Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

Shouldn't Love Make Gift Giving Easy?

Finding your partner the perfect gift can be a stress-inducing process.

When it comes to a romantic relationship, for better or worse, gifts communicate something about you and your thoughts and feelings. Gifts can take on a great deal of meaning, signaling commitment, love, or affection, all of which amounts to a primary problem for holiday gift givers. In a new relationship or even a yet-to-be-labeled relationship, how do you make sure to say enough, but not too much? In a more long-term relationship, how do you ensure that you’re saying what you’re trying to say? 

If navigating this maze is making you dizzy, you’re not alone. Many people experience gift-giving anxiety, especially when they want to make a good impression but fear that the recipient, in some way, may respond negatively to their gift (Wooten, 2001). The more a giver believes a gift will be evaluated, the higher his or her stress. You can imagine how this anxiety is intensified when a gift will be opened in front of other people, such as in front of the recipient’s family on Christmas or in front of co-workers at a holiday party.

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Gift-giver anxiety is also high when individuals have attachment anxiety and a heightened sense of gift-giving obligation, which tends to run counter to gift-giving pleasure (Nguyen & Munch, 2001). Other factors, such as uncertainty about a chosen gift, having minimal resources to support gift-giving goals, or feeling like there are unclear guidelines about the types of gifts to be exchanged also make the gift shopping and giving process stressful (Wooten, 2001). The lack of a clear sense of gift-giving expectations is a major source of gift-giver worry, and for good reason: in many cases, especially for married couples, the quality of the Christmas gift giving experience depends on a well-balanced gift giving and receiving transaction (Cheal, 1986).

While gift-giving anxiety is often rooted in the giver’s thoughts and uncertainties, sometimes the real source of the problem is the recipient. Some recipients are notoriously difficult to buy for.  Maybe they are picky, don’t give suggestions, or seem utterly impossible to satisfy. Scholars have identified characteristics of the typical difficult-to-buy for recipient (Otnes, Kim, & Lowrey, 1992), some of which are relevant for romantic partners. For example, some romantic partners really don’t need anything, or (worse) have subtly (or not-so-subtly) rejected past gifts. The gift-giving dilemma becomes even more challenging when a partner differs from you in interests or preferences, is someone whom you don’t know well (e.g., perhaps you have just started dating), or has some dispositional or physical limitations that restrict gift options. From a logistical perspective, partners sometimes make the gift giving task more difficult by directly imposing gift-buying restrictions (e.g., “Don’t spend more than $25!”). All of these characteristics and constraints reveal that gift givers have an incredibly demanding role during the holiday season (no wonder we bake cookies… we need them with all this stress!).

christmas ornaments on a tree
Let’s remember, however, that receiving gifts is tricky too.  While givers do their work upfront, the major task for recipients happens during and after gift presentation. Recipients must accurately decode a gift for its intended meaning, ideally in the moment it is first opened or unwrapped. The recipient must then react appropriately, providing a verbal and/or nonverbal response to the waiting giver (Sherry, 1983). In many ways, the burden of everyone’s happiness with the gift exchange depends on the recipient’s reaction, which is often tied to the quality of the gift itself. Receivers generally appreciate good gifts more than bad gifts, but sometimes the thought behind the gift does count (Zhang & Epley, 2012). For example, when people receive a bad gift or are somehow prompted to think of the givers’ intentions, recipients’ positive evaluations of the gift tend to correspond with the thoughtfulness of the gift. 

So how can we reduce some of the stress around holiday shopping? Taking some of the mystery out the game might help. Asking a partner what he or she might be wishing for this season not only reduces much of the uncertainty, but also guarantees smiles on Christmas morning. Indeed, a requested gift is a desired gift and is generally more appreciated than thoughtful, but unrequested, gifts (Gino & Flynn, 2011). Perhaps seeking suggestions from your partners’ friends might also help, and don’t be shy: even long-time partners can have difficulty predicting which products their partner might want (Lerouge & Warlop, 2006). Give time and thoughtful attention to your gift ideas: such thoughtfulness may help you locate a good gift idea, but at minimum, will likely increase your feelings of connection to your partner (Zhang & Epley, 2012). Good luck… and let the shopping begin!



Cheal, D. J. (1986). The social dimensions of gift behaviour. Journal of social and personal relationships, 3(4), 423-439.10.1177/0265407586034002

Gino, F., & Flynn, F. J. (2011). Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in gift exchange. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(5), 915-922.

Lerouge, D., & Warlop, L. (2006). Why it is so hard to predict our partner’s product preferences: The effect of target familiarity on prediction accuracy. Journal of Consumer Research, 33(3), 393-402.

Nguyen, H. P., & Munch, J. M. (2011). Romantic gift giving as chore or pleasure: The effects of attachment orientations on gift giving perceptions. Journal of Business Research, 64(2), 113-118.

Otnes, C., Kim, Y. C., & Lowrey, T. M. (1992). Ho, Ho, Woe: Christmas shopping for difficult people. Advances in Consumer Research, 19, 482-487.

Sherry Jr, J. F. (1983). Gift giving in anthropological perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 10(2), 157-68.

Wooten, D. B. (2000). Qualitative steps toward an expanded model of anxiety in gift-giving. Journal of Consumer Research, 27, 84-95. doi:10.1086/314310

Zhang, Y., & Epley, N. (2012). Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: When “it's the thought that counts” in gift exchanges. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(4), 667-681. 10.1037/a0029223



Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.


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