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November 17, 2012


For Chuck's birthday, Vera has told him they will have dinner with a couple of close friends at his favorite restaurant. They have to go to the other couple's house to pick them up. When they get there, thirty people jump up and shout "Surprise!" Chuck forces himself to smile and socialize during the party. But he really feels miserable. Being the center of attention in a large group of people is always a little embarrassing for him. He's been feeling sensitive about his age lately, so calling attention to it like this makes him uncomfortable. Worst of all, he was really looking forward to a special dinner with good friends at a wonderful restaurant, and not getting that is deeply disappointing to him. He knows that Vera meant well, but he feels that a promise was broken and that something he truly wanted was taken away from him.

For their tenth anniversary, Clyde decides to surprise Bonnie with a dream vacation. One morning he tells her, "Pack your suitcase for Hawaii. We have to be at the airport in three hours." Bonnie is horrified. She hasn't done laundry for a week, so the clothes she would like to take with her aren't clean. On the way to the airport she has to call her dentist and her hairdresser to cancel her appointments. (If she'd known about the trip, she'd have had her hair done yesterday so she could look her best.) She also makes calls to her close friends and relatives so they won't worry that she has suddenly disappeared. Not wanting to be ungrateful for this expensive trip, she puts on a happy face and tries to have a good time. But she feels as though she's been kidnapped, she's uncomfortable in the wrong clothes, and during the entire week in Hawaii she is tense and on guard. For weeks afterwards, she sometimes finds herself anxiously wondering what Clyde is going to spring on her next.

Some people hate surprises. People who hate surprises often let their friends and family know how they feel, typically by saying, "I hate surprises." The message is clear.

Yet it seems that a surprise hater always has a friend, relative or spouse who just loves surprises and wants to share them with the world. These people imagine that if they can just come up with the right surprise at the right time they will succeed in delighting the surprise hater and convert him or her into a surprise lover. As the surprise hater stands there, unhappily pretending not to be furious (or maybe not pretending), the surprise lover says, "I know you don't like surprises, but..."

Forcing your preferences on a spouse who does not share them is unkind and selfish. Rather than feeling loved, the person who receives an unwelcome surprise will feel disrespected, belittled, even betrayed. The message the surprise lover has conveyed is, "I don't take your wishes seriously because your feelings don't matter to me. What I want is always much more important than what you want." Is this really what you want to say to your mate?

So are you doomed never to experience the pleasure of delighting your sweetheart with something unexpected? Not at all. There are ways to surprise a surprise hater that will be welcomed and enjoyed. But first you need to understand what it is that makes surprises so unwelcome.

The person who doesn't like being surprised is usually trying to avoid some or all of these possibilities: inconvenience, disrupted plans, disappointment, embarrassment, loss of control.

When you think about the reasons surprises may be unwelcome, you will understand why changing plans at the last minute, redecorating his den while he's out of town, bringing an unexpected friend home for dinner, or suddenly getting a big tattoo are likely to get negative reactions.

So how can you give your surprise-averse spouse a surprise that will be welcome?

Keep it private. Instead of dragging your mate into the spotlight to be overwhelmed by the cheering crowd, dress up the living room with party decor and have a celebration for two. Bring out a small cake with candles and present a beautifully-wrapped gift.

Do it on a small scale. Surprise your sweetheart with a chocolate on the pillow, a note in the pocket, a phone call just to say "I love you." Wash the car without being asked. Bring home a bouquet of flowers. Make heart-shaped pancakes. Buy some sexy lingerie.

Give fair warning. Say, "I want to surprise you with a wonderful vacation next month." Don't say where it is, but tell your sweetheart when to be ready and what kind of clothes to pack. You can introduce this surprise even more gently by asking, "Would it be all right if I surprised you with a fun vacation for our anniversary?" (If not knowing the destination really bothers your sweetheart, go ahead and reveal it. It's still a surprise.)

Introducing surprises in a way that lets the recipient retain some control lets your partner feel safe and reinforces trust, while still allowing you to bring some unexpected fun into the relationship.

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