Friday, December 11, 2009

You'd better not pout, you'd better not GRR...UPDATED

There are only fourteen days left until Christmas! Or, more properly, for us Catholics, there are fourteen days left until the beginning of the Christmas season. Those of us who have yet even to think about Christmas cards are taking comfort in knowing that Christmas is a season, after all.

Back around Mother's Day I wrote a post about women and gifts. Some of that was specific to Mother's Day or other occasions where only one person is receiving gifts, but some of it applies to holidays like Christmas as well, so I thought it would be a good idea to repeat some of it here.

Essentially I was talking about a phenomenon I like to call Gift Resenting Recipient syndrome, or GRR. GRR occurs when a person (and it's usually a woman) gets ideas about how she'd like a day to go, or what sort of gift or gifts she might expect, and then her expectations aren't met. A person suffering from GRR may storm around loudly or drift in icy, glacial silence until the person who caused the GRR takes notice and feels guilty; the GRR victim doesn't really want things "fixed" because, of course, it's much too late for that.

Two of the three principles I wrote about GRR occurring at times like Mother's Day or one's birthday apply to Christmas, as well. They are:
  1. A gift is not something we can or should try to control. There's nothing wrong with giving one's husband suggestions or hints, or even a list if he's that sort of man and finds it much, much easier to shop with a few written ideas in hand. But there's everything wrong with insisting that every gift we ever get from anybody (but especially our husbands) be somehow a reflection of our deepest and innermost realities, tastes, ideas, and desires. If you tell your dearest one that you'd really like some kitchen towels to match your kitchen which you've decorated to look a bit like Provence, and he buys towels with Tweety Bird on them because he thinks that's sort of the right color to match the tile behind the stove, you should smile at his willingness to think about the color, and appreciate the whimsy; you should not use this as an opportunity to be grumpy about how he doesn't get your decorating tastes.
  2. It really is the thought that counts. Men don't always "get" women's tastes, and vice versa; I recall a funny piece by Patrick McManus in which the writer explained that women see pretty candles and think of romance; men see pretty candles and think of inefficient illumination. So the fact that one's husband is even willing to venture into parts of a store that don't sell tools, hardware, or electronics is a pretty big thoughtful gesture right from the get-go; analyzing the gift down to the studs, so to speak, to find out what is wrong with this person you've married is a pretty bad approach to take.
To these, I would add a third one, specifically for Christmas, and specifically for women:
3. Someone's reaction to a gift is not in any way a sign of their love for you--or lack thereof. Let's face it--women, generally speaking, do most of the Christmas shopping. Sometimes in our efforts we're not going to "guess" right about what our children or our husbands would really like to receive--and this is just as true for those simple one-gift Christmases as for the more lavish sort. We can build up expectations and whole narratives about how delighted someone's going to be with our gift, and then feel let down and depressed when that delight doesn't manifest itself. In those cases, GRR becomes GGRR, or Gift-Giver Resenting the Recipient. Just as we can be tempted to think that a really "wrong" gift proves the giver doesn't love us, so can we be tempted to think our own mistakes prove, deep down, that our love is somehow deficient--or that the recipient doesn't truly love us enough to at least pretend to be thrilled with our gift attempts.

I know it's important at Christmas to remind ourselves how little the material things matter when it comes to our celebrations. That said, though, I think the best defense against GRR or GGRR is simply to be aware that they do happen. With the best will in the world to focus on the spiritual aspects of Christmas and its graces and joys, we can still end up muttering to ourselves if a gift completely misses the mark, whether it's one bought for us or one we bought for someone else. Our tendency to invest gifts with meaning and purpose is not a bad thing--it is, after all, an important aspect of understanding the true Gift of Christmas, the Child born to save us all. But the risk of hurt feelings and unkind reactions is a part of this tendency, too, and it's one that tends to put a damper on any joyful celebration of the birth of Our Lord.

UPDATE: I've been discussing matters with a commenter named "Kitty" below, and suffice it to say that Kitty and I have some points of disagreement. But in the interests of clarification, I'd just like to point out that I'm not excusing what Kitty calls, "thoughtless oaf" behavior on the part of husbands.

If a man truly ignores his wife, never asks her or cares about her interests, and can't be bothered to figure out what she might like to receive or to shop for her anywhere but his favorite store (ten minutes before closing on December 24), she may have some legitimate grievances. I still don't think GRR is the way to deal with them. A man who can't pick up on his wife's interests or needs probably will ignore the emotional manipulation just as easily, which is only going to escalate the situation. What is needed is honest communication about the problem.

But what I'm talking about is something a little different. Do I give men a total pass for not being able to think of their wives' needs or interests? Not at all. Do I recognize that men are men, and thus often different from women? Absolutely.

It is not uncommon for a woman to be out shopping, to see a pretty set of stationery or some adorable measuring spoons in the shape of geese or a recently-published book on the history of church architecture, and to think, "I'll bet my sister/cousin/friend/mother/mother-in-law etc. would just love this!" even if it's months to the next gift-giving occasion.

It is not giving men a pass to recognize that most of them do not tend to experience this impulse. While some of them are better than others at buying gifts, few of them tend to think about gifts a whole lot before a gift-giving occasion approaches. Of course, I am speaking generally--there are men who excel at the art of gift-giving and women who rush out at the last minute in a blind panic. But it has been my experience that women generally do better than men at connecting the dots and buying each other thoughtful, personal gifts.

Which is not to say that men shouldn't try, or can't achieve a reasonable level of gift success. But where I think GRR so often comes in is when a woman drops what she thinks are clear, positive, direct hints about what she wants--and she doesn't realize that owing to the difference in communication between men and women, her hints haven't registered, so to speak.

In the comments I use an example of a woman saying in September "I'd like to make this same cake with bigger layers, but the ten-inch layer pans in this brand I really like are so expensive!" and thinking this is a clear hint as to what she wants for Christmas. That's not a farfetched example--I've witnessed some similar examples of hints and hinting in my life, and have been guilty of some, too.

Or take my example above, when a woman says she'd like some towels to match the new kitchen decor. In her mind, the colors she has selected for her kitchen absolutely scream Provence, and she's expecting some delicate towels with grape vines and a wine motif--but she hasn't actually shared with her husband that the look she's going for in the kitchen is provincial, or explained what that means to a man whose idea of decorating is the cork board in the garage on which his socket wrench and hammer collection hang.

Perhaps a woman might hint that she is cold at night when they are watching television. What she really needs a new bathrobe, and in her mind's eye she has picked out a creamy ivory spa-style waffle weave robe with matching slippers, and perhaps some bath salts to add to the relaxation--but all she's actually said is, "Brr! It's cold in here at night. My robe just isn't warm enough." So her husband, with the best will in the world, hears her complaining about being so cold at night and buys, perhaps, a space heater for the family room, or a blanket-with-sleeves, or something of the sort.

So, with all of that in mind, let me add a point number 4 to my list above:

4. Few men are good at picking up on gift-hints. There will be exceptions, and if your husband is one of them you will know this, probably even before you get married. But many men are not good at picking up on even rather broad hints about what their wives would like to receive as a gift, let alone the subtle, mysterious variety. If you want something specific for Christmas (or your birthday, Mother's Day, etc.) then you have to tell him. Depending on how important it is that you receive a particular brand, style, size, etc., you may need to fill in those details.
Some women don't like to do the above, because it's not "romantic" to give their husbands a list of sorts. Why, he should be able to figure out exactly what you like and want and secretly wish for! etc. But turn it around for a moment. To use a personal example, I know that what my husband would really like this year for Christmas is a ham radio, now that he's got his license (he's been borrowing one from a church acquaintance so far). I, however, know very little about ham radios, especially at the less-expensive end which is what we can afford just now. I don't know if it would be better to buy a slightly used better model or a brand new lesser model; heck, I don't even know what makes a model "better" or "lesser." So I have two choices: a) have Thad do all the research and then tell me exactly what model he wants within the price range we have figured out, or b) let him buy the radio and give him a couple of small thoughtful things on Christmas Day. I'm going for "b" because--gasp!--we have actually talked about it, and this is what he'd prefer for me to do.

Not every gift a woman wants falls into the "ham radio" level of difficulty, of course. For most gifts a simple request is good enough, e.g. "I'd really like a new bathrobe, but I'm not picky about the type or color," (but only if you actually aren't). It's not a proof of failure of love for a husband not to notice automatically that his wife could use a new robe, though, just as it's not proof of failure of love for me not to immerse myself in the technical details about ham radios and hope that I choose something sort of similar to what Thad actually wants.


Anonymous said...

I thought you weren't posting about mommy things anymore

Kitty said...

Is it really so very hard for men to attend to anything women say? Your article, and, honestly every article I've ever read by a complementarian, implies that women are so hideous that simply being in the presence of anything, like kitchen towels, that have Girl Cooties on them is the equivalent of killing dragons and men should be lauded for any action, however pathetic, in that direction.

To use your example, the husband who bought the cartoon towels because all he noticed was that they were yellow is saying to his wife "You can't expect me to notice anything as pointless and trivial as the way you've decorated the kitchen. Anything you spend time and effort on is something I think is a waste of time." Unlike vitally important Guy Things like the BCS standings or who's going to make the NFL playoffs. It would be one thing if the couple has some connection to Tweety Bird outside of him being in the same general color family as the kitchen tile; that's evidence that the husband remembered something amusing about his wife and something she liked. But the example given, what he's done is barely more than an insult.

Kitty said...

Also, where do you get your evidence that women are irrational? You repeatedly mention "we women" followed by some action that begins and idiotic and grows toward lunacy. Your entire post here is based on the idea that woman build up unreasonable expectations about gifts and resent the giver when the expectations aren't met. Husbands are forgiven for gifts purchased in the checkout line at Home Depot but if a wife fails to rapturously applaud her new leaf blower, she's unreasonable. Isn't it just possible that hubby really is a thoughtless oaf and the wife has genuine grounds for resentment?

Anonymous said...

Right on, Kitty!

Red Cardigan said...

Okay. Sigh.

First and second anonymous people, would it KILL you to pick a nickname? I would really hate to set this up so that only people with Google accounts or something could comment, but over the last few months I've noticed an increase in comments by people who can't even bother to call themselves something other than "Anonymous," and frankly it gets pretty tiresome to have to identify such comments by post order or time stamp.

That said, First Anonymous, I said I wasn't going to comment on Stuff Other Mommmy Bloggers Write About. I get in trouble when I disagree publicly with a certain clique of Mommy Bloggers and the stuff they write. That doesn't translate to, "I'm never ever going to write about being a wife/mother/female-type person etc."

Kitty, where did I say husbands should be given a total pass? If you read the original post I linked to I'm very far from giving the "thoughtless oaf" type a pass. Any woman who hasn't specifically requested a leaf blower (or who doesn't do a lot of gardening herself for fun and relaxation) should obviously be free to discuss such a gift with her husband.

However, the point of GRR/GGRR is that NO discussion takes place. The sort of thing I'm talking about is the internal dialog many (not all) women have which says, "He didn't get me the right sort of gift, so I now have free reign to punish him with emotionally manipulative behavior until either he gets that I'm mad or till I feel better, whichever comes first."

It's not good for a marriage for a husband to ignore his wife's needs, and I've written about this here before. It is, however, also not good for a woman to punish her husband for real or perceived slights by emotional manipulation and/or emotional abuse, something some women tend to be tempted to do on many occasions.

Now, if you think women aren't ever "irrational" enough to a) get mad because their husbands failed to pick up on the extremely subtle hints they've been dropping that they need a new ten-inch round cake pan from a specific manufacturer, and b) punish him for failing to understand these hints, then I would have to say that you're extremely lucky you never encountered this sort of woman before.

Does the husband's failure to grasp that his wife's statement, "I'd like to make this same cake in a larger layer size, but my favorite cake pans get a little pricey in that size," said to him in, say, September over the remains of their daughter's seventh birthday cake was actually a direct request for him to sneak out and buy those pans sometime between then and Christmas and present them to her on Christmas morning make him a "thoughtless oaf" who doesn't attend to what his wife is saying? I say no; I say it makes him a pretty typical guy.

Which brings me to another point, one that I should probably put in the post itself: you ask why it's so hard for a man to attend to everything women say; I ask--why is it so hard for women to ask directly for something they'd really like to receive?

Now, if she does ask directly, repeatedly, and well before Christmas, and her husband still can't be bothered to pay attention or remember, then we're back in "thoughtless oaf" territory. But is that really what happens most of the time?

Anonymous said...

This is Kitty, since apparently Google has decided not to recognize me. (It has nothing to do with your blog or Blogger in general. For some reason Google Account sometimes doesn't want to talk to my computer.

Of course she shouldn't expect her husband to read her mind, which is the situation you describe with the cake pans.

The problem with both the thoughtless oaf and the angry-because-he's-not-clarivoyant is that they're both operating on the Men Are From Mars And Women Are Not assumption. Too many people of both varieties of chromosomal assortment believe that asking a direct question, especially one beginning "I want" is inappropriate from women. If a man doesn't know what his wife wants as a gift at all, he needs to ask straight out. If a wife really wants a particular item she needs to state that.

I apologize for my intemperate reaction. Your specific post isn't unreasonable, but it's a close in style to way too many I've seen lately which imply that men and women are unrelated to one another and that no man should ever be expected to understand any woman, include the ones who share his home. Being close in style isn't the same thing as actually saying what those other articles state, and I have made with you the same mistake I hate so much in the other articles: I assumed you were a faceless example of the Species Women Shut Up. Please accept my apologies.

My objection to the other type of article is that those writers never speak to humans, they speak to faceless Man and Woman, Jungian archtypes instead of actual people. Somehow, women are always expected to understand men. (See yesterday's Inside Catholic article about a husband who bought an Italian motorcycle and went off on an expensive and dangerous vacation by himself, and ignored his wife's perfectly reasonable complaints. He's A Man. That's all she needed to know.)

Anyway, I think that if men quit wondering what Woman wants and started thinking about "What does [insert name of my wife, mother, sister, or daughter] want," things would be much better. Same for women. Quit thinking of husbands as members of an indistiguishable mass of MEN and start regarding them as specific humans.

Red Cardigan said...

Kitty, I was updating my post while you were writing, and I think we agree very much! I actually think the main cause of what I call GRR is a woman more or less refusing to tell her husband what she wants, and then blaming him for not figuring it out.

And you're right, too, about men thinking about their specific wife (or other female relative) instead of "Woman." But I think where the misunderstandings so often do come in is our very different communication styles (men/women). A woman may think she's been perfectly clear about what she wants, only to discover that her husband has completely misread the situation. Those are the times in which I think it's important to think of the effort instead of the mistake.

I'm glad you commented further! I'm definitely not a "Women Shut Up" sort, and have been told that I'm a bit of a feminist (in a Catholic/Christian sort of way, of course). The only reason I write about the gift-giving thing at all is because, like you, I find it terribly frustrating that so many women seem to think there's something wrong with *telling* their husbands what they'd like to receive!

Anonymous said...

Exactly. There's a particularly destructive idea that feminine is another word for "passive," and that actually taking responsibility for, well, anything, is somehow "male." Men and women have different average styles of communication, but since we can usually manage to make ourselves understand each other in, say, commercial settings, I don't see why we get so wrought up at home. I, generally, think more highly of my husband than I do the clerk at the oil change place, so why would I be manipulative with the first when I wouldn't be with the second?

Kitty, again commenting anonymously since I'm copying music onto Younger Son's iPod and therefore using his profile, which never recognizes me.

Faith said...

I enjoyed this post; and especially the intelligent and fruitful argument between you and Kitty. :) Well said.

Lisa said...

I like this post. I know several women and one man that suffers from GRR & GGRR. Their spouses walk on eggshells at any gift giving time of the year. This Christmas I am purchasing myself items on my Amazon Wish List :-)and I had my husband verify that the gift I selected for him was the model he wanted. It takes the pressure off everyone in my opinion. And it keeps the budget in place too!