Who else is guilty of thinking that gift giving is just a nice thing to do? Why wouldn’t it be? After all, it’s you taking the time to think about, and then finding the cash to spend on a gift for someone else, when it’s money you could have spent on yourself.
But in a relationship, it can be so much more complex than this. We need to take so many things into consideration to be sure we don’t offend or disappoint. After all, giving should bring just as much joy to the giver as it should to the recipient. If we get it right! And giving the right gifts to our loved ones can even help develop our relationship, strengthening bonds and nurturing respect.
We’ll discuss the psychology of giving a gift, the thought processes on each side. And we’ll also look at each stage of the relationship, and how the gifts we give change and evolve. Finally we will give some sound advice on what to buy, how much to spend and how to present it to the lucky recipient.
Struggling to know what to give your loved one? We’ve got you covered.
The psychology of gift giving
Olivia Goldhill has written a fascinating article entitled “Far from being selfless gestures, giving gifts creates a personal debt”. If this side of gift-giving interests you, I highly recommend you give it a read. The following section is taken in excerpts from her article.
Dimitri Mortelmans, a sociology professor at Antwerp University in Belgium, explains that there is more to giving gifts than meets the eye. “Gift-giving is one of the ancient early topics in sociology,” he says. “There’s a whole world behind gift-giving that goes very close to the basics of living together.” This shows us that the giving of a gift is actually a physical symbol of having a personal relationship with that person. It shows our social ties to them and helps bring us closer together.
But at the same time, it also creates a debt. In giving a gift of a certain value, you are putting the recipient in debt to you – they should repay the gift with one of similar value, for by giving something of less value, they are putting less value on your relationship than you do. On the opposite end, if they spend more, they are again unbalancing the relationship and causing upset and awkwardness. Not a great impression to give your beau!
So then how do thank-you gifts work out? They don’t usually involve an exchange of gifts as it’s usually just one person giving a thank you gift to the other. Well, we view that the debt is evened out because the recipient has performed an act of such value to us, our friends or our family that they don’t need to repay our gift. Take teachers gifts as an example. A teacher looks after our child our year. We’re so pleased with the outcome that we send in a gift for the said teacher. Teachers never give a gift back.
The Three Stages of Gift-Giving
Leigh Anderson writes on her Scary Mommy Blog that “There Are Three Stages of Gift-Giving in Relationships. Don’t Muck It Up”. Here are some of her take-home points to note:
Early dating & the economic exchange of gifts
In the early stages of dating, most of us take part in an economic exchange. This could be that we are taken out for a nice meal. Whoever covered the bill for the meal has set the stage because generally this debt is created and the other partner should then reciprocate.
It might be the agreement that the other party will buy dinner next time, thus the relationship continues. Or it might be that the other party simply feels indebted to the partner that invested in the relationship, and therefore continues to date them. It can even work that the receiver could repay the debt by cooking a nice meal in return. This can work particularly well in the case where each party earns a very different wage.
At this stage, there is a fine balance between spending enough money to impress your date and not so much as to embarrass or overwhelm them with a “debt” they feel they can never repay. It’s tempting to show off and take a date to a very expensive restaurant but it doesn’t always work out as well as you might expect. Not only can the date become awkward if the recipient feels out of place, but they may also feel out of their depth in terms of the food served. And of course, they could be embarrassed by the cost of the meal and worry that they will struggle to keep up with this relationship.
Thoughtful gifts and the social exchange
The social exchange phase is when the thought that goes into the gift overtakes the expense. For example if your date is passionate about food, it might be buying tickets to a food festival which is an unusual gift, not costing as much as an expensive meal but meaning probably more to the recipient because of the thought that has gone into it. It can also include picking up on things like your date admiring something in a shop window that you later return to purchase for them.
These types of gifts give a clear signal to the recipient that you are paying attention to them, as well as that you appreciate their likes and preferences. It shows that you put them first – buying them something that you know that they will love without your own thoughts or feelings clouding the judgement. It is a thoughtless phase; one where without thinking you put the other person’s feelings before your own, as well as before concerns about spending money or time.
There are lots of studies about this, but one in particular showcases that gifts in this stage are valued for their thoughtfulness, not for how much they cost. So if we go back to the example of the food festival, the right recipient shouldn’t care that the tickets were maybe only £10, but should be blown away by the thought that has gone into it. For it is more than a gift for a food lover, but also a day out, quality time spent together. Indeed on the opposite side of the scale, studies have shown that gifts bought in short notice are not treasured in the same way, such as when the partner goes out to buy a birthday gift the day before. It shows a lack of planning, consideration and thoughtfulness and the gift, again, however expensive, is thought of in the same way.
This is often the stage when a relationship is made or broken, as it can highlight real social compatibility or a total mismatch. And these social value systems are very difficult to overcome as in many ways they are simply within us. However, a careful date should be able to pick up on an early faux pas and correct it next time around, possibly redeeming themselves.
Final stages – giving a gift they’ll love
If we make it past the social stage, then our bank balances really are in trouble! The romantic stage is that where we shower our loved ones with gifts. We are so in love with them that we will buy anything that we think will make them happy. The more obvious they are about wanting something, the more pleasure we get from furnishing them with it.
It becomes less of an exchange and less about reciprocating. It’s all about the selfless act of giving something just because you love that person, not because you expect anything in return. It’s the stage where women can find themselves overwhelmed with flowers. Not a bad thing to be overwhelmed by!
When gift giving goes wrong
Buyers should be very careful about getting carried away at any stage of the relationship. Getting the gift wrong early on can signal incompatibility to the recipient. Examples could be clothing that are not appropriate, the wrong size or just not the recipients’ style. Offence can be taken by the partner if they think you see them as larger than they are or you just don’t know they’re style (and therefore haven’t gotten to know them as well as both of you thought you had).
Clothing is a particularly difficult purchase, as it can so easily go wrong. But there are other examples too. What about taking a vegetarian to a steak restaurant? Or giving a large bunch of flowers to a hayfever sufferer?
So what should I give?
Not an easy question to answer! Really, it depends on the recipient. A great gift cannot be run of the mill. It cannot be something for the masses. It should be something unique for the one you love. Showing how well you know them, and how much they mean to you. To an extent the spend reinforces this gesture, but we caution you to think carefully about that too.
Where do I start?
Start by thinking about why you want to give them a gift. If it’s for a birthday or Christmas, then it’s obvious. If it’s just because you’ve decided they deserve one, then it helps to understand what led you to that decision.
Perhaps, they have been tirelessly cooking your evening meals for a week and you don’t want it to go unnoticed. A thoughtful gift here would be to give them the night off and take them to their favourite restaurant, where they don’t need to cook or wash up!
Perhaps you are aware that they have been watching the pennies and have gone without treats for some time. Then help them with their favourite treat – for me, that would be skincare or makeup. You will have to work out what it would be for your partner!
How much should I spend?
Again, there is no set amount here. It depends on the reason for the gift – after all, it would be totally over the top to spend £200 for a meal out for most. Take this with a pinch of salt, however, as should you both be high earners, this kind of spend might not be out of sorts.
Learn the lesson from earlier in this article. Be mindful to not embarrass the recipient with overspending, yet still spend enough to make them feel valued.
How should I present it?
Sometimes, the presentation (i.e. wrapping) is as important as the gift inside. Nothing is more exciting than a beautifully wrapped gift. And the manner in which it is given can also add or detract from the appeal. Think about it – having a gift thrown at you half-heartedly is not the same as having it revealed during a romantic dinner.
Give thought and care to the whole process of the gift and you can’t go too far wrong. It’s a cliché but it’s true – it really is the thought that counts.