Since the dawn of industry, our capitalist overlords have been trying to sell us on the idea that someone magically knowing what you want (and then buying it for you) is the zenith of romance. But I have news for you all—it’s not. Even though gift-giving is supposedly a love language, wrapping up a bracelet your partner had their eye on isn’t love. Is it a nice thing to do? Yes. Does it feel good to give someone the perfect gift? Yes. But! It’s certainly not the end-all, be-all display of passion either.
Plus, nowadays there is an abundance of stuff, a development that compels us to invent needs for ourselves before we even have desires. Earlier this year, after seeing an ad on Instagram, I bought rain-proof tennis shoes. Mind you, I live in Los Angeles. This was absolutely an unnecessary purchase, until Instagram showed me a hot model splashing through the ocean’s foamy surf. (Please note that I don’t even go to the beach often and certainly have no desire to put my shoe-covered feet into the water.)
Point is, there are approximately 1.4 million items that your partner could possibly want or like, and I’m sure any one of them would be lovely (the tennis shoes work great, by the way). There are also more sentimental gift options, like tickets to a concert by the artist that you connected over on your first date or a photo album—which is the best gift, because no one owns printed photos anymore, let alone printed photos sweetly collected into a book! Those gifts are stellar signs of love. Some may delight and some may fall flat, but your partner will no doubt appreciate the effort.
On the other hand, there is something acutely painful about opening or gifting a present that isn’t quiiiiiite right. Something that is sweet, sure, but that they’ll never use. I’m especially sensitive to this because in my family, my stepmother was incredibly mean about gifts she received while also being volatile about whether you liked her gifts enough. My college roommate once told her mother to her face that while she liked her birthday gift, she was going to return it. My jaw dropped to the floor. You can do that?! I asked her. “Yes, Sophia. We’re all grown-ups. We all know that sometimes you don’t like gifts. We have a very strict, if you don’t like it, just return it policy.” The maturity!
We can’t all be like Shelby and her family though, ignoring the sting of someone not liking something we agonized over, something that reminded us of them. It’s embarrassing, as if you’ve misunderstood the relationship you have, or perhaps misunderstood them entirely. And to some extent, that misreading is part of the problem—there’s the very real human tendency of gifting others what we wish to receive. This is true with both displays of affection in general and with presents specifically.
The solution is blissfully simple: wish lists. If you let go of the idea that romance is somehow related to knowing what consumer items a person would love but hasn’t already purchased themselves, you’ll see wish lists for what they are: a form of communication (a.k.a. the real foundation for true love).
A wish list doesn’t have to be—and in fact should not be—like a grocery list, where the purchaser is meant to check off each item. As in, Don’t come home without the KitchenAid Mixer (5 Quart) in the color “Pear.”
No, the wish list should function as a jumping-off point, a guideline for the types of things that you want. Recently, a man at work was lamenting how, after 13 years of marriage, his wife has never liked anything he’s purchased for her. How?! Even my dad eventually figured out that if he just got my stepmom a new vacuum every year, she’d be happy every once in a while.
My coworkers’s justification was that the things his wife mentioned wanting were too expensive. (Keep in mind, he owns a Tesla.) I suspect, although I obviously have no way of knowing for sure, that his wife has mentioned coveting expensive things the way we all mention them, in the “Santa, Baby” sense, so to speak. Sometimes, when I drive by a multi-million dollar house with a “For Sale” sign out front, I’ll turn to my boyfriend and say, “Should we get that today?” I doubt my coworker’s wife’s list is any more real than my suggestion to purchase a home.I suspect she and my coworker have never had a productive conversation about what she actually wants because they’re sticking to the misguided trope that it’s romantic to not have to disclose your desires to your partner. How is simmering resentment on both sides mixed with a dollop of guilt (him for not knowing what to get, her for getting upset and not just liking the gift) more romantic?
Even if you don’t want to get too in the weeds about what you’re each going to spend—although, for the record, I think setting a budget is a good idea—all you have to do is create a list with enough variety to leave room for inspiration. You’re aiming to give the person an idea of what you want that can also serve as a life raft if they really get stuck. I sent my boyfriend general ideas with links (coffee table books, cute drinking glasses, anything to help make our house more sustainable), and included a particular pair of hiking boots with my size and the color I wanted. Some things cost over $100, and some cost less than $7. Maybe he gets me stuff off the list, maybe he has a better idea of what he’d like to give. No one ought to be beholden to the wish list. It’s just a way to say, “Here are a few things I’d definitely like. Don’t stress.”
Did it feel weird to ask for things I wanted, to send him an email with consumer goods, almost as if I thought I deserved to get gifts? Yes. Yes it did. But it’s the holidays, and we’re going to spend money on gifts for our loved ones, so why not buy them the items they really want? Help your partner make you happy!
Or, just run down the street to CVS and get a photo album made. That works too.
Originally Appeared on GQ