How do I let my partner know that he is giving gifts that HE wants, rather than things I want, especially when the gifts are given with much enthusiasm and love?
Whose gift is it anyway?
Not to be too meta by citing another advice column, but back in November, Slate's Dear Prudence  answered a question from a woman who prefers surprise gifts, while her boyfriend prefers handing over a wish list. In my marriage, I want to discuss gift-giving expectations in advance of any occasion, and my husband thinks that takes all the fun out of it. I know one couple where they decide what they want as a unit and buy it for themselves rather than buying separate gifts for each other. I know others who flag pages in magazines and leave them surreptitiously around the house, or drop hints, or give all gifts with gift receipts knowing they'll be returned. The point is, every couple handles the often delicate topic of gift-giving differently, and every couple has to determine internally what's best for them.
In your case, it sounds like what you're currently doing isn't working for you, but before I offer suggestions on how to change your partner's gift selections, let me first offer the idea that you could reframe your attitude towards this experience. Your partner is giving you gifts with enthusiasm and love. He remembers the occasions when gifts are appropriate. It sounds like you really don't want to hurt his feelings, which means he probably doesn't want to hurt yours either and truly doesn't realize what he's doing. Rather than coming across as ungrateful by enumerating the insufficiency of his gifts, could you think of this habit as one of those quirks about him that you learn to love?
If reframing doesn't work, next time a gift-giving occasion comes along, try directing him a couple weeks in advance. Some options are, "For my birthday this year, I'd really love it if you got me that sweater I've been admiring," or, "Maybe we could go together to pick out a piece of art for me to hang above my desk," or, "You're always so great about remembering gifts, but would it be ok if I gave you some ideas this year of things I really want?" You could also get a friend involved to tell your partner something that you really wish he would get for you.
If he still doesn't get the hint, find a way to appreciate what he gives you, or at least act like you appreciate it, and then buy yourself something special to fill that thing-you-really-want void. Regardless of what he gives you in the future, I would avoid the specific, "I didn't want an XBox, you did," conversation. You could also try to involve a mutual friend here to say something along the lines of, "That's the kind of thing I would have gotten as a gift for you. I didn't realize that was something your partner would enjoy, too." That could, at least, alert him to the discrepancy, but if he doesn't pick up on it, I'm not sure there's anywhere else to go without coming across as kind of petty.
There is also the possibility that your partner is selfish and self-absorbed and sees your special days as opportunities to buy himself new toys, but your letter really doesn't indicate that, so I want to avoid casting blame. Instead, I think it's possible that your partner sees you two as so much in sync that if he wants something, of course it would be perfect for you, too. Next time you get a gift, try smiling and thinking, "It's such a funny way that he expresses his love, but this must be an item that's really valuable to him if he wanted to share it with me." Enjoy that emotional gift in your relationship, even if the physical gifts aren't quite right.