Last year you received an ugly scarf in a color that clashed with your skin tone — and from your husband, no less. No problem. Just head back to the store and exchange it for something you like.

But it's not always that simple. Some people have no issue with exchanging something, but others take getting the "wrong" gift more personally. Sometimes that's a gender line, but not always.

Doesn't he know me at all?

Through the lens of stereotypical gender roles

A lot has changed in society, but some traditional expectations remain, especially in a new relationship. As a group, women tend to be more likely than men to attach personal meaning to concrete things and actions, explains Steve Levinson, Ph.D., president of Behavioral Dynamics, Inc. in Thief River Falls, Minnesota.

"When a woman gives a man a gift, it's not just an attempt at satisfying a specific need. It's an act of communication. If she gives him slippers, it's not just to keep his feet warm! For women, the gift she gives sends a message that, to her, matters more than the gift itself."

Both in giving and receiving, men are more likely to focus on the tangible purpose of a gift. Many women may feel that a gift is a symbol of their mate’s love and affection, and if the gift is all wrong, it has deeper symbolic meaning — that perhaps the connection between them may be all wrong as well.

When I was growing up, this scenario played out between my parents every year.

"So here's where the trouble begins: Men often don't get the messages that women send because men just aren't looking for messages," say Levinson. "And because women are always looking for messages, they often 'get' the messages that men don't send. In other words, women assume that men are thoughtfully and thoroughly communicating when they give a gift. They aren't."

Many women need to feel that you put some thought and effort into the gift. Likewise something homemade or ordered well in advance shows creativity and forethought — even if the gift itself is off.

Meanwhile, a man can love and cherish you even when he crashes and burns in the gift-giving department. Maybe he’s never seen you wear a scarf, but he buys you one anyway. It doesn't have anything to do with how he feels about you.

Gift-giving in modern times

So how can you level the gift-giving playing field? For starters, get into each other's heads! Don't expect anyone to get the personal message you think you're sending with a gift. Just tell the person what the message is — maybe even written on the attached card.

For those on the other side: If your special someone always sends a message with a gift, try sending a message yourself next time and see what happens.

How can you shop in a way that says "I love you," "I know you," "I cared enough to pick this special item?" Here are some guidelines for picking the right gift for your partner:

  • Be sensitive to your partner's expectations. To them your gift may mean "I love you." Make sure it says so.
  • Be practical. If the person has no need for an item, don't buy it.
  • Be thoughtful. Remember when your partner said he'd love to try X, Y or Z? Get that.
  • Think creatively. A gift doesn't always have to be purchased at a store.
  • Give experiences. Research shows that experiences bring people more happiness than possessions.
  • Know what is a luxury to your partner and get something the person would never buy for themselves.

These rules may make gift-giving and receiving much more satisfying.

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