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When Jennifer Purdie’s new boyfriend handed her a jewellery box, she felt embarrassed that she’d been outdone.

They’d been dating only two months! She had assumed that they’d go small and sweet with their Christmas gifts, so she had baked him cookies. And here he was, giving her jewellery. Or was he?

Purdie, then in her mid-20s, opened the box to find a slip of paper. It was a sonogram - an image of the inside of another woman’s uterus. Purdie was confused. Maybe this was his way of announcing that he was going to be an uncle?

Wrong again. “I’m going to be a daddy!” her boyfriend said. No, he hadn’t cheated on Purdie - he’d just (accidentally) gotten his ex-girlfriend pregnant before they broke up, and this was his way of sharing the news. 

“He thought he was being clever, and he was just being stupid,” Purdie said.

He wanted to keep dating, but Purdie decided it was all too much. They broke up shortly thereafter. She thinks her ex is still with the mother of his child, Purdie said recently, and “that makes me really happy”.

It’s been about 15 years since Purdie opened that jewellery box, and the sonogram remains the worst item a significant other has ever given her.

When we care a lot about people, we can read a lot into the gifts they give us. We take them as proxies for the depth of a person’s feelings, or lack thereof. When gifts are wildly out of sync in ways that mirror other imbalances in a relationship, it’s fair to take note and be a little upset.

But often the meaning we ascribe to these objects is horribly out of whack. It’s possible that person who presented you with a kitchen utensil when you were expecting jewellery just needs some pointers about what you really wanted.

Gift giving doesn’t come naturally; it’s a skill that can be refined with time.

And, yes, women tend to have higher expectations for the gifts they receive and read more into them than men generally do, says Alison David, director of matchmaking for Omaha Love and Midwest Matchmaking.

The best gift her husband ever gave her? When they started dating, David mentioned she’d been trying to find a bookshelf - and her then-boyfriend went out and found a used one for her. “It wasn’t fancy,” David said, “but it was exactly what I wanted.”

When I posted on social media asking people to tell me about the worst gift they’d received from a significant other, barely any men chimed in - while dozens of women responded complaining about gifts they’ve received from men, including a toolkit, a kitchen knife, a plastic rabbit, a Precious Moments figurine given to someone who is neither religious nor a knick-knack collector, a carved wooden stick from Ireland, a leather apron. The list goes on.

In college, I remember telling a boyfriend that I no longer wanted gifts he had obviously purchased from the student store.

It wasn’t so much what he was gifting that bothered me, but the fact that he wasn’t putting any foresight into it. I wanted something with meaning, not merely something procured because it was convenient.

Once we talked about it, the gifts got a lot better. He’s a thoughtful guy; he just needed some direction.

Men “tend to go for those practical things rather than thinking about the thoughtful,” David said. Hence the tool kit and the kitchen knife. “As women, we’re a little more intuitive to men dropping hints, or paying attention to little details.”

Like wrapping paper. Rosa Carrasco, a 45-year-old scientist, remembers the first Christmas she exchanged gifts with a boyfriend who went on to become her husband, and then ex-husband. At the time they were both 20-something graduate students in the late 1990s.

Carrasco gave him a book of physics lectures from a famous professor, and he handed her a present wrapped in one of her towels. (Don’t wrap something in the cloth that dries your body after a shower.) She peeled it away to find the Doom trilogy, one of the original first-person shooter computer games. It was an odd gift to receive because Carrasco wasn’t a gamer.

She had a brand new computer, one that stood out for being “super-fast” at that time, and so he gave her something for himself - a game that he wanted to play on her machine.

However, there was a small problem with that plan: “He would get motion-sickness every time he tried to play,” Carrasco said, so she started playing out of spite. “It got me through graduate school,” she said, “but it sucked for him because he couldn’t play it.”

It wasn’t the only gift from this man that felt like a mismatch. Two years later, when Carrasco and her boyfriend were long-distance, and she moved into a new apartment, he gave her an electric can opener for Christmas. “I don’t cook. I don’t eat things out of a can,” Carrasco said. “It sat in my kitchen for years. I never used it.”

At this point, she realised that her boyfriend needed some direction in the gift-giving department.

Dominique Clark, a relationship expert, suggests talking about your respective love languages, or the ways in which you express love for another person.

Clark finds that bad gifts often stem from lack of thought paired with last-minute shopping, which is something Purdie witnessed during her days working in a department store.

“We had these bird feeders and, on Christmas Eve, I remember looking up and all these men were buying them. I just thought: That’s a male shopper - leave it to the last minute. This is all that’s available and so they just grab it,” she said. 

The Washington Post