Presents reveal your emotional investment in a relationship.
There, I said it for you.
That's probably what you're weighing when you decide how much money to spend on your friend, spouse, brother, niece, nanny or housekeeper.
There's a little calculation that turns over in your mind: x (that would be the nature of relationship) plus or minus y (quality of said relationship in the past year) multiplied by the number of years you have known each other divided by your current economic situation.
Or something like that. And come to think of it, you probably also factor in what you bought for that person last year. I know, for example, that my mother is due a much more expensive Christmas present from me this year as compensation for the Gloves of Questionable Taste. That's how I have come to think of the black-with-pink-detailing pair I gave her last year. She wore them, of course - she is a mother - and said she liked them. But I cringed when I saw them on her hands. What possessed me when I bought those? I thought. Oh yes, I had been in a rush and scooped them up last minute - from a sales bin.
Of course there are some relationships that go through rocky periods and it doesn't affect the gift calculation. I would never let anything change the amount I spend on my three children except my own economic situation. In fact, I make sure I spend roughly the same amount on each - and did so even when they were too young to know the price of things. The reasoning? My love is equal, so my gifts to them should be, too.
But to others? I would not be the first to admit that if someone I am involved with romantically disappoints me, I would not invest a lot of time, thought and money into a present for him. (To be frank, I should have known that my husband and I were on the brink of divorce when he gave me a cheap cellphone for my 40th birthday. He was usually so thoughtful, and his gifts to me during the good years were to die for.)
Still, a decline in emotional investment doesn't happen overnight. If you're in a long-term romantic relationship, it's not like you get diamonds one year and coal the next. It can take a long time for feelings to trickle down to your wallet. Besides, the spirit of the season inspires many people to think the best and try to repair a relationship, no matter how casual or serious, with a show of generosity.
"If a friend of mine and I have had a difficult year together, but we're still friends, I don't let that factor in," a fortysomething woman tells me. "At this time of year, we should be full of positive intent."
That's true. But I also think that as we age, there's another factor that comes into play when thinking about friends and how willing we are to invest money and time and emotion in them. Simply put: We lose patience with people who don't please us.
There, I said it for you again.
There is an editing phase of life, when you feel little compunction about removing people (and activities) that are toxic. I know others feel the same way. "There's a principle of economic scarcity in terms of how much time and tolerance we have left," a midlife woman explains. "I'm not going to troll the malls for gifts for people who are not key to my life. I spend way more time acquiring the perfect thing, the most thoughtful thing, for people I love and who bring me happiness."
Well said. And on that note, I'm off to look for something better than black-with-pink-detailing gloves for my mother.