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What Message Do Your Gifts Send?

Giving gifts can bolster your connection, or lead to awkward moments.


Welcome back to The Attraction Doctor.

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article providing five tips for gift-giving with a date or mate. As the holiday season approaches again, I felt inspired to search for a bit more advice to help you (and me) with the shopping list. I was particularly interested in figuring out how gift-giving during the holidays, or any other time, could improve romantic relationships. So, I did what I always do: I took a look in the scientific literature for the answers.

The Science of Romantic Gift Giving

Several studies provide insight into the role of gift-giving in romantic relationships. For example, Belk and Coon (1993) explored reasons for gift giving in relationships through participants' diaries of dating experiences. The authors found that motivation for giving gifts varied from purely transactional and instrumental to more symbolic and emotional. Men, in particular, viewed gift-giving as a means of exchange, usually to try to gain sexual favors. Women, in contrast, preferred receiving gifts for symbolic and emotional reasons. Overall though, relationship giving tended to transition from being more of a reciprocal exchange to an emotional expression as relationships developed.

Huang and Yu (2000) more thoroughly explored the role of gifts in developing and maintaining relationships over time. Their results indicated that gift-giving could have positive or negative effects on a relationship, depending on the frequency and intensity of gifts at each relationship stage. When gift-giving was moderate and balanced, it made the giver feel good, expressed loving feelings to the recipient, and helped ensure relationship success. When gifts were given too frequently or rarely, however, anxiety and negative feelings could spoil the relationship.

Gift-giving motivation was more recently studied by Jonason, Tost, and Koenig (2012). These researchers also found that both men and women use gifts to maintain existing interpersonal relationships. Primarily, gifts are a way to mark special occasions, show affection, or apologize for a mistake. Men were also likely to use gifts as a way to escalate the sexual and romantic nature of a relationship, or to help keep a partner committed to them. Overall, men who were particularly shy or lacking in self-esteem were especially likely to use gifts as a way of communicating affection and interest.

Taken together, it appears that gift giving is a form of emotional expression in relationships that becomes more important over time. It is also way for both partners to maintain relationships and help ensure the fidelity of mates (mate guard). Finally, men also use gift giving as a way to establish and escalate the sexual nature of relationships, through reciprocity and exchange, especially in the early stages of dating. Thus, the motivation for giving and receiving gifts tends to depend largely on the gender of the individuals involved and the stage of the relationship.

When and How Should You Give a Romantic Gift?

The research results above can help provide some general guidelines for successful and satisfying gift giving to a date, lover, or mate. To best judge an appropriate and effective gift, however, requires looking at the stage of the relationship. In other words, gift-giving with a new dating partner is very different from buying presents for an established mate.

In early dating, gift-giving is usually more of a transaction and reciprocal exchange. At this stage, men in particular might be motivated to buy lavish gifts to escalate the relationship. Such gift-giving may make the giver feel good, but will most likely not have the intended effect on the recipient. (See here.) In fact, big gifts early in dating may make a partner feel anxious, obligated, or manipulated. In short, guys, buying that big-ticket item for your new girlfriend will most likely not have the desired effect.

Given that, early dating gift-giving should aim at being relatively inexpensive, reciprocal, and somewhat thoughtful. It is more about giving gifts of roughly equal value that consider the other person's interests. Also, if you want to increase the attraction and passion in your relationship, you might want to buy some tickets to an exciting or stimulating activity. Besides, shared excitement builds desire much better than expensive gifts (here).

In established relationships, gift-giving becomes more emotional and symbolic. Gifts are used to show appreciation and gratitude. For men, gifts may also be a way to help show their value as a mate and keep their partner attentive (here). This gifting strategy does not work as well for women, however, as men often respond much better to sexual reciprocation to keep them attentive.

As a result, gift-giving has a more symbolic and relationship regulating function in longer-term mating. Such gifts are often one-sided expressions of love, without the demand for immediate reciprocation. So both more thought and expense is often a part of the process. However, the nature and investment should be proportional to the partner's emotional gratitude. In other words, your gift will only enhance the relationship to the degree that your partner is grateful and appreciative of your investment (see here). If they will not appreciate it, don't bother splurging for it.


Gift-giving can be tricky, especially between romantic partners. A lot of feelings and expectations can get mixed up. Following a few simple rules, backed up by science, can help clear the clutter:

  • In early relationships, it is best to keep gifts simple, thoughtful, and reciprocal. If you want to increase the passion, then use the money for a shared exciting or stimulating activity together, rather than a big-ticket item.
  • Later relationships might benefit from larger investments and expressions of love, but only to the degree that a partner will appreciate them. Otherwise, it might be best to keep it small and thoughtful too—or just stick a bow on your forehead and give your partner a little affection...

Visit for more dating and relationship advice, or reach out on Facebook, email, and RSS. Until next time ... happy dating and relating! Dr. Jeremy Nicholson, The Attraction Doctor

© 2014 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Belk, R. W., & Coon, G. S. (1993). Gift giving as agapic love: A alternative to the exchange paradigm based on dating experiences. Journal of Consumer Research, 20, 393-417.

Huang, M., & Yu, S. (2000). Duration models to analyze dating relationships: The controversial role of gift giving. Family and Consumer Science Research Journal, 28, 411-427.

Jonason, P. K., Tost, J., & Koenig, B. L. (2012). Sex differences and personality correlates of spontaneously generated reasons to give gifts. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 6, 181-192.
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