5 Tips for Gift Giving with a Date or Mate

How to handle gift-giving with a lover or partner.

Posted Dec 22, 2012

Welcome back to The Attraction Doctor

If you are a notorious last-minute shopper like myself (or were hoping for the world to end on the 21st), then you're probably under a bit of gift buying stress at the moment. Making lists, checking them twice...etc. Last minute sale coupons and flyers strewn about. Well, I'm here to help!

At this time of year (and during birthdays, Valentine's day, etc.) it can be particularly difficult to exchange gifts with boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, partners, and special friends. How do you find the right present? How much is too much (or too little)? What will keep you in their good graces...and out of the doghouse?

Below are some guidelines that I use to structure gift-giving with the ones I love. I hope they help you as well!

5 Tips for Exchanging Gifts

1) Give others what THEY want

Finding the right present is about putting yourself in the other person's shoes. Looking at the world from their perspective. Just because you find that fuzzy hat attractive, doesn't mean your spouse or lover will like it. Remember, people receiving a present evaluate the quality of a gift first and figure out whether they like it. They only begin acknowledging your good intentions and consider whether "it's the thought that counts", if they are disappointed with what they receive (Zhang & Epley, 2012).

Given that, it is important to give something that they (not you) would like. Look for a gift that relates to their values, interests, or hobbies. You don't necessarily have to spend a fortune...but it does help if you pick out something personal and valuable for that person. So, think long and hard about what your lover enjoys and what makes them happy. Then, go out and get it!

If you need more help finding out who they are and what the like, see here: How to Connect with a Date or Mate.

2) Always be prepared to reciprocate

Sometimes, as with very new relationships, it is difficult to know whether a gift is warranted. Other times, we are explicitly told that "no gift is necessary". Nevertheless, at the last minute, others may change their minds. In those instances, there is nothing worse than being faced with a present...with nothing to give them in return. That is because the desire to return favors and gifts (called reciprocity) is a powerful social norm that influences our social behavior (Cialdini, 2009). So, whether they state it or not, the other people in your life will probably want at least some small present back!

The solution here is simple - buy some small gifts "just in case". Universal presents such as movie ticket vouchers, small stuffed animals, scented candles, candy, and wine always make good "emergency" gifts. Then get a cute card as well. Keep them wrapped under your tree (or in your car) and take them out if you get "surprised" with a gift. You will have them on hand to reciprocate! You can even say that you "didn't quite know what to get...but you couldn't resist getting them a little something too"! :-)

For more on reciprocity and problems with gift-giving, see here: Defense Against Manipulative Dating Games 2: Taking Too Much and Defense Against Manipulative Dating Games 3: Tricky Giving.

3) Keep them guessing

People generally prefer a secret. They enjoy the surprise. In fact, studies have shown that people are happier receiving one of two gifts as a surprise, then they are getting BOTH when they know about it beforehand (Kurtz, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2007). The uncertainty and suspense is part of the fun!

With that in mind, DON'T tell others what you are getting them. Even if they have exact requests, get them something small that they don't know about too. Then, hint at it and tease them a bit. Tell them you might have a surprise... But, don't give it away. Let the anticipation and uncertainty build. Whatever it is, they will enjoy it more, if you keep them guessing.

For more on how uncertainty can influence positive feelings, see: Does Playing Hard to Get Make You Fall in Love?

4) Let others give back

The old saying "it is better to give than receive" is not always true. Relationships are about exchange, not just one-way giving. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that others come to care about you more when they give and invest in you, than when you give to them (Jecker & Landy, 1969). Essentially, others come to love you by the gifts they give - rather than the gifts they get!

Therefore, it is helpful to also not be "too nice" or act like a selfless martyr. Act with a bit of self-worth and esteem. There is nothing wrong with asking for what you want too. So, communicate, assert your worth, and get others to invest a little in you too. That doesn't mean you need to be a selfish brat...but it does mean that you should allow others to feel good by giving to you as well. Don't hog all the good feelings and altruistic fun!

For more on the emotional benefits of letting others give to you and invest, see: Make Them Love You by Taking (Not Giving).

5) Practice and look for gratitude

Gift-giving, exchanges, and relationships are built on the foundation of gratitude. Within relationships, new and old, gratitude motivates loving, caring, and giving behaviors (Kubacka, Finkenauer, Rusbult, & Keijsers, 2011). It is the social emotion that keeps us connected, kind, and reciprocating.

Therefore, whatever you ultimately get from others, be grateful for their time, attention, and consideration. Share that notion of gratitude and thanks with them too. It will bring you both closer and motivate further giving, sharing, and love. Also, keep a keen eye on how appreciative others are of your gifts as well. An ungrateful and entitled date makes for a poor long-term partner. So, if you don't get a big heart-felt thank you this year...you may not want to keep them around.

For more on the benefits of gratitude for loving relationships, see: How Gratitude Influences Loving Behavior.


Gift-giving can be an awkward time, but it doesn't have to be frustrating. Just remember to think about the gift from the other person's perspective. Make sure to have something on-hand to give in an emergency. Surprise others when possible to heighten the good feelings. Let others give back to you. Finally, be grateful and expect appreciation too. Keep that in mind...and enjoy the festivities!

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Until next time...happy dating and relating!

Dr. Jeremy Nicholson
The Attraction Doctor

Previous Articles from The Attraction Doctor


  • Cialdini, R.B. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Pearson.
  • Jecker, J., & Landy, D. (1969). Liking a person as function of doing him a favor. Human Relations, 22, 371-378.
  • Kubacka, K. E., Finkenauer, C., Rusbult, C. E., & Keijsera, L. (2011). Maintaining close relationships: Gratitude as a motivator and a detector of maintenance behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1362-1375.
  • Kurtz, J. L., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2007). Quantity versus uncertainty: When winning one prize is better than winning two. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 979-985.
  • Zhang, Y, & Epley, N. (2012). Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: When "it's the thought that counts" in gift exchanges.

© 2012 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.