Choosing the Right Gift for Your Spouse

by Margot Starbuck

As a project manager for a local construction company, my husband, Peter, had just finished transforming a beautiful brick textile warehouse into a collection of artists' studios. At the end of his workday on Dec. 24, Peter poked his head into the studio belonging to his favorite local artist. Scanning the paintings one last time before heading home, he was disappointed to see that the painting he'd desperately hoped I would buy him for Christmas still hung on the west wall.

For over a year I'd known that Peter had been pining for the quirky colorful rendering of the local Kwik Kar Wash. As an artist myself, well able to slap beautiful colors on a canvas for free, my practical side made me reticent to spend our hard-earned money on this desired aesthetic

Later that evening as we headed to our church's Christmas Eve service, Peter expressed the deep disappointment he'd felt when he saw the painting still hanging in the studio. He went on to share his deeper suspicion that I didn't really know him. His words stung. Realizing that his feelings of loss were about far more than the painting, we simply walked into the sanctuary in silence.

Too often, the exchange of Christmas gifts between spouses becomes an annual conflict where expectations, values and longings collide, resulting in hurt and disappointment. The truth that each one of us enters marriage with unique family traditions, money-management styles and love languages is clearly evident during the holidays.

Most of us long to bless our spouse, but we struggle to know how to do it.

A timeless lesson

The challenge of choosing the perfect gift provides the backdrop to O. Henry's classic Christmas story, "The Gift of the Magi." Newlywed Della sells her hair to a wigmaker to buy a chain for her husband, Jim's cherished pocket watch, while Jim secretly sells his watch to buy hair combs for his beloved. What promises to be a disastrous gift exchange becomes, instead, the moment in which — despite the gift itself — each partner experiences the comfort of being known and cherished. O. Henry got it right: In every marriage, a spouse wants to be deeply known for who he or she is.

My own husband taught me this timeless lesson the day before we married. After enjoying a raucous rehearsal dinner with friends and family, Peter pulled me aside and handed me a small gray velvet box. Lifting the lid, I found a beautiful pair of sparkling diamond earrings. Peter quickly explained that the jewelry came with a rather unique return policy.

"If you'd rather," he detailed, "you can exchange these for art supplies."

This bride couldn't have been more blessed. On the eve of our wedding, Peter was willing to sacrifice his own delight in giving me a gift that he loved for a far less glamorous gift that he suspected I'd love. Needless to say, the earrings never left the box. And though now, 16 years later, the art supplies are long spent, recalling that moment reminds me that I am known and loved by my generous husband.

The art of giving

Peter taught me by example what it means to bless one another by abandoning our own natural gift-giving habits in order to honor the preferences of the spouse we love. He taught me that the art of gift giving includes thinking outside oneself. Since I'm the practical one in my marriage, thinking outside myself may mean considering a gift that seems extravagant to me. For Peter, it means restraining his urge to splurge on a lavish gift when something practical would be most appreciated.

Looking at gift giving from our spouse's point of view makes it more about blessing our beloved and less about our desire as the giver. While discovering a spouse's preferences can happen by observation, most of us will need to have a conversation about what gift-giving practices will work best in our own marriage. We can begin by asking our spouse to share about the best gifts he has ever received and taking notice of what it was that touched his heart.

As Peter and I look beyond our personal desires or budget preferences, we are enjoying the adventure of getting to know one another and then blessing each other in ways that reflect the truth of Acts 20:35, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."

A Christmas surprise

As we walked into church on that tension-filled Christmas Eve, Peter had no way of knowing how I'd intentionally labored over his gift. I had counted the cost. I'd sought advice from friends. After considering the advice, I had recounted the cost. Then I'd commissioned the artist to paint the attractive brick campus where her studio was nestled — Peter's very first job for his company.

When Christmas morning arrived, it sounded as if my frustrated groom was banging the breakfast skillet a little louder than usual. While he dutifully whisked the pancake batter, I sneaked into the hallway to remove from the wall an old painting I'd helped our children create. Tossing it into our den, I carefully retrieved the masterpiece that the artist had delivered several days earlier. Slipping it onto the waiting nail, I returned to the living room to join grandparents and children in a snowdrift of wrapping paper.

About 10 minutes later, Peter stumbled in to join us. Wide-eyed and tongue-tied, he was clearly having trouble processing what he'd just seen hanging in the hall. He was overwhelmed by the dawning realization that the gift he received was better than the one he had imagined. At the time, he didn't even have a category for being known so intimately. He does now.

Find more about how to juggle your finances and talk about money with your spouse this Christmas. Explore budgeting and communication topics at

This article appeared in the December 2011 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "The Right Stuff?" Copyright © 2011 by Margot Starbuck. Used by permission.


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