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She Said/He Said: What to Get Your Partner for Valentine’s Day

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Editor's note: Relationship researchers Drs. Charlotte and Patrick Markey give us "his and her" takes on how to approach Valentine's Day gift giving.

She said...

I went to the mailbox this morning and found a turquoise blue catalogue amongst the undesirable bills and solicitations. On the cover, heart-shaped jewelry reminded me that Valentine’s Day was quickly approaching. I was tempted to strategically place this little blue reminder from Tiffany’s in my husband’s view -- on his dresser, in his briefcase, or perhaps on the kitchen island. But then, I found myself realizing I did not actually desire expensive jewelry for Valentine’s Day. Perhaps I was ill? Wasn’t I supposed to want something fancy?

According to evolutionary theory, women find men with resources (e.g., money and status) to be more desirable partners than those who have relatively fewer resources.1 After all, resources have historically increased individuals’ chances of survival, and in many ways resources are still important in modern society. Following from this logic, women should view fancy gifts as representative of a man’s “worth” as a partner. But, what happens once you are in a secure partnership like marriage?

Given that my husband and I share financial resources, it is more difficult for him to impress me with a fancy gift. After all, as it works out, I'd pay for half of that gift. What, then, could be a more meaningful Valentine’s gift than a material item that I helped to finance? Well, some recent research2 suggests that women value intelligence in their long-term partners. Having an intelligent partner yields many benefits, not the least of which is higher earning potential and long-term financial stability. Of course, it’s probably difficult to translate intelligence into a gift found in your local department store.

But, if men (hint, hint) could use their intellect to create a meaningful gift, women would likely find it desirable, regardless of whether they have just started dating or have been married for many years. Perhaps he could display a form of mastery by fixing your iPhone calendar app, helping you solve a problem you are having at work, or taking the time to learn about and discuss an issue that is important to you. These gestures are not traditional “gifts,” but they do provide an opportunity for men to impress their partners with their smarts and willingness to spend time doing something for their partners. A nice card with a handwritten note declaring your undying love would be icing on the cake.

After all, perhaps the preeminent psychologist, William James, put it best when he said, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

He said...

“Every kiss begins with Kay.” “A diamond is forever.” As a man, these commercials (not to mention the Tiffany catalogs that seem to magically appear around the house) have become my constant reminder that Valentine’s Day is close. I know what I am supposed to do – both science and common sense tells me to buy my wife something nice this year. Evolutionary theory suggests men can gain special favor by displaying their resources.1 I can buy that overpriced ring at Zales to tell my wife “Look how much stuff I have! I have so many resources I can buy this expensive rock that really serves no practical purpose.” In essence, I am just a peacock showing off my useless feathers. Of course, to really display my resources I should probably try to put my more budget friendly Zale’s diamond ring (I know from the commercials that they are the diamond store with “elegant jewelry to fit my budget”) inside of a highly desirable and more expensive looking little blue box from Tiffany’s.

Great! Now I know what I need to buy her – but what about me? Society, TV, friends, and even family all seem to focus on the gifts women receive during this time of year with little regard for men. So what does science tell us women can do for their special someone this time of year? Evolutionary theory suggests that a display of resources probably won’t impress me as much as it does my wife (i.e., no Zales in a blue Tiffany’s box for Patrick). Instead, evolutionary theory predicts men desire characteristics associated with youth, health, and child-rearing abilities. These include all sorts of physical cues that are related to the production of healthy offspring such as: youth, clear skin, hair, low body mass, a curvy physique, etc.1,3 So my wife should get me a hot looking twenty-something who possess these qualities! I’m guessing, regardless of the science, this isn’t going to be my gift this year, or any year.

Of course, maybe science simply doesn’t have an answer as to which gifts are best for a man on Valentines’ Day. As I think about what I would want on this special day, I realize that I really don’t want anything. I’m pretty damn happy with what I have – a beautiful and smart woman who I met when she was a twenty-something but still possesses many of those youthful qualities today. It is important to remember that, although science can tell us a lot about various things that predict relationship outcomes for the “average” couple, it isn’t always that great at predicting what will make a specific couple happy.4 For some, the perfect gift this year will be getting that diamond ring, a romantic dinner out, or watching a movie while sitting on the couch at home. For me – it will be looking up from my laptop in a few seconds and seeing Charlotte sitting on the couch next to me.*

*My apologies for the sappy ending here – my hope is that this sentiment and public proclamation to the world will “count” as my Valentines’ gift this year for Charlotte :) After all, in addition to desiring resources, research also suggests women tend to desire men who are emotionally faithful.5

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1Buss, D. M., & Barnes, M. L. (1986). Preferences in human mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 559-570.

2Prokosch, M. D., Coss, R. G., Scheib, J. E., Blozis, S. A.  (2009).  Intelligence and mate choice: Intelligent men are always appealing.  Evolution and Human Behavior, 30, 11-20.

3Symons, D. (1979). The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

4Wiggins, J. (1973). Personality and Prediction: Principles of Personality Assessment. New York: Random House.

5Buss, D. M., Larsen, R. J., Westen, D., & Semmelroth, J. (1992). Sex differences in jealousy: Evolution, physiology, and psychology. Psychological Science, 3, 251-255.

Dr. Charlotte Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.

Dr. Patrick Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research focuses on how behavioral tendencies develop and are expressed within social relationships, including unhealthy dieting, civic behavior, personality judgment, and interpersonal aggression after playing violent video games.

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