I Wish I Enjoyed Gift-Giving More. It Really Stresses Me Out.

4 rows of gift bags. They appear to have the faces of 4 children's characters on them (left to right): Bert, Oscar the Grouch, Elmo, and Cookie Monster
Image by Larry Koester / CC BY

It’s that time of year again. Everyone in my web is talking about what they’re getting each other for the holidays. Metamours and telemours hitting me up for gift ideas for Justin (a.k.a. Skyspook).

And me?

Well, I’m frozen in fear.

You see, I’m neurotic about gifts. Giving them, receiving them. Part of this has to do with the fact that holidays are generally stressful for me, as most traditions wrapped up in unreasonable expectations are. I have a lot be thankful for, a wonderful group of friends, a fantastic poly web, and in-laws that I adore, but I’m also estranged from my family of origin.

As Kristin Scharp is quoted in an article about estrangement: “Sometimes estrangement means a clean break, a fight and that’s it, but it can also be a chaotic disassociation, a relationship that’s on and off again over the years.”

When you judge it by traditional yardsticks, my life can look a little messy. I’m closer to friends than biological family. And these days, I live 900 miles away from where I was born. I feel intense guilt about not having a perfect family of origin. And guilt that I don’t always feel like I’m a part of that imperfect family.

Gifts with Strings Attached

My most difficult relationship of all has been with my mother. And her top love language was gifts. Mom used gifts to apologize when she lost her temper or did something she regretted. And every time she gave you something, she’d ask you repeatedly, “Do you like it? Isn’t it cute?” She’d ask you to tell her how you would use it. Later after the fact she would check in and make sure you still had the gift and that you were using it, usually saying again, “You really like it, don’t you? It was a good present, wasn’t it?”

Mom sought validation and praise for every gift she gave.

Trying to muster up that gratitude so I could express it honestly was a stressful process because it was difficult to actually enjoy the gifts since they were linked to unpleasant events. When she’d searched my room and burned my writing journals because she didn’t like what I’d written in them, she gave me a beautiful blank writing journal with a mosaic design on the cover. But I felt paralysis when I went to write in it, knowing that it, too, could be destroyed. Later she checked in on me to see how I liked it and expressed disapproval that I hadn’t yet written in it.

When I was older and living on my own, she’d give me self-help books written by pastors she particularly liked. And when she’d drop by my apartment later, she’d check the shelves to make sure they were there. Ask me if I’d read them. What I thought.

I learned to expect every gift would have strings attached to it.

Rewriting Old Scripts by Ignoring Tradition for a Little While — and Making New Ones

Moving to Ohio from Maine was liberating. Putting that buffer in place completely changed our relationship dynamics. She was no longer able to drive over unannounced at midnight because she was “lonely,” trying to push her way into my apartment through the partially cracked door, while my boyfriend hid half-naked in the bedroom (my husband out for the night with his own girlfriend).

And there were a thousand smaller ways that the distance helped. Suddenly it exempted me from the unrealistic expectations surrounding holidays I’d grown up with, everyone’s need to have a “perfect day” (whatever that was supposed to mean) and a lot of the stress that surrounded it.

“You know what?” Justin said, soon after I moved in with him and had relayed a lot of this. “You don’t have to do any of that with me. No more mandatory gift-giving.” Not for Christmas. Not for birthdays. Anniversaries. Never.

We agreed that we’d give each other gifts whenever we wanted to. It didn’t matter what the calendar date was. If we wanted to give each other a gift or perform some kind of grand gesture, we could do it right then. We didn’t need to wait for an occasion. It could be a random Thursday for all we cared.

Sometimes, we do give each other holiday presents. But not always. There are times we’ll just spend a relatively normal day together (though to be fair, with Justin every day basically feels like Christmas, he’s amazing). And other times we set up experiences — like when he took me to burlesque one year for my birthday. Or when we took a cruise to Alaska to celebrate five years together.

But the fact that none of it is required, that we’re doing it of our own accord, has made it so much more special — and enjoyable — to me.

What I Really Want for Christmas

“A couple of us were talking, and if you need any ideas for what to get people, just let me know,” my metamour tells me.

“Okay, thanks,” I say quickly, uncomfortable at even the mention of gift-giving.

“I just heard you were having trouble figuring it out,” they say. “And my best love language is Gifts, so maybe I can help.”

Gifts, I think. Same as my mother. “I’m just a little weird about gifts in general is all,” I say aloud. “I’ll figure something out though.”

On the drive home, I think about what I want for Christmas — because everyone keeps asking me.

And then it dawns on me. It’s the same thing I want every year.

Flexibility.

*

My new book is out!

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching: Advice for Couples Seeking Another Partner 

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