As Christmas approaches I have been reflecting on one of its central aspects – giving and receiving gifts. Of course, the exchange of gifts is a joyous part of Christmas. It’s an opportunity to treat the people you care about to something you feel sure they will like and to have that reciprocated. Receiving gifts is one of the five love languages identified by Dr Gary Chapman, and for some people gifts are an important way to show love and to feel loved. In that way, Christmas can be a special opportunity to fluently speak the love language of gift giving and receiving to create that wonderful Christmas spirit.
But there are complexities to the exchange of gifts that are not so joyous. If your love language is gifts, receiving a gift that you don’t like can be devastating. It can feel like the person giving the gift to you doesn’t know you or care about you at all. To not receive a thoughtful gift, or to not receive a gift at all, can feel like an act of hate or a denial of your identity, if receiving gifts is your main love language.
Then there are those of us who love to give, but struggle to receive and, perhaps more threatening, those who are more inclined to take than to give. Dr Betty Martin explores the Give/Receive dynamic in her Wheel of Consent model. She uses the terms Serve and Accept to describe Give and Receive. When we are Serving/Giving we are acting to benefit others and when we are Accepting/Receiving we are benefiting from the actions of others. This is a crucial human interchange that works well in both directions when the people in the exchange are acting within the boundaries of consent. The problems start when either the Giver or Receiver steps outside of the consent boundary. Giving too much can take us to the shadow side of generosity, which Dr Martin describes as do-gooder, rescuer, martyr and slave. Taking too much can take us to the shadow side of Receiving, which Dr Martin describes as freeloader, assumption of privilege, slavery and entitled. We can disempower and abuse people either way.
We have an obligation to check out where our balance is in the Give/Receive behaviours within our relationships. For example, if you always insist on paying for lunch, or, conversely, are always ready to accept lunch being bought for you, you might want to review how that affects your relationships with others. Ask yourself why it is important for you to be the Giver or why you feel you should be the Receiver. If you want to give something to someone and they don’t want it, you could be moving into the shadow side of Giving. If someone offers to give something to you and then realises it is beyond their boundary, or they simply change their mind, continuing to demand that gift could be moving you into the shadow side of Receiving.
I see this in my clinical work in the obligations and expectations of sexual relationships, another issue that raises its head at Christmas. As an ‘occasion’ Christmas can feel like a moment when one ‘should’ have sex, (like birthdays and anniversaries), when the sense of obligation increases to ‘give’ sex ‘to keep the partner happy’ or the sense of expectation increases to be given sex, ‘because its Christmas’. If this dynamic is playing out in your relationship, you might want to take stock and reflect on how active the consent between you and your partner(s) is.
So, this Christmas, take a moment to ask yourself whether Granny really likes shortbread or whether Dad actually wants more socks. Consider whether you are a choosing a gift because you like yourself, or if the person you are giving it to would like it. Perhaps reflect on the love languages of the people in your life. Would your partner(s) prefer all year round support with the housework or quality time with you rather than an extravagant Christmas gift? Above all, if you feel an obligation to give sex at Christmas, or at any other time in your year, or you feel entitled to take sex, please pause and consider more deeply the concept of consent and how far into the shadow lands of giving and receiving you have travelled.