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My wife never gives any hints about what she wants for her birthday (even after extensive direct questioning), but is sometimes disappointed that I didn’t get her the right thing.

This time, it turns out she wanted me to organise a surprise fun event for us to go to as a family (we have young kids). Besides presents, what I had actually done was spend the afternoon with our eldest kid baking a cake for her. This was wrong - not what she wanted at all. I can see that it wasn’t much fun for her during the baking process as she had to look after the baby which is a normal-day thing, not a birthday-day thing.

How can I avoid this happening again? How can I get a better sense of what she wants? Remember, asking isn’t enough as she genuinely doesn’t know herself what she wants. We had a row, and I asked her to give examples of the kind of thing she would have liked to do, and she came up with nothing.

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    Welcome to Interpersonal Skills Other than direct questioning beforehand, and the last discussion, what other things have you tried that didn't work, and have you discussed the problem itself, rather than the gift not given, with your wife before? – Witan ap Danu Feb 25 '18 at 9:16
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    What does she do for your birthday? – peufeu Feb 25 '18 at 12:21
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    You say she "is sometimes disappointed"—does that mean that sometimes she has been well pleased with what you've done? If so, what did you do on those occasions? – 1006a Feb 26 '18 at 4:02
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    The comments here are getting outright rude. If you don't want to ask for clarification, don't comment. Passing judgment on the OP's wife is not welcome here. – Catija Feb 26 '18 at 15:06

15 Answers 15

71

Did you marry my first GF? She always expected me read her mind, and then got pissed when it didn't happen. I was stumped at first, but quickly learned how to deal with her. Also I'm gonna have to agree with "masked man" and "polygnome", might change my mind if you add more information, but I doubt it. Let's review the evidence:

My wife never gives any hints about what she wants for her birthday (even after extensive direct questioning),

Remember, asking isn’t enough as she genuinely doesn’t know herself what she wants.

This was wrong - not what she wanted at all.

We had a row, and I asked her to give examples of the kind of thing she would have liked to do, and she came up with nothing.

This paints a pretty bleak picture, and smells quite like the following tactic: give someone an impossible task, and belittle them (or raise drama) when they inevitably fail. It's low-key abusive, and certainly not a grown-up thing to do. Also, you hope to do the right thing, but since she didn't tell you what she wants, you have no way to know if there was actually a solution that would have made her happy and this is what really drives you nuts. Perhaps she will reject it, no matter what you do... as someone said "the only winning move is not to play".

First thing to do is repair your self-esteem a bit:

Besides presents, what I had actually done was spend the afternoon with our eldest kid baking a cake for her.

This is a cool thing to do and I'm sure the kid had lots of fun helping in baking the cake. I like your idea. However, I wonder what the kid's reaction was when your wife rejected the cake he had helped to make. Must've been disappointed. (Also read the first comment by AllTheKingsHorses: "Problem is: it was the wife's birthday, so it should be her fun day. I have to say... making her do something ever-day (taking care of the smaller kid) so that you can go and have fun with the oldest on her birthda")

FYI this is how my friends do it: they will drop hints on me and other friends, and then we will drop hints on their SO. So you can ask your wife's female friends if she dropped hints. Also ask the kids. Basically ask everyone except her. If you both have hobbies that don't overlap, asking the friends she shares her hobby with is a good idea. Maybe she's pining for a mudguard with yuge flames on it and stuff for her dirt bike, or something, and you'd never guess, because you're not into that.

This is the best and easiest way. Even if she has no idea, her friends may come up with a good one. Or they may ask her and then report. People do this all the time. It maintains the apparence of surprise, while making sure you hit the spot.

If that fails, then keep in mind that the way you have been doing it failed, so you need a new way. That's why you're here. There are several ways out of this "give someone an impossible task, and belittle them when they inevitably fail" tactic:

  1. Prevent her from setting up the impossible task.

    "Extensive direct questioning" sounds a bit too much like interrogation to me, and in doing this, you make two mistakes: first, you annoy her, so she will enjoy watching you fail. Second, you place yourself in a subordinate position asking for her orders, which then allows her to lead although she has no idea what she wants.

    If she has no idea what she wants, then simply don't let her take the lead. If you do, then you're digging your own hole, and you accept the blame that will inevitably come, including for her own mistakes... I know, that's perverted logic, but it really works.

    A much better thing to do would be to not ask what she wants at all. Of course, you have a list of ideas you're thinking about, you asked all her friends, but don't mention them. She'll wait for you to ask what she wants, as you usually did in the past... and wait...

    (Her friends may tell her behind the scenes "your husband is so nice, he asked us all how to best make you happy for your bday" which also works in your favor).

    At some point she will grow curious or worried, and she will be the one to initiate the conversation. Try to stay vague. The idea is to both motivate her to come up with ideas herself, and to communicate that if she doesn't, you will do whatever you want.

    You can tease it out of her, even use self-deprecating humor like "Well, don't worry, I will honor my tradition of choosing the wrong gift, how about a potato this time? What? Everyone loves potatoes!" Make sure to substitute the potato for whatever you want, but it has to be something you like, so you'd actually do it if she doesn't come up with anything better. But a potato is fine, too.

  2. Bait-and-switch

    She's now dreadfully certain you'll offer a potato. Instead you organize something nice, but you don't tell what it is, and she finds out on the spot. This should calm down her controlling tendencies, since you're in charge of everything, and she doesn't know what will happen or where (it's a surprise), she will have to follow. If she rants too much you can cancel!... Which is why she won't. Just tell her what to wear and let her guess where you're going. You can do the full broadway musical if you want and you feel she deserves it, or bring her somewhere where all her friends will be waiting for a surprise party, or to the amusement park with the kids, etc.

  3. Fail gracefully

    How much you care about not fulfilling her expectations on her birthday should be about proportional to the effort she did on your own birthday. I'm gonna go on a limb here, but I'd bet all you got was a potato. So if she rants, just relax, you're used to that show...

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    give someone an impossible task, and belittle them (or raise drama) when they inevitably fail This and many other similar tactics are vividly described in this book The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious (The Pursuit of Unhappiness). – Andrew Savinykh Feb 25 '18 at 23:02
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    I think this answer could be improved by reducing the very judgmental attitude. We only have one side of the story (and only a few paragraphs of that), and assuming bad intent on the part of one's spouse seems like a dangerous attitude. – 1006a Feb 26 '18 at 4:03
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    @everyone It's also easy to assume that the fault lies completely with the wife (because she would have complained anyway...). The question for the OP is what he wants more: the satisfiyng feeling of being totally in the right or the satisfying feeling of a relationship where communication hasn't broken down and everyone just assumes the other one must be wrong. – AllTheKingsHorses Feb 26 '18 at 10:59
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This:

Remember, asking isn’t enough as she genuinely doesn’t know herself what she wants. We had a row, and I asked her to give examples of the kind of thing she would have liked to do, and she came up with nothing.

Suggests to me that you might be reading the situation wrong. After all, it's not often that someone is so satisfied with things that they can think of nothing nice they want for a birthday surprise.

So I'm not sure that I believe she doesn't know what she wants. I suspect what she really wants isn't a gift or surprise but a demonstration that you understand her well enough to pick a good one without asking.

It's also possible - as others have suggested - that this is a manipulative behaviour to control and belittle you. However, as a man, I would caution against assuming this is the case without a great deal more evidence. Men might ask a friend what they want expecting, and getting, a concrete answer. But in a relationship, partners sometimes just want to feel loved, and the best way to show that is to show that you understand their feelings.

Thus, when you say

I can see that it wasn’t much fun for her during the baking process as she had to look after the baby which is a normal-day thing, not a birthday-day thing.

You're hitting the nail on the head. Your mistake was not thinking in advance about how that might feel. Looking after a baby is ridiculously hard: they are constantly demanding and need constant care, leading to exhaustion and stress. While you had a lovely thought for a birthday surprise - a homemade cake - it seems to show that you don't understand quite how hard baby-work is.

Sadly - and this might not be what you want to hear - if this is the case the only thing you can do to make it better is thinking more. Consider her situation, the things she has to do, and how that might impact on her day to day life. Then take the negative aspects of that, and see if you can think of a surprise that removes as many of them as possible in one go. For example, a family day out where you can spend some time together, but also where you can do most of the childcare, leaving her plenty of free time to enjoy the destination.

The good news is that you can ask about this. Talk to her about the things that she finds difficult, and why. Listen to the answers, and don't just jump right in with a practical solution. Then take that away, and apply it to the process described above.

As a bonus, letting her you want to listen more about her problems, and try to think of ways you can help or alleviate them, might be a great way of showing you've learned from the row and are looking to move forward in a positive way.

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    "but also where you can do most of the childcare, leaving her plenty of free time to enjoy the destination." Or asking someone else to take care of it for a day so you can enjoy your day together. – Mast Feb 28 '18 at 6:44
8

You have a whole year ahead of you to prepare for the next go-round.

  1. The way some couples handle planning for special days is for the responsibility for planning a special day to be clearly in one person's hands. You could start out by proposing that you take turns with this, and make adjustments together as you go along. I suggest that you introduce this idea discreetly, without an obvious connection to what just happened. In other words, wait until memories of the failed birthday celebration have dulled on both sides, and don't mention anything that might make it easy for your wife to connect the dots.

    Possible adjustments as you go along:

    • how often you alternate roles
    • how much of an element of surprise each person likes to have. The downside of total surprise, after all, is that the surprised one doesn't get to make adjustments.

    Sometimes a person thinks he wants to be completely surprised, but actually, he is happier when he is able to make adjustments. It will be interesting for you to learn more over the next 12 months about where your wife really sits on this spectrum, and it will be interesting for her to learn this about herself as well. The tricky thing here is that all the logistics have to be compatible with your responsibilities towards your children. And that leads me to idea #2.

  2. My mother in her old age hit on a really fun way of celebrating her birthday. Instead of having one blow-out with all her friends together, she dribbled out her birthday, with a separate celebration with each friend or relative. Dinner with her godsons on Saturday. Movie with Friend A on Sunday. Visit to the arboretum with Friend B on Tuesday. Etc. Inspired by this, here's an idea you might try:

    Next year, for your wife's birthday, plan several separate ways of celebrating:

    • The couple celebration: get a babysitter.

    • The family celebration: do something all four can enjoy (e.g. a visit to the zoo, a game of mini-golf, etc.)

    • The family of origin celebration: you would be in charge of the children for this one.

    • The personal friends celebration: you would be in charge of the children for this one too.

    For the last two, I suggest you contact her relatives and her personal friends about a month in advance. Explain that as one of your birthday presents to your wife will be a surprise get-together with her parents/siblings/girlfriend(s). Let them choose the date (but check your wife's calendar) and the activity.

6

Listen to her and watch her reactions the rest of the year. I am sure there will be lots of signs like maybe she mentions a nice dress in a shop or when you watch a movie together she mentions that she also would like to do this or that, ...

You should know lots of things she likes. She is your wife.

And presenting any of those things she likes should make her happy.

But I am not sure if she is happy with "just" one of those things or if she expects from you that you know exactly the one thing she wants most. If that is the case then you are in a different position because it will be very difficult for you to know exactly the one thing she wants. That brings up the question if it is possible for you to do what she supposedly wants. Or maybe she wants to have you in the position that you feel the whole year like "I should have done this or that to make her happy, now I have to make up for that the rest of the year". Don't fall in that trap!

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    Good hint! You could also take notes during the year. If in three months she mentions that she likes this or that book or film, or she would like to try out this little restaurant, note it down in the list of birthday ideas. – Robin Feb 26 '18 at 8:21
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    I have an email draft of things my wife mentions she wants throughout the year. I used to never know what to get her. Now, I realize she makes hints all the time about things I could very easily get her as gifts. I think the same thing is true of activities. – enderland Feb 26 '18 at 17:33
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I don't think that she is intentionally ungrateful, when you give her something (that she doesn't want). She is just disappointed that you don't seem to know her (and hence her wishes) as well as she expects.

The answer might be a lot simpler than you think. From what you say, she isn't going to give you explicit hints as to what she wants. However, if you listen and pay attention to what she is saying, you will no doubt start to pick up on what she likes (and, by extension, what she wants).

Most times, this information will be extremely subtle. Things like comments about what other women are wearing, or what her friends have done, etc. Remember, you are not listening for what presents or gifts she would like to receive. You are listening for what she likes, and then you use that information to figure out what to get for her, or do for her.

The end result is that if you surprise her by giving her something that you know she likes, then she will be happily surprised (not only because of the gift, but also because it will reaffirm to her that you care enough to know what she likes) - even if she might have been expecting something different.

I hope some of this makes sense / is helpful.

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    one thing to realize is that some people are not so good at picking up hints as others. I for example really had problems with this. The thing is that my ex often dropped hints, and i heard them, because i did listen to her, but forgot about them like an hour later. So just "listen to your SO" might not be as simple as you might think – MansNotHot Feb 27 '18 at 13:32
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For a surprise, get her a rose, a box of bonbons, having a meal out or even ordering food, baking a cake with the "help" of the kids, picking her up at work...surprises do not need to be (too) expensive for birthdays.

You can also get hints of what she wants as @Edgar says. But take heed not of what only she says. Looking when she stops to look at displays or enter shops, what she picks up to feel, what she looks longer...

Fortunately mine has been giving (not so) subtle hints she wants a new mobile phone: got a mid-range Xiaomi for her upcoming birthday.

As for other answer suggesting several days for birthday: here we usually do a small thing on the proper day if a weekday, give the present and a cake, and we postpone going out or celebrating with friends to the weekend.

1

Basically, I had the same problem as you.
Here some tips that helped me really to find out what she really wants/wish:

  • Follow her shares in social networks(facebook, instagram..etc): the most of girls now shares something they like in social network.
  • Ask her parents/best friend: alot of girls tell their mothers for example or best friend what they really wish to have.
  • Check her internet history (the best one which was working for me): you can look in her navigation history, retrace her online footprints, try to inspire from her favorite websites. Warning: you might see some searches you don’t want to see.
  • Take her for shopping (a classic way): during shopping, it can be that your girl/wife see something and then she makes a reaction.
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    I agree with everything you propose except the browser history. The other three topics concern public behavior, but perusing someone's online history is crossing borders and might even be illegal in some jurisdictions (yes, even between married partners). You would not read their personal letters without their permission or search their phones, would you? – Dubu Feb 26 '18 at 13:10
  • From my point of view, tracing her history to determine something and reading her messages/personal letters are completely 2 differents things (in the end the 2 are personal things). Here I mentioned to trace her history to determine an objective. – Moslem Ch Feb 26 '18 at 13:15
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    @MosCH: Nope. That's "the ends justify the means". Being spied on ain't sexy, it's a violation of trust. – Mathieu K. Mar 16 '18 at 5:16
1

She wanted me to organise a surprise fun event for us to go to as a family (we have young kids). Besides presents, what I had actually done was spend the afternoon with our eldest kid baking a cake for her.

I don't know your wife, so I can't say for sure if I've figured this out. However, I've bolded the parts where I think you made your gaffe.

She wanted a fun event to go to as a family. (I wonder if perhaps she wanted to get out of the drudgery of her daily routine – a very reasonable request, by the way, if you both have young kids and she is the primary caretaker). Instead, it sounds like you did the one thing she didn't want.

I'm guessing that what you did may have sounded nice to you – maybe you don't get to spend as much time home with the kids as you'd like. But, based on what you wrote, I think she was hinting at a family outing, not another day in a messy kitchen.

Here are some ideas that spring to my mind:

  • A zoo
  • A beach
  • A park or playground
  • A museum
  • A hike
  • Go-Karts
  • A scenic drive to an ice cream place a few towns over

In short, try just about anything that gets her out of the house. This isn't about you guessing that one elusive right thing to do, this is about you just honoring her request. If you try that, and she is still upset with you, then that's another issue. But in this case, I can see why she was disappointed last year.

As for where the blame rests, she should at least make it clear to you the kind of outing she wants. If she didn't tell you about that "surprise fun event" until after the fact, well, that's what she gets for not being clear up front. However, if that hint was dropped ahead of time, that might have been the clue you missed.

1

You may have noticed where she most often goes shopping. You know what her hobbies are.

Get her a box of her favourite goodies and a gift token from the boutique or hobby shop in question. If all else fails an Amazon voucher is not wrong per se. You can write on it; choose yourself a film/book/device/jacket.

edit: by goodies I mean chocolate or sweets

1

You need to have a talk, at a non-stressful time, and explain that you are crappy at figuring out what people like (whether true or not). Work out a system with her in which she tries to think of things she likes, and then you try to take that list to produce an unexpected (partly) result. I'm far from an experienced or trained counselor, but I have observed that successful couples tend to be those who can vocalize their shortcomings and expectations, and work together to come up with a compromise solution.

0

I agree with both, birthday is a special day for a person on the one side. But on the other side even on someone's birthday we don't want to accept demands and rants only. This should change in the future.

What's behind it? You have no idea what she has in mind when she doesn't tell you what she has in mind. Make that clear to her.
Explain that if she wishes xy then she gets some sort of xy. Even if this xy is on her secret list of exceptions.

I saw a phrase in another forum, it said something like "please explain your issue for those who can't read minds". Try this.

0

Have a look through her existing stuff (clothes, jewellery, books, CDs).

Is there an author or artist that she likes? Has that author or artist brought out a new book or album? Get her that.

What style of jewellery & clothing does she wear? Buy something in a similar style. (If you are hopeless at understanding/recognising jewellery & clothing styles, enlist the help of a female friend with similar tastes to her.)

What are her favourite foods / beers / wines? Buy her a supply of those.

What activities has she enjoyed in the past? Can you get her a voucher to do one of these activities?

Previous suggestions about vouchers for shops where she normally buys stuff are good, but a voucher represents less effort than a gift.

If all else fails, ask her to create an Amazon Wishlist or similar, where she can add things to the wishlist when she thinks of them, and then they will be a surprise on the day.

The cause of the row is not really the failure of the gift you chose, more the apparent lack of effort to understand your partner (whether or not you feel this is justified).

-1

It depends on what she is after, if it is a material thing, that I would advise that this is an almost impossible challenge, especially if she is rather fussy.

Option 1 - A day just for the 2 of you What I would want (and I say this as a fussy female) is for my partner to take me out somewhere for the day that incorporates some form of shopping, this way you can suprise here with a location or event and a great day, and she can also get just what she wanted in terms of an actual gift.

Take notes of what she buys for next year, and also look what she buys as gifts for other women. When I am shopping for gifts, I tend to pick things that I like, as there is a good chance the recipient will like them too.

It is important to note however that with this option, taking children along isnt ideal. Birthdays are meant to be all about her, and that just isnt possible with childeren around as they will always be the priority for both of you, as they can also be unpredicatble, the day can easily be spoilt with one spilled drink.

Option 2 - A family day Having said this, from what you mentioned with the baking, while that sounds like a very sweet thing to do, there were 2 issues, firstly it sounds like she would have rather been out of the house and secondly she would have liked to have been more involed in enjoying the activity. One idea might be to go somewhere with a large indoor swimming pool and a relative that can watch the children while they play.

The reason I say this is because she will get to enjoy being close to her childeren in an environment where there isnt much they can do to misbehave (i dont have kids so ignore me if thats a pack of lies). She can also enjoy some quality time with you away from them if there is a hut tub area, and you can both act like big kids on the slides. It will tire them out ready for an early night ready for you to bring out all that romantic good stuff.

Option 3 - A party What better way to make her feel special than with a room full of family & friends! one of them is bound to bring her ea gift she likes, if not, ask guests for donations toward a larger present that you have in mind, for example a holiday or romatic get away.

Option 4 - A day away from all of you Maybe she doesnt get out much and would like a little break with some of her friends? you can look after the kids all day & get the house spotless for her return. Get the kids to make her something!

Option 5 - Do what she does for you Think about the effort she puts into your birthday? maybe tell her nothing and see how she reponds to the situation. Do for her what ever she does for you, as again with the gift buying, it could be that what she does for you is something she would also like herself.

Option 6 - Be sneaky Show her this post, or post something similar anonymously, get her to tell you what she thing the man in this situation should do, or ask her friends & family!

Option 7 - Nothing It has been said in other answers, but ultimatly she should appreciate the thought and effort that you have put into planning the day. Doing nothing is a risky move, but if she is as ungrateful as you are making her out to be, then maybe some tough love with a dose of reality is what she needs to be reminded how lucky she is, that you care enough to post a thread online about it.

One final thought, make sure she feels appreciated all year round :) & if there are any underlying issues in your relationship, then nothing you can do will make her happy for just on day. But fixing a relationship sounds like a whole new thread to me!

Good Luck & Godspeed!

  • options 1 through 5 are good suggestions. I disagree with options 6 and 7. – Yvonne Aburrow Feb 27 '18 at 11:49
  • Thanks for your comment, I disagree that 6 is a bad idea, essentially being sneaky is how suprises are carried out, and also its just doing research. Option 7 is very much a last resort, however causing upset in a relationship isnt always bad if they arent communitcating effectivley. Many arguments between me and my partner are great for clearing the air and saying what is really bothering us, rather than just carrying on as though everything is 'fine'. We both feel alot better afterwards and our relationship is stronger for it. But each to their own. – Jennifer Blake Feb 28 '18 at 23:00
  • Research is good :) and yes everyone is different – Yvonne Aburrow Mar 1 '18 at 8:55
-1

I feel for you. All I can picture is this scene from The Notebook:

A man and a woman seem to argue. The man is saying to the woman: "What... Do you want?"

I should also add that I'm not someone who can read between lines so I prefer a more direct approach. Hints and the like go over my head where others may clue in.

Expecting a significant other to know what they want in for surprise event or presents is ludicrous and mean when the SO doesn't meet invisible expectations.

Since she can't immediately think off the bat what she wants, she's placing unrealistic expectations that you would know what she wants. Unfortunately, I have many friends who selfishly think their partners should just know. That's no way to communicate. Everyone has different approaches to communication and hopefully she's willing to help you understand her communication style.

If you haven't already, you might have to concede and say "Honey, I'm sorry I'm no good at this guessing game but can you please help me out?" If she's amenable to trying, perhaps the idea of a wish list on the fridge or office at home would help. My partner and I make lists of what we need and what we want.

We split our lists like so and add to it when we think of it:

  1. Restaurants we want to try
  2. Places or events we want to attend
  3. Items we want but would otherwise not purchase for ourselves (annual membership to art galleries, or certificate for a spa)
  4. Items we ran out of or need (bath products from Lush or local specialty beer)

With the list, you'll still have to determine what she wants (as a gift) or what do for her birthday or other special events but hopefully this encourages her to discuss the itinerary.

If she's not willing to make any effort to help you make her birthday special then it's realistic to say that if you don't communicate aloud what you want, then you can't expect it to be given.

  • While I empathize with those who are confronted with an impossible guessing game, I don't see what's so hard in this case. (Wife: "Organise a surprise fun event for us to go to as a family." Husband: "Let's have one of our kids bake a cake for you!" Wife: "Which part of 'fun event for us to go to' did you not understand?") – user12334 Feb 26 '18 at 23:00
  • @J.R. From the way he phrased it, he baked a cake with his child and instead found out after that she wanted a surprise family outting. Unless I'm reading into his question incorrectly, it appears that she only reveals what she didn't want after the fact. – doctordonna Feb 26 '18 at 23:07
  • Ah, yes; key words being "it turns out". Thanks for pointing that out to me - I must have missed that clue on the my initial read. If that's the case, then she should have indeed made that clearer up front. – user12334 Feb 26 '18 at 23:15
  • @J.R. No worries! I went back too in case I had misread the situation. – doctordonna Feb 26 '18 at 23:17
-3

Despite some comments, I believe the birthday of someone is the only day in a year that the universe revolve around him/her. it's a special day that must be special, specially when he/she is dear to you.

So plan in advance. read between the lines to know her and her habits, her interests, what makes her joyful or happy.

If she hates ordinary days, make it special by change all the routines, like caring for kids or doing house keeping.

Plan a get away if she like outdoors, or make reservations for some fancy restaurants in your budget, order a necklace with her name, and many more stuff.

Essential part is to show her that you care. show her that you care for her and her birthday on this special day by planning to do something unique.

  • 6
    "Read between the lines", really? The question is almost literally how to do that. – pipe Feb 25 '18 at 17:14
  • 2
    Well, he did try to make it special for her, just not in the way she expected it, and he had no way of knowing what she wanted if she didn't bother giving him any hints. Your birthday is special doesn't mean people have to put up with your unreasonable expectations. – Masked Man Feb 25 '18 at 17:25
  • This answer doesn't answer the question, which is: how? – reinierpost Feb 27 '18 at 12:09

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