Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today's episode deals with a topic on the minds of many people today: giving and receiving gifts. A woman writes that she regularly puts time and effort into finding gifts for her boyfriend, but he doesn't reciprocate the favor. Is there a way to convince someone that giving gifts is important? Or, the writer asks, is she just being too materialistic?

They're joined in their discussion by Heather Havrilesky, author of How to Be a Person in the World and writer of the Ask Polly column in New York magazine.

SeparatorDear Sugars,

I have a problem that may seem small to many people, but it feels big to me. I have a wonderful boyfriend and we are so in love. We've been together for more than two years, and we recently moved in together. I have never felt as close to anyone as I do to him.

The problem is that he rarely gives me gifts or cards. For every birthday, anniversary or Christmas, I have spent weeks finding the perfect gift. I often spend hours making him a card. I do not expect this level of gift-giving from him, as I deeply enjoy doing this for people that I love. But what I would like is some sort of card — even one from a store — and a small gift that shows he cares. I would even be pleased with just the card.

My reasoning is that these occasions present the perfect opportunity to show someone how much they mean to you. I've explained that I don't care how much money he spends and that something homemade means more to me than anything.

Sugars, he loves to do art and draws or doodles all the time, which makes me saddened further when I don't get a card from him. He says he understands, and although it's not something that is important to him in general, it is important to him because it is important to me. But I haven't seen much change in his behavior.

He often offers me money or to buy me something that I want for a specific day, but I have told him that I really just want him to pick something out for me himself. It seems to me like gift-giving is an afterthought for him. It's hard for me to imagine spending my life with someone who does not exchange a little something to mark our years together, and I so deeply treasure the cards and gifts he has given me.

Does this make me a selfish or materialistic person? Is this something that I just need to accept about him? Please help, I really want to spend my life happily with this man, and I'm sure if I can figure out how to proceed with this issue we can sort it out. I am willing to compromise but not sure what that looks like or how to move forward in that direction. I don't want to sell myself short like I have done in so many of my past relationships.



Cheryl: I felt this letter in my own heart. I remember saving money to buy my high school boyfriend this incredibly cool and pricey — at least for me back in those days — boombox. And I gave it to him, and he said thank you, and I got that lump in my throat because it became clear that he didn't have anything for me. We drove on and he stopped at a gas station and said, "Hold on, I'll be right back." He comes walking out of the gas station carrying a 12-pack of Diet Coke. He hands it to me and says, "Merry Christmas," and I look at him and I'm really really trying not to burst into tears. And he says, "What? You love Diet Coke."

So anyway, it was a horrible gift, and it was a gift that announces the fact that he didn't do what Materialistic's partner has also not done, which is to really consider the occasion. But you know, I have to say I have evolved on my thinking about this. I understand why I was disappointed. But I also understand that this guy loved me, but that gift-giving wasn't something that was important to him as a sign of our bond.

Steve: Materialistic writes, "A small gift that shows he cares." So this is the idea — that there's really an emotional transaction that's wrapped within that material transaction. That's the way she sees it, and they've talked about it, and he's agreed that it's important to him because it's important to her. But then he doesn't follow through on it. That to me makes him the bad actor in this scenario.

More alarming to me is the idea that this little microcosm is the reflection of a larger pattern in her relationships. She says at the end of this letter, "I don't want to sell myself short like I have in so many past relationships." Is this symptomatic of your boyfriend not really hearing your emotional and psychological concerns (which would be bad news, Christmas or otherwise)?

Heather Havrilesky: I think that's really what the letter is about, because personally, my husband and I are both pretty terrible about getting gifts for each other. But because I feel so secure in the relationship and we talk about everything all the time, it's hard to imagine changing my attitude based on a lack of a gift. My husband shows care toward me all the time.

So with this letter, I feel like the big question is, why do these gifts matter so much? Maybe she needs to sit down with him one more time and say, "I need this. I don't care if you think it's stupid. I'm telling you right now that I really need this." It's hard when you're in a relationship, especially if the commitment is uncertain, to sit down and say, "This is what I need from you. This is what I want you to do."

I've been in relationships where I've said to my boyfriends, 'You know, I'm going to spell it out for you because you don't seem to be getting it." And it works. If the person cares, it works.

There's a worry in the back of my mind with this whole letter. I wonder if she is open to information that says he is not caring for her. I wonder if she can only see it with the gifts, that she can't see other ways in which he neglects what she specifically asks for.

Cheryl: I have a little bit of practical advice for Materialistic, that is to say, "Let's just get rid of all these feelings of expectation and doubt around gift-giving." A long time ago, I realized every Christmas and anniversary and birthday I was feeling like, "Am I going to feel loved by what my husband decides to get for me?"

So my husband and I just decided that we would get rid of that kind of exchange and buy things that we chose together for us. Then it's not about what he gave you and what you gave him, but what you gave each other and what you get to enjoy together.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more about problems during the holidays.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email and it may be answered on a future episode.

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