- A person who has invested resources in another has incurred "sunk costs," making them more committed and attached to the relationship.
- Deciding whether to give or take in a relationship depends on whether one wants to change their own feelings or the other person's.
- Letting a partner give more in a relationship is no longer effective once it makes one self-centered or stingy.
You've probably been told to do nice things for the people you want to attract. Maybe you've even been advised to buy presents, cook dinners, pay for dates, or perform thoughtful gestures to win the affection of a lover. These were common customs in the "courtship" of earlier generations—and are common tactics among animals too.
But just because the tactic of giving is common doesn't mean it is always the most effective. We have all heard stories of extensive favors and gifts leading to unrequited love. Stories of women who bestowed every concern and nicety, only to be left alone by an ungrateful partner. Or stores of men who financed expensive and exciting dates, only to be told, "Let's just be friends" (LJBF), when they tried to escalate the romance. In contrast, "takers" such as self-centered bad boys and demanding divas sometimes seem to have an endless parade of adoring lovers.
So, what is the deal with giving and taking?
Research on Giving and Receiving
According to research, giving certainly has an effect on the giver. Those who care, give, or help in an unsolicited manner feel more positive, alive, and have higher self-esteem (Weinstein & Ryan, 2010). The giver also feels more committed to the recipient of their giving (Horan & Booth-Butterfield, 2010).
This may be partially due to the phenomenon of "sunk costs," which results in "a greater tendency to commit to an endeavor after a prior investment of time, money, or effort" (Coleman, 2009). Essentially, we value something more when we have invested in it or worked to obtain it.
The effects of giving on the receiver, however, are much more mixed. On one hand, receiving a gift can generate feelings of gratitude in romantic partners, increasing their liking and attraction towards the giver and improving compliance with later requests (Hendrickson & Goei, 2009). On the other hand, receiving a gift might also generate negative feelings of obligation and not lead to reciprocity (Goei & Boster, 2005). Furthermore, in a dating context, gifts can also be seen negatively in terms of power and control, feelings of "being purchased," exploitation, trying to impress, guilt, or having ulterior motives (Belk & Coon, 1991). Overall, the effects of receiving a gift (taking) are complicated and varied.
What This Means for Your Love Life
Whether it is "better to give or receive" depends on who you're trying to influence. If you want to feel good, connected with your partner, and committed to them, then, by all means, give to them. On the other hand, if you want them to feel good, connected, and committed to you, then you might be better off taking from them.
This may be counterintuitive, but it stands to reason. Someone who gives to you has invested, committed, and devoted resources to you as a recipient of their giving. They have incurred "sunk costs." Therefore, they may be more committed and attached when they give (and you take), versus when they receive from you.
So, how do you put this into practice in your love life?
- Say yes to gifts and favors. Many individuals refuse gifts and favors, while they simultaneously toil away to impress their partner. They expect that their selflessness (all giving, no taking) will result in gratitude, attraction, and love. Instead, they sometimes find their partners un-invested and uncommitted. Don't be a martyr. Let your date or partner give to you, do for you, and invest in the relationship too. As they do more for you, you'll find that they value you more and become more attached.
- Give then take. When you do a favor, don't be afraid to ask a favor in return. Get what you want too. Your giving generates reciprocity and gratitude in others, but only when the favor is allowed to be paid back. Otherwise, it can fester into obligation and negativity. No one wants to "owe" someone else. So, when you do something nice, allow your partner to reciprocate. This will let the partner "pay off the debt," feel good about himself/herself, and increase commitment to the relationship too.
- Give when you get. Give when your date or partner earns it. When they do right by you or give you a gift, make sure to reciprocate. This displays your gratitude and appreciation. It also increases their satisfaction with the relationship and makes future giving, sharing, and caring more likely.
If your goal is to attract and keep a partner, in some instances, it might be better to "take" than "give." Let them invest a bit, work to earn you, and become more committed in the process. Don't always be the one to pick up the check or the dinner pan, and you might just find an improvement in how your partner sees you.
One final stipulation though—this is not a license to be self-centered or stingy (those will ruin a date too). Rather, it is a reminder to keep a bit of equal exchange and let your date invest in the process as well. Ultimately, it is OK to give others the gift of feeling good (by letting them give to you). After all, you're worth the investment too.
© 2011 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Belk, R. W., & Coon, G. S. (1991). Can't buy me love: Dating, money, and gifts. Advances in Consumer Research, 18, 521-527.
Coleman, M. D. (2009). Sunk costs and commitment to dates arranged online. Current Psychology, 28, 45-54.
Goei, R., & Boster, F. J. (2005). The roles of obligation and gratitude in explaining the effect of favors on compliance. Communication Monographs, 72(3), 284-300.
Hendrickson, B., & Goei, R. (2009). Explaining the effects of favor and status on compliance with a date request. Communication Research, 36(4), 585-608.
Horan, S. M., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2010). Investing in affection: An investigation of affection exchange theory and relational qualities. Communication Quarterly, 58(4), 394-413.
Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R. (2010). When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for prosocial behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(2), 222-244.