dressWhen my husband and I were first dating, he gave me a dress. Picture Judy Garland’s blue-and-white Dorothy outfit–only in Emerald City green–and you’ve got it. When I tried it on, I was transformed from a cynical east coaster to something far more innocent and adorable. I totally got why it appealed to my young, incredibly sweet Midwestern boyfriend.

But I felt uncomfortable in the dress, like I was wearing someone else’s skin. I was into flowing black Bohemian dresses in those days. Looking like an adorable little girl from Kansas just didn’t align with my goal of coming across as a cool, hip young writer.

Now if this were a certain kind of article, I would go on to say that I should have seen a red flag in that gift, that my husband was clearly trying to turn me into someone I’m not, that we were doomed from that moment on, etc etc.

But it’s not that kind of an article. We survived the green dress and recently celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary.

The truth was, as much I didn’t love the dress itself, I appreciated the affection behind it enough to pretend to love it and even to wear it a few times. Not a lot. But enough. And my future husband beamed with pride every time.

His present to me was the dress; mine to him was wearing the dress without complaint.

And maybe that’s the thing about gifts: you think the burden’s on the giver, but it’s not–or at least not entirely. Yeah, you should give gifts that are personal and appropriate (seriously, folks, enough with the candles and scarves) but everyone screws up at some point and strikes out. Then the ball is in the recipient’s court. (I’m not good at sports, so . . . mixed metaphors.)

bagHow do you respond when someone gives you something that seems like it was meant for someone else entirely? How do you discourage future repeats of really awful presents without damaging the relationship?

By giving the giver a gift of your own: the benefit of the doubt. Keep saying “It’s the thought that counts” in your head and accept the gift with gratitude and a smile.

Maybe the giver is someone you rarely exchange gifts with, in which case, what difference does it make if he or she has given you a clunker? Let it go. Be gracious and toss the gift on the Goodwill pile once Great Uncle Milo is gone.

But if it’s someone close to you, who’s likely to be giving you a lot of gifts in the future, you need to focus on retraining that person. And, as we’ve all learned from our pets, positive reinforcement is way more effective than negative at getting results. So don’t be rejecting of the bad gift. Make it clear that you enjoy getting any gift at all and that you love that the person thought of you.

And then drop a LOT of hints for the rest of the year about what you’d really like to get. Not in a “you got it wrong before” sort of way, more in an “I would so love anyone who gave me this” kind of way. And when a gift-giving date is approaching, go from hinting to downright asking. I often email my husband with links to things I want. It’s win-win: it makes his job easier and I get what I want.

And if the right present appears on the gift-giving date, pour on the praise and gratitude like there’s no tomorrow. You’ve already established that you’ll appreciate any gift; now make it clear that you’ll totally flip over the RIGHT gift.

shoesOf course, we all love being surprised, so ideally, over time, your giver will stop needing the hints and demands and become an expert at picking out gifts that will both surprise and delight you. My husband’s figured it out. I’m glad I didn’t write him off as a [[“bad” ? – PGR]] gift-giver because of the green dress—that I saw his potential and spent the next couple of decades refining it. Now my birthdays totally rock. So do Mother’s Days. I feel loved, understood, valued and indulged.

And all these years later, when I think about that green dress, I don’t dwell on the fact that the waist pinched or that the collar was too round and girly—I just think about the tall, gangly boy who loved me enough to want to give me a present he picked out all by himself. For me.

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