Unwrapped!

Every time I wander around the mall searching for a gift for my girlfriend, I caan't help being jealous of the Rhamphomyia sulcata, or dance fly. Love-wise, these tiny pests are what you might call total players. When the male dance fly is looking for a female to get buggy with, he doesn't spend hours contemplating the perfect present that will seduce her. Instead, he whips up a tiny ball of cotton wool and offers it to her. To which she promptly responds, "Let's get it on." You, on the other hand, are an infinitely more complicated creature, and we guys often have a much harder time translating our thoughts into three-dimensional objects. A new iron? A sweater? Even flowers can leave you wondering what we're thinking in those insect-size brains of ours. So to help you understand our primitive ways of showing we care, here's a guide to our gift giving and what's really going on in our heads.

The Gift: Flowers or Chocolates

The Thinking: We know we're not scoring originality points here, but we rely on these love tokens for a simple reason — they cover a lot of bases. Birthdays, holidays, even when we've washed your red sweatshirt with your white pants — flowers say "I love you" or "I screwed up" better than we can say it ourselves. Luckily for us, you're also biologically programmed to love them. Flowers' aroma activates the emotional part of your brain, which makes you think happy thoughts about the person who gave them to you, says Daniel Amen, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Making a Good Brain Great: The Amen Clinic Program for Achieving and Sustaining Optimal Mental Performance. Meanwhile chocolates contain phenylethylamines and other seductive chemicals that stimulate the pleasure centers of your brain. These gifts we can't mess up. Unless you have an allergy we've forgotten about. Hate it when that happens.

The Gift: Clothes

The Thinking: A recent survey of male shopping habits at Christmastime showed that the majority of us were planning to buy you clothes — funny, since we can barely match our belts with our shoes. It's a risky move, but one with a simple motivation. Whenever you wear that item, it means you thought about us for at least the time it took to retrieve it from your dresser drawer. And we're in tune with you. "My fiance is a girly-girl, so I got her some frilly tops for Christmas," says Vincent, 39. "It's such a thrill to see her with them on. I felt like I understood her." If we offer to take you shoe shopping, we're thinking along different lines. "Shoes are very sexual," Dr. Amen says. "There's a part of the brain called the sensory strip, in which the foot area is close to the clitoral area. So going shoe shopping together is like foreplay."

The Gift: Jewelry

The Thinking: Diamonds, we have long been told, mean many things. They're forever, they're your best friend — and an emerald-cut solitaire would apparently look quite stunning on your ring finger. We know that if you're waiting for The Ring, a serviceable set of studs isn't going to make you happy. But when you consider the expense involved and the sentimental value of whatever we pick out, we're making a mini-commitment to you and showing that we take this relationship seriously. And long after the wedding, the kids, and the day care bills, icing you up is a great way to remind you that you're still as glamorous and sexy as ever.

The Gift: Lingerie

The Thinking: Okay, on the surface, presenting you with a lacy teddy isn't very complicated: We know you'll look hot when you put it on — and even hotter when you take it off. But it's also a sweet sign of intimacy, signaling that we think we know you well enough to understand how you'll react. Joel, 30, waited a year after he started dating his wife before buying her lingerie. "She reacted positively," he says, "if laughing hysterically is positive — but she wore it."

The Gift: An Appliance

The Thinking: Before you heave that blender at our heads, hear us out. On the romance scale, we admit anything with Maytag or Black & Decker stamped on it is a stretch. But it proves we're listening when you complain about how that crummy iron leaves more wrinkles than it removes and that we appreciate the many thankless jobs you do — and want to make them easier. "My wife used to sew, but hadn't done it in years," says Victor, 31. "I gave her a sewing machine for Christmas, and she was floored."

The Gift: A Did-it-Himself Original

The Thinking: We're revealing a side of ourselves the rest of the world hasn't seen since the days of Crayola sketches on mom's refrigerator. And that's putting you in some good company. It also lets us peacock a bit, showing off our creative side while giving you something deeply personal. Even if our talent doesn't match our ambition, a poem we wrote or a DVD slideshow set to your favorite music means we've set our love phasers to "swoon." Feel free to synchronize.

The Gift: A Gift Card

The Thinking: This could be the relationship equivalent of the "check engine" light glowing on your dashboard. If we hand you a gift card to Target, we don't know enough about what you're interested in — and that's not good. But if it's for a facial at a glamorous salon or dinner at the restaurant where we first met, there's no need to call the mechanic. Also consider that "he might be afraid of making a mistake," says Carole Lieberman, M.D., coauthor of Bad Boys: Why We Love Them, How to Live With Them, and When to Leave Them. Andy, 35, admits he's given his girlfriend Barnes & Noble cards because she likes to read, so they're foolproof. In the end, when we're out of ideas, our goal is to avoid screwing up.

The Gift: "For Us" Presents

The Thinking: On the surface it seems selfish, but really it's a way to strengthen our bond by better feathering our joint nest. Say you love nothing more than a good read on a lazy weekend. Although "Ikea" and "passion" are not terms often paired together (even if you love the word skruvsta), what could be better than a plush chair for you to curl up in? This gift actually says he really cares about you, says Ava Cadell, Ph.D., author of 12 Steps to Everlasting Love. Of course, we're also hoping you'll put that book down in favor of a little thank-you skruvsta later on. This works on a smaller scale, too. Despite his wife's rule that no gifts "for the house" can be passed off as gifts for her, David, 26, found a handcrafted picture frame he knew she'd love. And she accepted it happily. "It's on the wall now with a photo from our wedding," he says.

The Gift: A Vacation

The Thinking: Short of booking a 5-night stay at the Baghdad Marriott, this one is almost impossible to get wrong, and the message is loud and clear. "It's building memories," Dr. Amen says. "It's a shared experience." In a new relationship, we're ready to take the connection to a deeper level, preferably one involving room service and "Do Not Disturb" signs. If we're married it eliminates excuses for skipping time together, from the kids to work and everything in between. We scheduled the flight. We reserved the suite. We're bringing the chocolates, the lingerie, the flowers. All you have to do is show up. And how about a little shoe shopping?

When Our Gifts Go Wrong

Sometimes our gift radar is a tad off the mark. Aside from reenacting the head- spinning trick from The Exorcist, there are ways to let us know we blew it, and better yet, to help us avoid making the same mistake twice.

1. Fake It (at first)
Telling us right away just makes us feel bad — and makes you seem ungrateful. Smile through the pain, then give it a couple of weeks before you attempt to show us the error of our gift-giving ways.

2. Be Subtle
Nothing gets our backs up quicker than you pointing out our failures, and in our minds that's exactly what this is. You can take some sting out of it simply by dropping hints that maybe, just maybe, a sleek wristwatch would be more practical than a grand-father clock.

3. Play Teacher
Encourage us with speciifc feedback — yes, you love shoes, but you're more Jimmy Choo slingbacks than knee-high vinyl boots. Plan a shopping trip so you can show us first hand the difference between what you like and what gift receipts were made for.

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