Do you struggle to find the perfect gift for your partner? In this episode, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, breaks down the science behind why we give gifts and what research says is the best kind of gift for your partner.
I am a really bad gift giver. My husband and I both struggle to identify good gifts for one another and inevitably wind up having the, “so, what do you want for a gift this year,” conversation before every birthday or holiday. It’s not that we don’t know what the other one likes, or what things each of us might enjoy receiving. It’s just that when we have a need for something, we buy it for ourselves. For me, I want to get my husband something he is going to use—something functional for him—and not something that is just going to become clutter.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is my Dad. He believes that a great gift is something that the giftee wouldn't buy for themselves. It should be something that isn’t necessarily need-based, but rather, is something fun or exciting that will bring them joy.
During the holiday season, gift-giving is a common and expected behavior, both within and outside of our romantic relationships. We may feel a lot of pressure and stress to find the perfect gift for our partners, friends, or family. But why do we do this?
Why do we give gifts?
I want to start the research section of this episode by acknowledging that evolutionary biology can come across as somewhat gross. It often takes a hetero-normative approach to understanding the biological drives associated with certain behaviors in romantic relationships, and also removes cultural and societal context from consideration. In addition, it doesn’t consider the classist implications of some of the economic values placed on partner selection tendencies. This means that some of the content we will be reviewing may come across as somewhat un-nuanced, and may not resonate with your lived experiences.
That being said: gift-giving is one way to build and maintain our close relationships. Some theoretical perspectives suggest that we’ve evolved to engage in the practice of gift-giving from a biological imperative. Some of the earliest forms of gift-giving stem from the practice of food sharing, where one person provides some of their bounty to their family members. Other theorizing on this subject considers that gift-giving may have been driven by courtship behaviors, whereby one partner, typically male, would attempt to woo the other partner with an offering of some kind to encourage mating behaviors.
Research on the motives for providing gifts in romantic relationships often finds that men have relational or tactical motives for giving gifts to their partners. Although it is commonly considered something that women participate in more, evolutionarily, men are the ones who are biologically driven to give gifts. Sometimes they want to set themselves apart from the alternatives available to the people they are dating. Sometimes they want to prove they are generous and willing to give to their partner. Other times, they use gifts as a seduction technique. Evolutionarily, women have a preference for men who are able to provide for them or contribute most effectively to the family unit; so, by presenting a gift to their partner, men are displaying both their ability and tendency to provide for and care for their partner and family and to potentially display that they can do so better than others can.
Does what you give your partner matter?
Well, yes, it sort of does matter. One study examined the effects of receiving a bad gift on how people viewed their similarity to their partner and the future of the relationship. When men receive a bad gift from their new romantic partner, they view their partner as less similar to them, which likely means they will feel that their partner doesn’t understand them. In addition, men who receive a bad gift will also have a more negative view of the future of the romantic relationship, which makes sense if their partner just doesn’t get them.
Interestingly, in that same study, women who received a bad gift from their partner saw them as more similar, and whether they received a bad or good gift had no substantial impact on their relationship satisfaction. Now, if you're a woman listening to this, and I were to ask you whether a bad gift may actually improve their relationship with their partner, you'd probably say no. In fact, when these same researchers asked their female participants outright about this, that is exactly what they were told. However, when presented with a hypothetical scenario in which they received a bad gift, women actually viewed their relationship as being in at least the same state as it was before receiving that gift—that means a neglible impact, positive or negative!
If you are in the early stages of your relationship, it is also not advised that you give super expensive or luxury gifts to your partner. One study found that women who received luxury gifts in their early-stage relationship had less favorable opinions of those gifts than in more established relationships. Likely, receiving a very high-end gift early on creates concerns about a power imbalance in the relationship. If I receive an expensive gift, what do I now owe my partner?
What kinds of gifts might you give?
There are two primary kinds of gifts that can be given: material or experiential gifts.
Material gifts are things that can be kept long-term by the recipient—think electronics, jewelry, books. Experiential gifts are those that are lived through, like a concert, an educational experience, or a wine tasting. Studies have found that people are more likely to give a material gift.
People are more likely to want to give a material gift because we want to give our partner something they'll be able to use for a long time. Because it will last longer, they'll appreciate it for longer.
However, people who receive experiential gifts often have a greater improvement in their perceptions of the relationship than those who receive material gifts. This is true even if the experience isn't something that's shared with the partner giving the gift. For example, if a person bought their spouse a spa day for two, and their spouse brought a friend to the spa instead of their partner, it wouldn't change how impactful that gift was on the relationship.
You could also consider a shared gift. One study found that people who get someone a gift that they have also gotten themselves promotes relationship well-being. For example, I bought myself a really excellent travel mug, and it is perfect. It keeps my coffee hot all day, it is easy to clean, and it just is leaps and bounds better than any other travel mug I have ever used. If I got my partner the same travel mug as a gift and let him know that I also have this travel mug and love it, he will be more likely to believe that the gift was of better quality and more thoughtful than if I had gotten them something I didn’t also have. He may also perceive that we are more similar, and will subsequently feel closer to me after receiving that gift. This finding is true for your romantic partners and for acquaintances!
Common wisdom also tells us that we should try and find a gift that will mean something to the other person. If you know that person, then you should be able to give them something that reflects who they are. This likely contributes to some of the stress people feel around selecting the perfect gift. Research supports that giving a gift that reflects your knowledge about the recipient is a powerful way to promote feelings of closeness. However, there is a risk that you choose a gift that is actually not something they would like—which would do the opposite! Something to consider is buying a gift that reflects something that you like as the gift-giver. People who receive a gift that is something the gift-giver loves will feel closer to the gift-giver and will feel more satisfied with that relationship.
So, if you are struggling to pick a gift for your partner, you now have a few considerations for the gifts you could give this season. Receiving experiential gifts, which don’t have to be expensive, will have a stronger positive impact on your relationship than receiving material gifts. Buying a gift for your partner that is something you have and love yourself is also an excellent option to promote closeness with them. Finally, if you are struggling to find something your partner will absolutely love, getting them something that you enjoy is like giving them a piece of yourself. Make sure you give them the narrative about why you got them the gift and what it means to you. This personal touch is a great way to take an ordinary gift and make it really special.