I’ve received a gift on Valentine’s Day once in the past ten years. I wouldn’t consider my lackluster gift count so remarkable if I were perpetually single, but I have been romantically involved with someone on every single Valentine’s Day in the last decade! In contrast to my former partners, I derive a ridiculous amount of pleasure from giving people presents. Although I hardly need a reason to buy someone a gift (“It’s Tuesday? Cool; here’s the box set of Top Gear you said you wanted”), Valentine’s Day offers the perfect excuse for me to indulge my gift-giving fancy.
Recently, marketers have taken interest in why people buy Valentine’s gifts for their partners. One particularly interesting study focused on young men’s reasons for buying Valentine’s Day presents and what these reasons suggest about their relationships’ balance of power.1 The researchers spoke with approximately 100 men through a series of focus groups and in-depth interviews, during which the participants were asked about a Valentine’s purchase they made for a romantic partner within the last two years. Men reported three primary reasons for buying into the Hallmark holiday:
- obligation (“I got her a gift because it’s what you’re supposed to do.”)
- self-interest (“I bought her lingerie, thinking I’d get a fashion show later.”)
- altruism (“I got her something to make her happy.”)
The most commonly cited reason for purchasing Valentine’s gifts? You guessed it: obligation. Depressing, I know. What’s more, men’s motives were rarely purely altruistic; more often than not, altruism was cited along with a sense of self-interest or obligation.
Perhaps more interesting than men’s reasons for showering their partners with chocolate and flowers (at least, I assume that’s what usually happens...I have no experience with this!) is what these motivations indicate about the underlying power dynamics in their relationships. For instance, feeling obligated to give a gift on Valentine’s Day may not be all bad—it may come from a latent desire to express the extent to which the man values the relationship (“I need to give her a present in order to show her how much she means to me”). In this scenario, the recipient of the gift seemingly has more power than the gift-giver—but, of course, gift recipients may be concerned about whether or not the gifts they receive are an accurate reflection of their partners’ feelings or investment in the relationship (“Did he buy me a box of chocolates because that’s ‘what you do’ for Valentine’s, or did he buy me chocolates because that’s all I’m worth to him?”).2 Indeed, the characteristics of a gift (e.g., its price) can reveal important information about the strength of the bond that exists between the gift-giver and gift recipient. A gift that the recipient considers to be either excessive (e.g., an engagement ring after one month of dating) or insufficient (e.g., a chocolate bar) can shift the balance of power in the relationship.2,3
The self-interest motive, on the other hand, may be rooted in social equity or mutual exchange processes—that is, people may give a gift expecting that they will get something in return, whether it be a gift from their partner, sexual favors, or merely the continuation of the relationship. In fact, a number of participants half-jokingly said that their girlfriends would break up with them if they didn’t receive a Valentine’s gift—a belief that may motivate men to give a gift out of self-interest and obligation.
I, however, never broke up with any of my former partners because they failed to give me a gift for Valentine’s Day. And, odds are, they didn’t feel obligated to give me a gift because they knew there wouldn’t be any consequences (at least, that’s the story I choose to tell myself!). My exes probably weren’t motivated by self-interest, either, because they knew that I, being the compulsive gift-giver that I am, would buy them a Valentine’s gift regardless of whether or not I expected one in return. Nevertheless, if you’re in a relationship (and would like to remain in one), you should probably plan to buy your partner a Valentine’s present, if for no other reason than because Hallmark says so.
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1Rugimbana, R., Donahay, B., Neal, C., & Polonsky, M. J. (2003). The role of social power relations in gift giving on Valentine’s Day. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 3, 63–73.
2Wooten, D. B. (2000). Qualitative steps toward an expanded model of anxiety in gift-giving. Journal of Consumer Research, 27, 84–95.
3Larsen, D., & Watson, J. J. (2001). A guide map to the terrain of gift value. Psychology & Marketing, 18, 889–906.
Elizabeth A. Schoenfeld - Science of Relationships articles
Liz’s research focuses on love, particularly its development over time and its expression in day-to-day life. She also studies the impact of romantic relationships on physical health, as well as how individuals’ sexual relationships are tied to their personal attributes and broader relationship dynamics.