“I look stupid,” Spencer* frowned as he checked the picture of us on his DSLR camera. We both looked stupid, and that was the point. We were tangled in Christmas lights, posing for our DIY holiday card. I went all-in with an ugly Christmas sweater, elf hat, and two candy canes held high in a heart shape with a big grin. But Spencer was too focused on looking “cool,” which usually came in the form of his stained teal Urban Outfitters Rocco’s Modern Life T-shirt. At least this time he mixed it up with a white button-down and an untied green and red bow-tie.
Still, the card was a hit with our family, friends, and co-workers. “You both are too cute!” a friend chuckled to me after receiving it.
On the outside, we might’ve looked Christmas card picture-perfect – but behind the “cheer” was a relationship holding on by a string light. I was in too much denial then to admit that to myself, and clung to the belief of “us” like an adult who still believes in Santa. After nine months of dating, and with plans to soon move in together, this was our first Christmas as a couple. Since we were sending out a card, I assumed we’d ring in the entire holiday together. “Come to Connecticut with me, or let’s go visit your parents up the coast,” I offered. “Nah, I’m just going to stay here. Have fun with your family,” he shrugged.
I kind of understood. We’d both recently lost our jobs along with all of our coworkers after two different media companies folded. Times were tough. But I made it work by starting a one-woman meal delivery service and blogging, and he was applying for jobs, which is always hard during the holidays.
“Okay, well we can celebrate when I’m back before we ring in the new year,” I told him “K,” he groaned, getting lost in the usual video games he played.
I left for my parents’ house in Connecticut, and when I was there, I’d barely hear from my partner.
All my texts were met with “k” or “sure,” and whenever we chatted on the phone, he was either busy, distracted, or “can’t talk right now.” I found myself panicking a lot, feeling shortness of breath. I’d text him, “good night I love you” before attempting to go to sleep at midnight on the east coast — then wake up in a cold sweat hours later to see that he still hadn’t responded. My heart sunk each time. What was he doing? I convinced myself he was obviously cheating on me — I’d already been suspecting it since he seemed distant during all our nights together, but was I carrying baggage from past relationships into this fairly new one?
Before flying back to Los Angeles to ring in the new year with Spencer, I went on a hunt to find him the perfect affordable gift. I scored a pair of pajama pants he desperately needed and a classic hunter green sweater, both on sale. When I handed him his gift with a handmade card after he picked me up from the airport on New Year’s Eve Eve, his face dropped, “Oh. I didn’t get you anything.” At first, I thought he was joking, then I realized he wasn’t.
I managed to say, “That’s okay,” but I was disappointed. While I didn’t expect him to get me anything extravagant since money was tight, I would’ve been elated with simply a card, collage, or even a Spotify playlist. Any gift that cost virtually nothing but time and thought. Throughout our relationship, most of our presents to each other had been homemade anyway, just like our DIY Christmas card. How hard would it have been for him to make something for me to show that he cares? Or did he just not care anymore?
“Break-up with him,” my Dad scolded when I told him what happened. “He’s just depressed, Dad,” I said. “I’m sure things will be better once he gets a job.”
Spencer got a job in New York in January. We lived in Los Angeles, and he asked me to move with him. I was caught up in the fact that it seemed he was finally considering me to be his serious partner, and having no full-time job holding me back in LA anymore, I said sure — then talked to my therapist. “If this is what you want, and you can look past that Christmas gift or lack thereof,” my therapist warned, “then, sure, go for it.” So I did.
After the move in April and after just two months of living with him in Brooklyn, it slowly became clear to me why my partner didn’t give me a Christmas gift. He didn’t care about me the way I cared about him.
Before the move, he didn’t offer, or even try, to help me move my life across the country into our new apartment. While I packed, he didn’t give me a heads up that a moving truck paid for by his company would be coming to his apartment to take his belongings across the country — leaving me to either sell, donate, or throw away my possessions, or spend money I didn’t have to uproot 10 years of my life by myself.
Once I’d moved to New York, things only got worse. We were living in a not great neighborhood in Brooklyn and I was alone most of the time in a city I didn’t know, without any friends to hang out with when Spencer was busy. I’d moved in with him in April, then moved out when our relationship inevitably crumbled that Thanksgiving.
When I moved my stuff out a couple of days after the holiday, there was a tree in the middle of the apartment. On a whiteboard behind it, he scribbled, “Goodbye Gabi” with a broken heart. Under the tree were wrapped presents: a photo album of all the photos we took when we were together and a long note about how sorry he was about everything. I broke down and cried. This hurt even more than last year’s missing gift; it was like he’d known how to be a strong partner the whole time, but chose not to act like one because he’d taken me for granted; he assumed I would always put up with his treatment of me. It took moving out and ending things for him to realize how he’d messed up in our relationship.
I heard more from Spencer during the next Christmas after our breakup than I had on any holiday when we were together.
There were phone calls, text messages, and long e-mails where he’d ask me how I’m doing and how my day was — questions he’d never ask me when we were together. He confessed that all he’d done since the breakup was think about the “million and ten things” he could have done better, how he wasn’t in therapy when were dating which was “an oversight” (like he forgot to get eggs at the grocery store), how he’s started going to therapy once a week, keeping the apartment clean, doing “14-22 push-ups and sit-ups a day,” and not obsessively playing video games.
When I read that email after he sent it last Christmas Eve, and when I read it now, almost a year later, I cry. I cry because he knew what he could’ve done to make me feel happy, loved, and respected, but he didn’t do it. Younger me would’ve gotten back together with him after all of these messages, believing he’d changed. But older me knows that his words are just empty promises because I realize now that people show me who they are by their actions.
The second he didn’t even try to make me a Christmas gift was the first sign of many that Spencer didn’t think I was important.
Our whole relationship was about his needs, and I was just there, simply going along with the cross country move. I was so focused on making sure he was comfortable and happy that I pushed my own needs down, like secrets. I shouldn’t have needed to break up with Spencer and move out of our apartment for him to learn that he wasn’t supportive. It was too little too late.
I don’t need expensive or elaborate gifts from a partner over the holidays (actually, in my opinion, overcompensating with gifts or love bombing can be a red flag too). Love isn’t a gift wrapped up with a big bow — it’s a verb. Actions or thoughts to let others know they matter.