The cashmere sweater that Maryland feature writer Jayne Blanchard received from a colleague as a Christmas gift proved the end of their friendship.
"I gave her a trinket, some bath sachet from Crabtree and Evelyn," said the 29-year-old Journal newspaper writer. "She was somebody I hardly knew. I told her I couldn't accept the sweater as it seemed inappropriate, but she insisted. I felt overwhelmed. I didn't know if she was trying to buy my friendship. I think she felt cheated. After this, the friendship cooled."
For David Kempler, 45, a Washington attorney with Epstein, Becker & Green, it was the birthday Burberry raincoat from his wife that curdled his celebrations. "My wife was angry because I wouldn't accept it, but it was just too expensive. I returned it to Bloomingdale's and bought pants and shirts."
Every time Peter Kraemer, 38, a Silver Spring architect, receives a gift from his wife he accepts it, but he reacts the same way. "Last Christmas, she bought me a sensational overcoat. I was surprised, amazed, flattered -- and I felt guilty, like I didn't deserve it."
While it is certainly more blessed to give than to receive, it is also, apparently, a lot easier on the psyche. For deep and complex reasons, many people find it difficult to accept gifts of any kind.
The difficulty lies with how they confront such basic issues as control, helplessness, loss, trust and nurturance.
"People resist being given to. Most of us have a hard time with the act of taking in," says Arnold Medvene, a psychologist at the University of Maryland's Counseling Center in College Park. "We associate being given to with giving up freedom and autonomy. Most of this is unconscious but goes back to the old child-parent model where we are given to but are less powerful."
That's what's under the surface. But refusing a gift comes out as complaints about the gift's cost, size or tacky taste. "Not being able to receive," says Medvene, "creates severe restrictions in a relationship and is potentially painful for everyone. It's saying a lot of 'no' as opposed to opening doors." But by learning to receive, experts believe, everything from friendships to marriages to sex can be enriched. First, however, obstacles must be overcome.
Hidden strings. Like many who receive gifts out of proportion to the friendship, writer Blanchard wondered about the unspoken price. "It's important to talk about what the gift means," says College Park psychologist Yvonne McMullan, "so you are not shocked at the end of the week when there's a bill attached -- like, 'I gave you this lovely jewelry and I expect you to wear it to a dinner party.' "
Some people give, instead of receive, to maintain control. "Men particularly," says Medvene, "have a difficult time being given to. A lot of men give gifts to women out of power needs. Giving makes them feel in control, receiving makes them feel weak."
Like many men, attorney Kempler is much happier giving than receiving. "I feel more in control when I give. When my wife had a surprise 40th birthday party for me at Floriana's, it was overwhelming because it was such a big gift. There were 30 people there. A lot of work went into it. I felt like I couldn't ever reciprocate. I was touched because I never had such an elaborate birthday party."
Vulnerability. Tenderness can be frightening.
"It tends to be scary to have someone care so much," said psychologist McMullan. "When you are doing the giving you are in control, but when you receive a gift you open yourself up to the other person. You become vulnerable."
It was an old-fashioned shaving mug that caused a client of Faith Tanney's, a District psychologist, to become teary-eyed. "He'd always wanted one. He cried, but he didn't send it back. He was touched that his wife had taken so much effort to seek it out. It's not like sending someone a check." But many people refuse to open themselves up to the tenderness that comes with giving.
When Stephanie Faul, 37, a District writer, had her purse snatched, a friend spent the night at her house to provide moral support. "That was a gift I didn't want to receive because I'm too independent to need anybody to watch over me," said Faul. "Gifts kind of attack your independence because the ideal person doesn't need anything. My friend acted drunk so she'd have to stay here. In the morning, I realized how much she cared about me, and I was glad she stayed."
Old losses. When a person consistently refuses gifts, Tanney suggests tracing old patterns, looking at what role gifts have played in the person's past.
"A gift can remind people of a painful past, of things they didn't have," says Tanney. "Another client of mine would give her husband gifts on holidays, but he wouldn't give her anything. She'd be hurt. It wasn't the money, because he was earning over $100,000 a year.
"Eventually, we learned that as a kid he wanted a baseball glove, but his parents didn't have the money. He bought the glove with money he earned delivering newspapers. But when he brought the glove home, his mother gave him a hard time because it made his father feel bad about not having the money to buy it. Receiving presents was painful for him."
Sometimes childhood patterns must be overcome. "If you're not given to as a kid," says McMullan, "you do not learn how to receive. Instead, you may learn that you are not worthy of being given to. Other times people have poor self-esteem, so it's hard for them to believe that they are worthy of the gift, so they return it, or match the giver in the amount and quality of the gift."
Couples and Giving
In a relationship, being a reluctant gift receiver can indicate problems.
"Often couples who seek therapy are those in which the giving and receiving has broken down," says Silver Spring psychologist Roger S. Friedman.
Troubled couples, Friedman notes, can fall into three categories:
Giver-Receiver. One partner always gives, and the other always receives. "While this might be some people's fantasy, the one receiving feels helpless and dependent," says Friedman, "and the one giving feels unappreciated and ungrateful."
Two Givers: Neither person lets the other do anything. "What they're missing is sharing, the comfort and support that comes from the partnership," says Friedman.
Two Non-Givers, Non-Receivers: Here, nobody has time for either role. "This can occur in dual career couples where the individuals are more comfortable with independence and a lot of their needs are met outside their relationship.
Not only do such rigid roles preclude camaraderie in everything from paying the mortgage to driving the car pool, such asymetrical gift-giving also can lead to unfulfilling sex.
"In tender, intimate sex, there is giving and receiving," says Tanney. "It involves trust. You need to be instructed as to what things individuals prefer. It's revealing; you're vulnerable.
"An individual who has trouble in receiving can be a good sexual partner for a time," Tanney says. "He or she may give a great deal because of liking to feel in control." But in the long run, either partner's unwillingness to be vulnerable is damaging to the relationship.
Learning to Accept
It took emergency abdominal surgery this year to make Mary Grogan, a 39-year-old computer software specialist, truly feel comfortable accepting big gifts.
"I was fine one day, and in the hospital the next," recalled the University Park resident. "I really needed help. At first I was uncomfortable because I'm usually the one on the giving end, and because of my fear of strings.
"But it was wonderful. Friends brought my kids, who are 8 and 4, to see me. Someone else picked them up at the bus stop. When I came home, a man I had met once or twice came by and brought two bags of groceries and cooked dinner."
What did Grogan discover? "I found I liked getting gifts. Now I'm hoping I'll be more willing to accept gifts and offers of help. It felt nurturing."
Candyce H. Stapen is a Washington writer.