The Gift, The Message, The Meaning

December 25, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Now that the living room floor is littered with gift wrap, here' the last word about holiday presents: Psychologists say it really is the thought that counts.

But don't let that bromide excuse your wife for buying you that 17th annual Christmas necktie or your husband for regaling you with the lovely carpet sweeper you never asked for.

Precisely because it is the thought that counts, psychologists say gift-giving can be a measure of how well people

communicate and a clue to the state of their relationships.

"The most common problem I see in my practice with couples is that all a relationship's dynamics get focused into this one day, Christmas, and everything gets played out symbolically through the gift," says Susan Rockwell Campbell, a clinical psychologist in Columbia and a psychology instructor at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"The gift gets imbued with all kinds of meaning or becomes a make-or-break occasion, instead of the couple working on the relationship throughout the year," Dr. Campbell says.

People's expectations for holiday gifts -- both as givers and as recipients -- are often unrealistically high, says Mimi Kraus, a social worker and family counselor with Jewish Family Services in Owings Mills.

"The giving and getting of gifts may represent a wish to re-create experiences in childhood, that kind of magic and wonder," Ms. Kraus says. "Adults try to get that for themselves, and you really can't in some way."

Indeed, childhood gifts are often most memorable, a check of holiday shoppers showed.

Guy Woods, 41, a Catonsville salesman, remembered the American Flyer train set he awoke to one Christmas morning when he was 8. It was laid out on plywood in the basement.

"You never grow out of that," Mr. Woods says. "The gifts you get as a child, that expectation and sense of surprise, you never lose it. I have two kids now, and Dad doesn't expect a lot. But it's still nice to have a gift underneath the tree."

Last year, Amy Williams, 19, of Lochearn gave one of her childhood gifts, a Raggedy Anne doll from her grandmother, to her best friend, Amy Evans.

"My grandmother said when I found somebody I loved, to give it to her. Amy took it to college in Iowa. She loved it. It meant a lot," Amy Williams says.

Gena Miles, 28, who sells new homes in Harford County, treasured the Nikon camera her parents bought her as a teen-ager. She had been borrowing a school camera at the time. "They went out of their way and budget to buy that. They gave more of themselves," she says.

Poets and psychologists alike say, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "The only true gift is a portion of thyself."

But Emerson also wrote: "We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten."

While gifts can be an expression of affection and care that draws people together, they can also create an obligation to reciprocate that breeds resentment.

"Often people judge the closeness of a relationship by the gift vTC they get for someone," said Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State University social psychologist who has studied the gift exchange process. "That's why it's so awkward to mismatch. It implies that someone invests more meaning in a relationship than you do if they give an inappropriately large gift."

Janan Broadbent, a Towson psychologist, says gifts can even be destructive.

"If you know I'm allergic to chocolate and you give me chocolate, there's a message there. It says, 'I really don't care, I picked up the first thing I could find, and here it is.' " Ms. Kraus says an extravagant gift may be a desperate attempt to patch up a relationship.

"If a person really feels they haven't been there enough %o emotionally, they may try to compensate with an expensive gift. They're trying to replace what isn't there," she says.

Stymied in their shopping, some people grab any present without considering the recipient.

Amy Williams, who works in a toy store, recalled a woman shopping for her young grandson who said, " 'It's a boy, he's 7, just pick out anything.' It kind of makes me sad. I couldn't believe she didn't care."

Others choose a gift that they themselves would like to receive. On television's "The Simpsons," Homer gave Marge a bowling ball -- and then suggested that it be drilled to fit his fingers. Of course, this being TV, Marge refused and had a romantic flirtation with her bowling instructor.

In real life, psychologist Stephen Gaeng, who practices in Ellicott City and Baltimore, says he often hears tales of --ed expectations after the holidays. A giver may feel jilted when a painstakingly chosen gift is received coldly; a recipient may feel unloved because a present seemed so thoughtless and impersonal.

"What they're really talking about is something unfulfilled in the relationship," he says. "Typically, people in relationships don't change in mid-holiday. But between New Year's and Valentine's Day, having determined the holiday was less than satisfying, people will often make a move and change relationships."

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