Finding the perfect gift for your spouse is an exciting part of the holiday season. But fighting crowds to snag the latest “must have” item (and squeezing money out of a tight budget to do it) can make gift-giving stressful. While I wouldn’t mind a new iPad under the tree this year (hint, hint), the best gifts are those don’t cost money but do require thought and time and emotional awareness.
Though it’s fun to shop and wrap gifts, we ultimately all wish for the same emotional gifts from our spouse. These are things that can’t be purchased—gifts of self. We long for reassurance that we are loved and cherished, for comfort when we are sad or hurt or scared, and for validation that our experience matters to the person we love the most. Even if your partner doesn’t have the words to express these wishes, he or she longs for the same emotional gifts too.
What do gifts of self look like in real life? Here are some ideas of how you can spend less money and give more enduring and meaningful gifts to your partner this year.
The Gift of Emotions
1. Tell your emotional truth. Too often, in an effort not to hurt your spouse’s feelings, you may have stopped expressing the full range of emotions—your hurts, your fears, your anger and your joys and dreams. “I don’t want to be a nag” or “It’s not nice to be mad” are some of the common phrases I hear in my therapy office when women explain why they’ve stopped expressing themselves. It’s helpful to consider that intimacy means “into-me-see” or see into me. True intimacy requires a deep level of emotional honesty and the tender expression of a full range of emotions, not just the good, happy, nice ones. Your thoughts, your feelings and your expression of them are what make you uniquely you.
2. Ask for what you really want. Sending clear signals about what you need emotionally from your partner can be difficult. It requires an internal awareness and a willingness to ask deeper questions that go below the surface. Behind every complaint and criticism you have for your spouse is an emotional plea for closeness. Practice going below the complaint and expressing the emotional need directly. Instead of saying “You always work so much! Are you going to be working until 8PM forever? I’m sick of eating dinner alone,” try saying “I want to spend more time with you. I’m afraid that I’m not important to you. Can we plan a date night for this weekend?” Trust me. Being direct with your own needs is a gift to your partner.
The Gift of Attention
1. Push the pause button. When was the last time you really listened to your partner? Too often, couples I see in my practice are so busy reacting to their own intense emotions that they completely bypass the emotional meaning of their partner’s expression. In an effort to reach out to his wife during a therapy session, John says, “I really miss you—you’ve been so preoccupied since our son was born. Let’s spend some alone time together.”
Megan responds defensively, “I’m trying to be a good mother. You know this is all new for me. I’m overwhelmed and I’m trying to be there for you—can’t you see that?”
Flooded by her own emotions, Megan missed John’s main message: I miss you; I need you. Instead, she heard some version of You’re not good enough.
If Megan had hit pause and slowed down her reaction enough to hear John’s emotional message, she might have said something like, “Oh John, you really miss me and want to spend time together. Thank you for reassuring me of that.” Once John had been heard, Megan could have shared how she is feeling about the transition to motherhood, and the conversation would have ended in a very different place. Putting your emotions temporarily on hold in order to really hear your spouse is truly a gift.
2. Speak his love language. Ask your partner how he or she feels most loved and learn to be more proficient in that “language.” Gary Chapman, author of the The Five Love Languages, identified distinct categories of how people experience love: physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time and gifts. Unfortunately, people often express love in their own language instead of in their partner’s.
You can change that so your expressions of love really get through. For example, if your partner’s primary love language is acts of service, make a special home-cooked meal or surprise her by doing some of her chores around the house. If your partner’s language is physical touch, actively approach your honey for a hug and kiss, hold hands, sit together and initiate physical intimacy more often. Offering love in your partner’s language will help him or her feel more deeply loved by you.
The Gift of Memories
1. Keep track of the good stuff. Write a handwritten letter yearly for Christmas. I know a couple who did this for a few decades; they now enjoy a beautiful book containing years of personal expressions celebrating significant family events and the evolution of their love. By reflecting on tender feelings and focusing on positive memories, you’ll validate that your partner is indeed cherished and loved.
2. Revisit romantic moments. Holidays are the perfect time to plan a visit to the special places of your early courtship or wedding day. Walk through the park where he proposed, visit the site where you took your marriage vows or recreate your honeymoon. Even if your lover isn’t the most romantic person on the planet, he or she will appreciate the gift of reminiscing and recreating these special days that only the two of you shared. And you’ll have a fun holiday tradition, one that reconnects you with the tender feelings that drew you to your partner in the first place.
What’s the most meaningful gift you ever gave—or got? Share the story here.
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