem. Does he throw dramatic fits in order to shut down unfavorable-to-him conversations in other instances? Are you able to have difficult discussions about other problems with him in a calm, adult manner? Does he often "forget" or gloss over things you've said, things that are important to you but present inconveniences to him? Do you ever feel guilted or manipulated by him in any other ways?

And now maybe this is me projecting my own issues, but my ex was also a terrible gift giver, and I came to realize that his terrible gift giving was just a symptom of his overall self-centeredness and lack of consideration. I still cringe when I think of the gift he gave me to try and win me back. It was a copy of his favorite CD, and an artsy romantic movie that he loved but I thought was stupid and pretentious and had told him so. He explained, quite pleased with himself, that he wanted me to be reminded of him when I played the CD or watched the movie. Yes, I thought to myself, I'll certainly be reminded of the fact that your aim in giving me these gifts was not to make me feel happy or appreciated, but to insinuate the memory of you into my life. And this was him trying his damndest to give me a great gift. I have no doubt that he tried really, really hard. But he, with his self-absorption, totally missed the point of giving and wound up making it all about himself, yet again.

So I agree with those who advise you to stand your ground and not give into the tears. If this problem has nothing to do with the rest of your relationship, you may decide that doing away with gifts completely will provide an adequate solution. But if he continues to insist on buying you crappy gifts, can't explain to you like a reasonable adult why it's so incredibly upsetting that you don't love his crappy gifts, and can't sit and listen to you explain why it hurts you that he seems to forget or disregard everything you tell him without being reduced to a sobbing mess, I would believe there are much deeper issues that may or may not be fixable with your help.
posted by keep it under cover at 1:25 PM on May 4, 2012 [24 favorites]

Stoneandstar and Keep it under cover have basically told you everything you need to know. Think long and hard about their answers and make your decision from there. Good luck.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 1:37 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Gosh, that sounds frustrating (and bizarre, like the DVD thing is very strange).

If it is just in the gift realm that he's this out to lunch, I'd just accept that every person comes with their own troubles/flaws/personal idiosyncrasies. But if this variety of thoughtlessness also appears in other parts of your relationship I would be very concerned.
posted by feets at 1:42 PM on May 4, 2012

How is it 'trying' when he asks for a list, she gives him one, and he ignores it? Talk to him about this and see what he has to say. I just hope he doesn't burst into tears because that's not productive.
posted by thatone at 1:43 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is exceptionally weird, because it is almost sounding like he is fixating on things that you say you don't like/don't need and getting them for you.

I suggest the following. Sit down together, tell him

a) It means so much to me that you remember me at my birthday and the holidays
b) I know how hard you try to get me gifts
c) I want to receive your gifts in the spirit they are meant. When I unwrap them, I will be delighted by the trouble, the interest, and the love you showed.
d) Neither of us needs things we don't want, right? Starting now, let's both include gift receipts with every purchase, and (this is important) agree in advance that we don't need to keep gifts that we don't have room for in our lives.
e) It doesn't mean I don't like you, or you aren't good enough. It means that I loved the gesture - and I don't need to keep everything forever.

I do a version of this with basically all my significant handmade gifts to others - I tell them it is a gift, I made them a ______ because I was thinking of them and love them, but they don't need to keep it. If it doesn't fit into their lives, I understand and that is 100% ok with me (but I ask for first refusal before the _____ goes to Goodwill).

I like doing it because then people I love will never be in the position of having to keep around an old crusty painting (Or whatever) that their buddy arnicae made for them and drag it out whenever I visit. Added bonus, I get the things back that I made rather than having them disappear.

All of the crying is really weird. So is the weirdly inappropriate gifts. I'd focus on his sentiment/trouble in the gift giving enterprise and appreciate that, and return the gifts to the store without a second thought.
posted by arnicae at 2:06 PM on May 4, 2012

The problem with experience gifts is that you might find yourself forced to go to operas you're not interested in, movies that he should know you'll hate or scuba diving trips when you have water phobia...
posted by Omnomnom at 2:20 PM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I feel for you OP, I'd be pretty upset too. Thankfully, my boyfriend was very receptive to my suggestion of no gifts on holidays and birthdays. But if he insisted on getting me something and he had a history of horrible gift giving, I'd suggest he take me out shopping and I'd pick something out I want. Someone suggested an Amazon wishlist which I also think is an awesome idea. If you go the list route again, make sure he's clear on the fact that he cannot deviate from the list. And make sure your list isn't vague.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 2:36 PM on May 4, 2012

My in-laws are just like your SO. One year they gave me a toolbox... full of band-aids and over-the-counter medications. Why?

One year they bought other males in the family rifles. Since they knew I'd have no use for a rifle, they bought me... a really long umbrella wrapped up in a rifle box. Why?

And now they've started buying me the latest book that came out from an author I really like. That sounds cool, but there's this: I buy all of his books on the first date they are available, so I always already *have* a copy of these books. Yet they keep doing it...

I just stopped caring. It's like an adventure, waiting to see what I will unwrap this year!
posted by tacodave at 3:31 PM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't emphasize the gifts, per se. Tell him that you feel bad when you tell him what you'd like, or what you don't like, or that you'd prefer to go out to eat -- and he ignores what you've said. Say that it makes you feel like he's not listening.

He may try to change the subject to "I'm terrible, I ruined your special day," or, "You're not being fair, you're hurting my feelings, blah." If so, come right back to your message: That book, I told you I have strong feelings against it. Then you bought it for me. I felt confused disappointed." If he acts very upset, tell him you two can talk about it again when he's less upset.

If he's upset or getting off the subject, you can tell him directly what you want: "I liked making the gift list. Next time, could you please buys something from the list?" And it's okay to tell what you want him to say during the current discussion: "I'm sorry you were hurt. Next time, I will make sure to give you something you've asked for." You might think it doesn't count if you tell him what to say; for me, it still does make me feel better.

I had a similar thing with my husband. He'd ask for shirts or socks or some specific plastic thing to keep cables from getting tangled, and I'd get something else. I wanted to surprise him, or get something that I thought was more festive. After a few years, he got frustrated and lost his temper. I got defensive. He didn't back down, and after a few rounds, I got what he was saying.

I suggest that you try just bringing up one instance, the most recent one. It's easier to hear than, "You have a tendency to do this...", "You always...", etc. Exception: if he really is resisting, bring up the second most recent instance. Try to keep calm. Don't get lured into anything but the conversation you need to have.
posted by wryly at 6:53 PM on May 4, 2012

For what its worth your SO's level of cluelessness is a totally familiar one to me, I don't think that from this question there is any reason to suspect maliciousness on the part of your SO unless you do.

I'd ask yourself if this is a having things in common issue or a having each other in common issue ala scody's amazing answer in a previous thread. If this really is a skill deficit problem of his being unable to anticipate your materiel needs and wants there are a bunch of excellent strategies for working around that, which have already been posted in this thread. If this is a problem with him honestly not caring or getting some kind of weird validation from your disappointment then there really is no fixing that.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:58 PM on May 4, 2012

I think you have a narrow range of what gifts are acceptable. A gift is not something you are owed. You had strong opinions about a book; he bought a nice edition. He thought your wand was dying; he bought a replacement. You could get a charm bracelet and ask for additional charms as gifts. You could start a collection of something that he could add to. You could ask for a really nice bottle of wine; and drink it together. Not the 2005 XYZ Reserve Pinot Noir, where if he gets the wrong thing you'll be pissed, just a nice bottle of wine to share.

Is he a terrific BF otherwise? Cause this should be a minor annoyance. Maybe this behavior sums up how you really feel about him?
posted by theora55 at 8:06 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm really having a hard time with this one, because it seems incomprehensible. It might be because I sympathize a lot with your boyfriend, so let me try to explain that point of view.

I pride myself on my gift giving to friends, family, and significant others. And I mean pride. I want to create the most amazing, significant gift ever, the most thoughtful possible.

To this end, I try to remember snatches of conversation, things they've mentioned in passing. The one time they mentioned wanting to learn to fly, or the time they mentioned a hard to find movie or book. Because I love seeing that look on their face, when they're happy, but also incredibly surprised.

I would never, ever buy them an obvious gift, or one they suggested, for a major holiday. I might remember it, so I could get it later, but for a birthday or Christmas, their mentioning that I wanted a thing would mean it was the one thing I could never get them.

Sometimes when you do that, you screw up. I agree with numerous other posters that he probably remembered that you had a connection to these things, and didn't remember that they were negative.

But your reaction to these are also not awesome. They seem really ungracious, and I don't blame your boyfriend for getting upset. The appropriate response to a gift is generally appreciation, not "I didn't like it." I might cry too, if I had messed up AND my loved one took the bad gift as evidence that I didn't really love them.

Would it help you to know he was trying?
posted by corb at 10:50 PM on May 5, 2012

I really don't think it's ungracious to tell someone "I actually don't really like this book/movie" in a gentle way, and the OP said she carefully considered whether or not to graciously smooth over the situation or be honest so she didn't have to pretend to like a book/movie she hated for the rest of their relationship. Again, this is not like, he baked her a cake and it was kind of gross (but she ate some anyway), or he got her a necklace that isn't really her style (but he was trying and she can match it with certain outfits she wears on dates with him), it's stuff that she hates and that kind of makes up a part of her personality. Sorry, not trying to be fighty, I just don't see how you could continually lie about loving a book/movie that you hated if you're interested in books or movies at all in your personal life. I mean, you could, but it's a bigger sacrifice than being like, "oh, an ugly lamp, but I'll keep my mouth shut and put it in the living room because he's proud that he picked it out and I'm proud of him for trying."

I'm torn between feeling annoyed (that he's not really trying but pretending to try and then having a breakdown when she expresses her consternation) and feeling sorry for him (because maybe he REALLY IS trying and is just horrifically bad at this). In either case, he's being kind of... weird, and I say that as someone who hates buying things off a list too. The fact that he's repeatedly cried over this means that there's something significant going on that probably needs to be worked out and not just plastered over, unless it is completely contained to the gift-giving situation. And, like... if the OP believes that her tastes in books/movies/hobbies are an important part of who she is that he's not really seeing, this could be important. As someone else wrote, you need to have "each other in common," but maybe there's some kind of glitch in how they're relating about their lives right now. OK, enough speculation from me (sorry, I just took an Ambien).
posted by stoneandstar at 11:08 PM on May 5, 2012

Also, if he keeps giving gifts that are big grandiose gestures and keeps getting them horribly wrong, I can see how it would be exhausting to keep pretending that they're great. Not such a bad thing from your great aunt, but kind of weird from the person you might choose to spend your life with. At the very least, he should be open to discussing why this makes her feel slightly invisible without monopolizing the conversation with his melodramatic grief. I would feel quite bad if someone had to gently remind me about something like this, but in honesty I can't see myself behaving the way he does if I didn't have a considerable amount of anxiety about gift-giving for some kind of underlying reasons.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:13 PM on May 5, 2012

It occurred to me that he gave you the magic wand because he must have thought it was a better gift than anything on your list - the items on your list probably didn't inspire him. As for getting a knockoff, my guess is he had no idea it was any different or worse than the original.
posted by Dragonness at 6:40 AM on May 7, 2012

It sounds to me like you're both getting way too upset about something pretty silly - not the gifts themselves, but his ability to guess what you'd like. It's time to take this off the table as a thing. I think that both of you are going to have to accept that he isn't ever going to develop that particular type of intuition. Right now, it sounds like neither of you have, and you're both making it stand in for other things. But it doesn't. It doesn't mean he doesn't know you or care about you unless his other behavior gives you that feeling as well. If it doesn't, then the first thing you need to do is take gift-giving out of the equation as a meaningful act. Once you've taken this mental step, you can have a conversation with him, not related to any specific gift-giving occasion, in which you tell him that you don't expect him to guess what you'd like, and you don't care whether or not he can, and that you'll be maintaining an amazon wishlist, and he should just buy you gifts off that from now on.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:06 AM on May 7, 2012

Imagine a conversation having a 'tag-cloud' next to it, like where you have keywords of different sizes, depending how frequently they were mentioned.
Ok, so this is how my memory usually works.

I do not remember conversations. I'm lucky if I remember the 'tag-cloud' actually. I tell people the same stories all the time, at least unless I get the vague feeling that this is familiar, or I get who I told important news too extremely confused (so I attempt to tell one person 3 times, and find out months later I completely failed to tell one of my best friends).
So, I will have associations with something, rather than memories of the conversation.

The book & movie thing makes sense too, because he hadn't see either of them, right? So he was vaguely associating them with you, but not able to use any of his knowledge of whether you would like it or not because he hadn't read/seen them.

Jogging my memory will sometimes bring back memories, but more often, it's completely gone. Really visceral memories too, like apparently I went to the beach with a bunch of friends, and they were telling me about what I did 6 months later, and I have no memory of this. It creeps me out sometimes.

Sometimes people are able to tell me (apparently?) word-for-word what I said, and hey, it sounds like something I'd say.

It's not about the person I am with. I remember little of my childhood, except that which makes good anecdotes, and I remember the story, not the event. I remember more from books than things that actually happen to me, or conversations I actually have. :P

So anyway, so I can totally understand the - getting the completely wrong thing. I can also understand the 'getting a list' from someone, so I'll have an idea of the type of things they will like (although, best birthday present was when I directly asked a boyfriend if he would like a particular expensive, boxed set of books, he said yes, and I ordered it - when it arrived, he was totally surprised! He picked up the box and shook it & everything, trying to guess what it was). I guess I also spend too much on presents though, and get very excited if I see something I think the other person would need. I obviously have a better hit rate than your partner (except with my Nana - the bane of my gift-giving life, and [because?!] I try so hard!).

All that aside, it's how he deals with it, and making it about him, not you that makes it very unfair on you.
Make an agreement that you will tell him lots of things you would actually like, but he has to actually get one of them for you, not something else.
Phearlez is also pretty onto it.
posted by Elysum at 8:17 PM on May 9, 2012

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