Wednesday, November 9, 2011

This Relationship Corner: Birthdays

My wife and I have a tradition for her birthday. We have a lot of recipe books lying around, including the three volume set of tomes from Alton Brown. Every year, she gets to pick several recipes from one of those books for a fantastic meal, and I make it for her. It's something she always looks forward to because I'm not too shabby in the kitchen, and when paired with these advanced recipes, I produce some of my best output.

This leads me to today's topic: birthdays. Birthdays are important for a lot of us, and if they're important to your significant other, then they better be important to you. You better make a big deal about it, and above all else, you better remember when it is. In this digital age, there is no reason why someone's birthday should sneak up on you. If you can't remember it, you know there's an app for that. To forget a birthday is an act of willful ignorance. (Or a sign of severe head trauma, but men, if you're going to use that excuse, get a doctor's note.)

A birthday is important because it's a day in which you show your spouse/partner how much they mean to you. It can be a litmus test for the relationship early on, as whether they remember or what they do for you indicates how much they care. In fact, if you are just starting a dating relationship, making a big deal over a birthday is a sure way to impress your significant other.

But what happens when the two of you finally make your relationship permanent, when you don't need to sustain the relationship with grand gestures? Should you still make a big deal out of birthdays when you're married? Is it really a big deal after you've settled down, moved in, had a few kids, and know that they two of you will spend the rest of your lives together.

Yes, it's a big deal.

Now, in a relationship, there are two people involved: the celebrator and the celebratee. Both of you have responsibilities to ensure that this birthday goes well, because it's not just about you, it's about the relationship, and there could be a lot more riding on this day than you realize. First, I want to talk to those of you celebrating your partner's birthday, the celebrators.

Understand that how much you care is reflected in your effort. Not just for birthdays, though, in everything. Relationships take time and effort. You have to invest in them to get the return you want. Nothing will cause a relationship to wither and die faster than lack of effort. If you take it for granted, it will die on you. It's like a plant, you can only leave it sitting out so long without care and attention: they need water, sunlight, pruning, fertilizer, and sometimes you have to re-pot. If you ignore them, they'll die, and you don't want that for your garden or your relationship.

I'm not saying that you need to throw your spouse a giant surprise party every year, or even have a party at all. If that's what they want, if they'd love a chance to get together and celebrate with friends, then go for it. However, if they don't want a big fuss, if they'd just like to spend a quiet day with you, that's perfectly fine, and you two can still have a great time together. Put yourself in your partner's shoes. A birthday celebration isn't what you would want, so don't project your desires onto them. Don't assume that they want to celebrate the way you'd like to. Instead, actually think about who they are and what they prefer.

Either way, nothing will impress your mate more than knowing you went to all that effort to make his/her one day special. Because, really, that's the point. Part of knowing which route to take involves getting to know the other person and figuring out how they feel about their birthday. However, there is a surefire way to find out how to celebrate, and that's to ask and listen. And then, do what you're told.

For our celebration, my wife points to the recipes and I make them. She's not interested in a big party but prefers a quiet, intimate celebration, and that's what I give her. So you, too, should figure out what your spouse/partner wants and then deliver.

Of course, you're thinking about gifts. In addition to a party, celebration, or doing something special, shouldn't you get a gift? Probably, and this is where you find a lot of stress, because you don't know what to give. I realize that it might take some of the fun out of it, but there's just one way to avoid disappointment: ask. That's right, you can ask your significant other. It's allowed. I know what to get my wife every year because she tells me what she wants, I get it for her, and she's so grateful.

Besides, we have a joint account, anyway, so I'm spending our money on the gift. For us, the birthday gift is mainly license to buy something extravagant for ourselves that we'd normally not buy.

This takes me to your responsibilities when you are celebrating your birthday, or when you are the celebratee. That's right, just because it's your day doesn't mean you are entitled to act like no one else matters. Remember that this is just one day, and if you act like a diva we'll still have three-hundred sixty-four other days to resent you. (Three sixty-five in a leap year.) While the responsibility of the celebrator is to put forth the effort, your responsibility as the celebratee is to be appreciative of the effort and make the entire process easy.

Which takes us back to the gift. If there's something you want, your heart's true desire, just tell your partner. Explain precisely what you want so that you won't be disappointed.You might be incensed at that notion, because what about the element of surprise? Shouldn't your spouse just know what you want without you having to say it explicitly? Doesn't that show how much you care, that you can effectively read each other's minds?

Look, I get that when two people get close, they can anticipate each other's moods, desires, and even thoughts. That's part of getting closer. However, as in every other aspect of the relationship, open and honest communication is always better than making your partner play guessing games. We're not always 100% when it comes to knowing each other's thoughts, and you only set yourself up for disappointment if you refuse to explain yourself and then expect the other person to always get it. It's unfair and can do a lot of damage to a relationship.

In other words, get over yourself. While yes, the birthday is about you, remember that you aren't the only other person involved in this little celebration. Like your wedding day, this day will end and you'll return to your regular lives. Would you prefer to resume normal activities on a good note, letting the positive energy push you ahead? Or would you prefer to set yourself up for disappointment, gripe and complain because your uncommunicated demands weren't precisely met, and go back to your daily routine in a foul mood?

Give your partner a break. He/she wants to do well by you and will put in a lot of effort, so the least you can do is give them a clear picture of where to go. Just because this is your birthday doesn't mean that you shouldn't be considerate.

This last section is for the both of you. Before you think I'm being a killjoy here, I want you to understand that you can still have surprises. After all, while I know my wife's major requirements, I still get her a little something each year that's a surprise. With the pressure off, because I'm not killing myself for the "right" gift, I'm able to relax and do a better job. Plus, if she doesn't like it as much as I think she will, that's irrelevant, because the major factors of her birthday are still present: the meal, the gift she wanted, and time together.

A friend of mine did the same thing with a party he threw for his wife. He organized an 80's party for his wife's birthday, and we all showed up dressed in our best 80's guises. (Why, yes, I came as Flock of Seagulls and it looked awesome.) This wasn't a surprise party; she knew all about it. With something that big, he made sure it was what his wife wanted, and she loved the idea.

With the big celebration out of the way, he was then able to unleash a smaller, but no less appreciated surprise: he dressed up like Robert Palmer, got three of her friends to be the dead-eyed women 'playing' guitar, and sang a parody version of Addicted to Love that he wrote for her. It was a lovely surprise that he spent a lot of time on because he loved her.

In the end, she had a great time because he put in the effort and made sure that she was happy. She also made it easy on him by being clear about her main wants and desires. Their birthday experience was something they will always cherish.

Birthdays matter, and you shouldn't write off those dates as just another day. Do them right and you'll have a healthier, happier relationship. Be an appreciative birthday boy/girl and we'll want to exert a lot more effort for you next year. All it requires is honest communication, a mature attitude, and some effort.

A nice cake wouldn't kill you, either.

What are relationships like in a fantasy universe? Find out in the book I wrote.

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