It’s that time of the year again - streets coloured with festive decorations, malls ringing with well-known holiday music, and shops filled with people wandering aimlessly in search of the perfect gifts for their loved ones. I, for one, struggle every year to find that special present that will give my boyfriend a big smile under the holiday lights. I’m sure I’m not the only one who suffers from this pre-holiday shopping stress. To add to my stress, research confirms what we probably all know already: gift-giving has a significant impact on romantic relationships.
In a questionnaire study,1 college students at various stages of romantic relationships (occasionally/regularly dating, exclusively dating, de facto/engaged, or getting ready to break up) answered questions about their gift-giving behaviours (e.g. timing and types of gifts). Results revealed that the simple act of giving presents to your partner can delay the timing of break-ups. In effect, you can literally buy yourself some time and put off a break-up! Unfortunately, gifts had no bearing on the final outcome of the relationship. That is, gifts can postpone relationship dissolution, but they do not change the eventual success or failure of the relationship.
The most difficult part about giving gifts is knowing what to buy. In this study, the researchers identified three types of gifts that are given in the context of dating relationships: (1) those that you give yourself to enhance your partners’ perception of you (self-gift), (2) those that convey your love to your partner (other-gift), and (3) those that declare your relationship to the outer world (joint-gift). Here’s the catch – females who used self-gifts (e.g., embellish self with new cosmetics for boyfriend’s sake) and males who purchased other-gifts (e.g., a bouquet of flowers for girlfriend) actually sped up the timing of break-ups. The reason for this finding is unclear. It may be that these gifts unintentionally remind the receiver what he or she is generally missing out on, which lowers relationship satisfaction. Or, such gifts may speed up breakups because they reflect a last-ditch effort on the part of one partner (who sees the writing on the wall) that encourages the other partner to breakup sooner rather than later. We’ll have to wait for furture work to address these (and other) possibilities. On a cheerier note, for both females and males, joint-gifts (e.g., matching jewelery) had the beneficial effect lengthening the romantic relationships.
So the take-home message is simple. In this festive season, extend your relationship by buying your partner a gift that announces your relationship to the world. As to what that perfect gift actually entails? Well, it is up to you to find out.
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1Huang, M. & Yu, S. (2000). Gifts in romantic relationships: A survival analysis. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 9, 179-188.
Sonia Ip - Graduate Student, Clinical Psychology, The Australian National University
Sonia is a Registered Psychologist in Australia and is currently a doctoral student. Her thesis examines the role of alcohol in the early stages of romantic relationships, as well as the characteristics of intimate relationships among individuals with alcohol use disorders.