On Being the Giver

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Pippa Biddle is an NYC-based writer with a vibrant voice and uncensored honesty. She is currently obsessed with voluntourism and short-term aid, domestically and abroad. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Independent, Forbes, and more. She is a recent graduate of Columbia University and stars in the 2015 documentary Volunteers Unleashed. A natural-born giver, Pippa explores how giving on overdrive has impacted her love life.

It was a cold and windy night in New York City, as many February nights are despite the steamy August assertions that winter will somehow never come. Four foot high snow banks lined the streets, grey sludge poured over the tops of my woefully ineffective snow boots, and the streets of the city that doesn’t sleep were deserted aside from a few errant yellow cabs and the fleet of tireless snowplows.

The snow, the tail end of what was being called a “snowmageddon”, had only stopped a half hour before I got to the parking garage where I was to meet my boyfriend’s father, Hume. I had left my parent’s home in Westchester shortly after sunrise. “We apologize for the inconvenience, we will be moving shortly,” lost all meaning somewhere around hour three of what was meant to be an hour-long train ride into the city. Ice on the tracks, they said.

Earlier that day, my boyfriend, Ian, had told me that he had come down with a cold. Maybe a minor flu. There was a storm rolling in and I was a few hours away in the best of weather. He was comfortably lounging on his parent’s couch, their housekeeper Claudia bringing him warm soup and hot tea on a rotating basis. Knowing these facts, I decided that the only thing to do was to rush to his side. He needed me.

To be fair, I was a kid. 18 years old and in love, I had seen enough romantic comedies to know that grand gestures were the only way to really cement that you cared about a person. If you weren’t running the risk of physical injury or public embarrassment, you were doing it all wrong.

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That was what I was reminding myself as I shoveled through the thick snowbank that separated the parking garage from the street, carving out an exit route for Hume’s white BMW with what amounted to little more than a garden spade. “He will be so happy,” I repeated in my mind, setting a rhythm for myself. This will show him how much I love him, and he will show me the same love back.

When we got to his home a few hours later, I put on my best Florence Nightingale impression, rushing up the stairs, bursting into his room, and proclaiming that I was there to nurse him back to health. “Oh, hey,” he replied, barely looking up from his computer screen. “I’m feeling a lot better now, but thanks for coming.”

The carnal scream of some fantastical creature dying sounded out from his speakers. Or, at least, that’s what it felt like.

I was deflated. Utterly and entirely let down. What was supposed to be the piece de resistance of grand gestures, the dutiful girlfriend braving all manner of obstacles and impediments to come to her man’s side, had been thoroughly squashed. This was a buzzkill.

Shouldn’t I have been happy that he was feeling better? Probably. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t at all. He was supposed to be deathly ill! I was supposed to lay cold compresses on his head, or whatever it is you do to save a person, and he was supposed to toast to my kindness for years after the near death encounter.

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My grand gesture would, and I had been betting on this, lead to years of reassurance that I was cared for, and loved, and I would, at long last, finally believe it.

Reassurance-seeking isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. It’s completely normal to want those you love to tell you that they love you back, and even if you already know that they do, reminders feel good. But this search for reassurance becomes a problem when, no matter what they say, you don’t believe them. Or, more accurately, when you don’t receive, process, and internalize what it is they are saying. Their compliments and expressions of thanks wash over you in an instant and you barely get to enjoy them, if at all.

Six years later, and long after the demise of my relationship with Ian, a close friend called me out after listening to me gush about a new man in my life. “I’m concerned that you’re going to do what you always do,” she said, after I proudly told her about my latest grand gesture. “You give so much of yourself, but no matter what they give back you never feel affirmed by it. It’s never enough, so you escalate. You give more and more, but you’re never happy with the result.”

One of my therapists pointed out a similar trend earlier that same week. “It’s not bad that you want to do nice things for people that you care about, but you need to work on receiving the reassurance that they give back.” I had to, she said, turn on the receptors that enable me to believe that when a partner is appreciative, he actually means it.

Which isn’t to say that Ian was particularly appreciative of my arrival on that snowy winter day. Or, at least, that he didn’t do a pretty bad job of expressing it. But it does point to the idea that one of the things that makes grand gestures so grand is that they are done, or they should be done, without the expectation of immediate reciprocation in the form of reassurance. In theory, we should do grand gestures to make our partners happy and to show them how much we care, not as a surreptitious way of coercing reassurance that they feel the same because, when you do that, you’re actually not doing it for them at all. You’re doing it for yourself. I may not have needed to rush to Ian’s side, but my reason for going shouldn’t have been my own gratification.

So I understand why my friend was (and perhaps still is) concerned for me. She’s witnessed me get excited, do big things and make grand gestures, and then crumble when the “Thank you” isn’t, in my mind, enthusiastic enough. She’s spent years watching me give without allowing myself to receive emotional reciprocation, refusing to process and internalize reassurance. She knows me well enough to remind me that it isn’t always that a partner doesn’t care, but that I don’t let myself see the ways in which they show that they do.

These days, I’m working on embracing that if a partner is thankful, they will tell me and if they don’t, that’s probably a good sign it’s time to move on. But if they do, and fingers crossed they do, I’m working on believing it.

DS: Have you ever delivered a grand gesture that was ‘unreciprocated’, or put on a production, but felt you had no audience? What’s your story?