My high school boyfriend bought me the ugliest dress of all time for Christmas. No, seriously. It was mixed-media ugly, and consisted of a light blue sweater dress, with a brown plaid skirt attached to the bottom, and three silver hooks on the bib of the collar. But instead of telling him upfront that it was heinous and I wanted nothing to do with it, I did what any high-schooler would do: I lied.
Cut to Christmas morning, when we were supposed to go to his aunt’s house for holiday festivities. When we were exchanging gifts, he had not-so-gently told me that I should wear the dress to meet his family. “Cool, cool,” I had said.
It was not cool, though. That morning, I scrambled around my room trying to find anything that would make the dress look presentable for his family. It was like a Project Runway challenge from hell.
As a 17-year-old in my first "serious" relationship, I cared a lot about what his family and friends thought about me, because he insisted that we were in it for the long haul. I also cared way too much about what he thought about me, because I was convinced I wasn’t good enough for him. (This illogical, self-critical thought process was likely a byproduct of him cheating on me — repeatedly — and then convincing me I needed to change if I wanted our relationship to be on solid ground.) Eventually I decided to wear a waffle-knit long-sleeve thermal and brown tights to make the dress look something close to presentable — but yes, it looked just as bad as you're envisioning.
When my boyfriend pulled up in his Jeep, I stepped out of my house and prayed for death. I was a pro at pretending that I was okay after everything we had been through, but for some reason this emotion was harder to mask. As soon as I got in the car, I pouted to see if he could sense how terrible I felt. He didn’t, and that’s when I lost it. Sobbing through apologies, I sheepishly told him that I actually hated the dress, and I didn't want him to be upset. This time, he pouted, and coldly told me to go inside and change. Instead of reassuring me that it was not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, he said his mom could return it — which she did, and he made me go with her to do it. But man, did that pile on the guilt that I had offended him and his family.
The next year, he asked me to make a list of everything I wanted for Christmas, as if that would give him immunity in case anything else went wrong. That is sort of how he dealt with problems in the relationship: Instead of admitting that he played a role in our issues, he turned the blame on me, which meant that the onus was always on me to fix things. I wanted to make him happy, so I made a long list: a Coach wallet, Ugg earmuffs, nice PJs, and a bunch of other stuff that was on-trend at the time. It made me feel like a spoiled brat.
On Christmas day, I went to his house to exchange gifts and his kitchen counter was covered with presents for me. His mom watched smugly as I started to open the gifts, like she was daring me to say I didn't like them. One by one, I unwrapped every single item that I had asked him for on the list. On paper, he got me everything I wanted, but I still felt deeply unhappy and empty. Somehow, looking at all of this stuff allowed me to see through the smoke show he had created; I could no longer ignore the fact that our relationship wasn't healthy.
We broke up less than a month later, and I gave the gifts to Goodwill. Looking back, it was clear that we weren't on the same page from the start. It was never about the dress, or the "right" gifts; it was about feeling heard and supported, and like we were on a team. But I wish I had recognized sooner that my strong reaction to that dress was a symptom of larger problems in our relationship — namely his cheating and his controlling, manipulative behavior. I'm not saying I was perfect, but I wasn't a brat, and I didn't need him to just know what I wanted (for Christmas or in life). I just needed a partner who could truly empathize and take ownership of their part of the relationship. And he showed me, time and again, that he was never going to do that for me.
Of course, one bad gift shouldn't be relationship-ending. But I've learned that if I can't figure out how to communicate to my partner that I'm upset, and they're not receptive to hearing it, that's a sign that there's a bigger issue in the relationship. And sometimes "red flags" aren't obvious — they're light blue with brown plaid.