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When Gift Giving Goes Wrong

I once counseled a couple named Jill and John. For Jill’s birthday, John decided that it would be really special to surprise her with a fabulous dessert. Her birthday was close to the Fourth of July, and the local market was featuring a huge display of cherry pies. John thought, “I don’t want to be predictable. I’m not going to get her the standard birthday cake; I’m going to get her something special. I am going to buy her a cherry pie! Little did he know that not only did Jill not like pie, she hated cherries.

A gift as sweet as cherry pie

John was so excited because he thought outside of the box and was already envisioning this as the start of a tradition. He came home with the pie hidden inside a huge beautiful tissue-filled gift bag. Jill looked at the package with joy and excitedly reached inside the bag. When she saw the pie, her face fell.

“What is this?” she asked. “A cherry pie!” John said proudly. “I hate cherries, and I hate pie! Who would ever choose a pie for a birthday gift?” Without asking any questions or being open to his explanation, Jill ran into the next room and slammed the door.

Jill reacted based on her (high) expectations and lashed out. If she had heard the story, she would have realized how sweet and well-meaning John was. She found out two weeks later when they came to see me about this conflict.

It really is the thought that counts

With a little bit of patience and a strong desire to connect, Jill and John learned about one another’s gift-receiving style. The irony of it is that John still gets Jill a cherry pie every year (it’s a tradition). She still doesn’t eat the pie, but she shares it with family and enjoys her favorite vanilla ice cream with one cherry on top.

I share this story with you because even though gift giving and receiving can bring with it lots of pleasure, the challenges and expectations that come along with it can sink the experience—even when laden with the best of intentions.

Read more: Give Happy

Gifts come loaded with expectations

According to one survey by the National Retail Federation, about $60 billion in gifts are returned in the course of a single calendar year. (Obviously this dramatic statistic does not include the number of gifts that were politely kept in a back closet.)

Gift giving and receiving can come loaded with a great deal of psychological and emotional baggage. It often provides a window into how we feel about one another. It can send a nonverbal message that lets someone know his or her value; it can be used as a means of building a bond; it is a way of showing gratitude or appreciation; and it can even impact the quality and stability of a relationship. Both material and sentimental gifts can be mood-altering.

Despite the lofty notion that all gifts should be received graciously, and all gifts should be given with love and thoughtfulness, there are far too many circumstances in which the exchange falls short of our ideals. Part of what makes gift giving such dangerous territory is that it isn’t just about the gift, it’s about the perception of how much or how little you understand the person’s wants and needs.


  • Put yourself in the receiver’s shoes. Ask yourself what type of gift is meaningful to the recipient and what he or she might think and feel upon receiving a certain gift. Always keep in mind that there may be an underlying meaning to a gift and ask yourself what message you might be sending.
  • Understand the social context of a gift exchange (a birthday, wedding shower, roast, holiday, etc.) and the acceptable price range based on previous exchanges with this person.
  • Know the recipient’s general likes and take into account age, gender and taste. I’ve found that women tend to prefer gifts that are sentimental and have extra thought and meaning put into them. Men tend to prefer gifts that are practical and functional. A man might be truly surprised when his wife reacts negatively to the new microwave oven he got her for Mother’s Day!
  • Keep your eye out for hints that the receiver may not even realize that he or she is giving, such as a subtle comment like, “I rarely spend the money to get myself a massage.”
  • If you know that a family member finds gift cards impersonal, pick out an item from a store that has a liberal return policy.

Read more: 9 Great Gifts That Are Experiences


  • To help others find just the right gift for you, spend some time wandering through stores, looking at catalogues, or researching classes you might take with family or friends. Discuss your favorite things year-round, so that you can always have ideas when the subject of gift giving comes up.
  • Find subtle ways to steer the giver in the right direction so that both of you get the most happiness and best experience out of the exchange.
  • When receiving any gift, whether you like it or not, be outwardly gracious, express appreciation for the gesture and send a thank you card. It is one of those social skills that parents spend an enormous amount of time teaching their children, especially when they open up gifts in front of others!

Stacy Kaiser is a licensed psychotherapist, author, relationship expert and media personality. She is also the author of the best-selling book, How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know, and an editor-at-large for Live Happy. Stacy is a frequent guest on television programs such as Today and Good Morning America.

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