Last year, Lindsay Demma Gibson was thrilled to find a stocking and, under the tree, several carefully wrapped gifts from her husband Christmas morning.

That is, until she opened them.

Ms. Gibson, an elementary-school teacher, had been hoping for her favorite perfume, new boots or a nice purse.

Instead, her husband gave her golf gloves, a golf skirt and a golf shirt with a country-club logo on it—even though she rarely hits the links. He also presented her with a heating pad, Listerine breath strips and generic nasal strips to prevent snoring.

“I never got gifts like that before,” says Ms. Gibson, who lives near Hershey, Pa. “It looked as if my husband was buying for a 70-year-old lady riddled with arthritis and face-crinkling halitosis, not me, his lovely 34-year-old bride who practices good oral hygiene.”

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your mother was wrong: It doesn’t matter one bit if you were naughty or nice all year. Chances are, at some point in your marriage or relationship, your partner is going to give you a bad gift. And although it might not be quite as traumatic as the time you asked Santa for a Nintendo set and got a Boggle game instead, it’s still going to sting.

It’s one of the holiday season’s unexpected traps: Just at the time of year when we’re trying hard to be on our best behavior, the wrong gift can strain our marriage bonds.

Kirk Gibson, giver of the breath-freshener and antisnoring strips, admits that he erred on the side of practical last year, but says that some of the presents were meant to make his wife laugh. “My problem is I didn’t follow them up with a real gift,” says Mr. Gibson, a 33-year-old organizational development consultant who has been married not quite three years.

Of course, gifts between couples can backfire in either direction. But—please don’t shoot the messenger—men seem to be more clueless than women.

Women tend to care more about gifts. They shop more, and think more about them. They attach more emotion to them. And they can be more demanding and less direct. (If I ask my husband what he wants for the holidays, he will say “nothing” and mean it. If he asks me, I will say “nothing,” as well. And God help him if he believes me.)

Making matters even worse: When it comes to bad gifts, women have the memory of elephants. Take Donna Clark Goodrich. In 1962, she asked her husband for a recording of Handel’s “Messiah.” Instead, he got her a parody LP of the Kennedy family by impressionist Vaughn Meader. “I’ve never let my husband live that Christmas down,” says Ms. Goodrich, 71, a writer in Mesa, Ariz.

When I began asking people about gifts they received from significant others that had gone awry, examples poured in—all of them from women. (Perhaps tellingly, many of these bad-gift stories involved former husbands.)

There were tales of men who gave their wives electric brooms, washcloths and cheese graters, cosmetic surgery, weed wackers and AC/DC box sets. One wife told of receiving a child’s toy dishwasher—she had asked for a real one—and immediately bursting into tears. Another said she opened a case of Chapstick. A third recounted how she received a size 9 pair of men’s tennis shoes. (She wears a women’s size 6.)

Once, Cherie Jorgensen, a 32-year-old event planner in Detroit, had a boyfriend who made her a romantic Christmas dinner. He then gave her a super-absorbent hair towel and a man’s bath wrap while they were cuddling in front of the tree. “Needless to say, he is no longer in the picture,” she says.

Angela Lopez received a mass-market poem from her husband about the meaning of the name “Angela,” decorated with a gray wolf on a blue-violet background. “I felt a little panicked,” says Ms. Lopez, 38, who owns two sandwich shops with her husband in San Diego. “We were starting a business together, and it made me think, ‘Are we even on the same page?'”

You shouldn’t need a gift consultant (or a marriage counselor) to tell you these presents are wrong. They’re utilitarian. Unromantic. Ugly. And, in many cases, more suitable for a man, or a cleaning woman, than the love of your life.

In his new book, “Scroogenomics,” Wharton School economist Joel Waldfogel estimates that the gifts others buy for us are worth 20% less to us than the gifts we buy for ourselves. But of all the people on our holiday lists, he says, the ones we are best at picking out gifts for are spouses and significant others. That’s because, presumably, we know these people best.

Then why so many bad gifts within couples?

It’s simple, really. Sometimes men aren’t listening to their wives. But just as often, women aren’t clear about their desires. They want men to pick up on their subtle clues, rather than telling them outright what they’d like. As one woman I know explains, “It means we are special to them if they detect what we want without us telling them.”

Tom Valentino, who grew up in a large Italian-American family, blames his upbringing. In his parents’ house, Christmas was all about religious values—and food. Gifts were an afterthought.

Flash ahead a few decades, when Mr. Valentino, an accountant, had to pick out a holiday gift for his wife. “I started to think, well, we have three kids already, so no need for anything from Victoria’s Secret,” he says. “And I bought her a fancy watch last year for her birthday. How many of those does she need?”

Then he remembered his wife had said she needed a vacuum and a bigger pasta pot. Off to Macy’s he went. “I could almost smell the sauce cooking with meatballs, sausage and braciole,” he says. “How could a woman not be happy with these?”

He found out, because the gifts made his wife cry. “The worst part of it all were the looks the kids gave me,” says Mr. Valentino, 52, who lives in Cheshire, Conn. “It’s been about 15 years, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reminded of those gifts.”

And there’s the rub. When men receive gifts they hate, they typically shrug them off. Women, faced with the same dilemma, feel hurt.

What did it for Susan Wilson? A nightgown her husband bought a number of years ago for their anniversary and presented to her at a cozy dinner for two at their country club.

It was cotton (the scratchy kind). Extra-large (she is a size four). Wrapped in a Wal-Mart bag. And emblazoned with St. Bernards carrying snowballs in their mouths.

Ms. Wilson, 54, a business consultant in Stevensville, Mich., was speechless. “You could fit three Peyton Mannings in it,” she says, adding that the thoughtlessness of the gift made her feel unappreciated. As a result, the rest of the evening did not go as her husband had planned. “He made me feel like a dog, but he went to the kennel.”

Her husband’s rationale: His wife loves dogs. “I thought I was being creative,” says Doug Wilson, 55, a corporate environmental health and safety director. “And I always think of sleepwear as something you want to be cozy and not real tight.”

So what’s a well-meaning spouse to do? Start with these gift-giving tips:

• When in doubt, go down a size.

• Never give a gift that suggests your spouse is not perfect. No unsolicited exercise equipment, self-help books, wrinkle cremes or nose-hair removers.

• Appliances and cookware are OK only if she asks for them.

• Don’t even think about a gift that you will get more enjoyment out of than your spouse.

• Remember: It’s not just the thought that counts—especially if you didn’t have that thought until the checkout line.

• When all else fails, at least try to create memories.

That’s what Ms. Gibson, the Pennsylvania teacher, is expecting this year. Recently a package arrived for her husband, who likes do his holiday shopping online. Who sent it? DrNatura, a company known for its colonics.

“Is my dear husband intending to give me a colon cleanser for Christmas this year?” says Ms. Gibson, who says she immediately started to think of all the silly jokes she would share with him, such as “Out with the old, in with the new.”

“At this point, getting perfect, well-thought-out gifts seems a little boring. Bring on the bad gifts, honey.”

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