By Amy Alkon
Q: Women are really cuckoo when it comes to gifts. If my lady didn’t get me a present on my birthday, I wouldn’t really care. But if I didn’t buy her something for hers or if I chose badly, brace yourself! Don’t get me wrong; I love my girlfriend. I just wish I understood how to avoid the minefield here.—Lost in Santa’s Wonderland
A: Unfortunately, you can’t just tell her that your relationship was “a gift from God.” So was the plague of locusts.
Gift-getting generally is a bigger deal to women than it is to men (like, if you miss the mark on her birthday, you might have to call in the U.N. peace negotiators). To understand why, consider that our emotions aren’t just feelings; they’re motivational mechanisms that evolved to guard our survival and help us pass on our genes. For example, you feel jealousy when you sense a threat to your relationship—like that your girlfriend’s compleeeetely platonic male BFF sees the friend zone as the dugout for the sex friend zone.
Of course, both men and women feel jealous and are deeply hurt by both sexual infidelity (“Did you have sex with him/her?!”) and emotional infidelity (“Do you love him/her?!”). However, evolutionary psychologist David Buss finds that men and women differ in which type they find more distressing. Because men experience “paternity uncertainty” (“mama’s baby, papa’s maybe”), they’re more distressed by sexual infidelity, which could chump them into raising a kid who’ll pass on some other dude’s genes.
There’s no such thing as “maternity uncertainty” because babies are delivered not by storks but by obstetricians—who coach screaming, profanity-spewing mothers-to-be to push a bowling ball-sized human out a very small opening. Accordingly, Buss finds that women are more distressed by the prospect that a man might be emotionally elsewhere, leading him to divert his investment in their children into diamond-encrusted loot for that hussy he’s been stepping out with.
In light of this, it makes sense that a woman puts more weight on a male partner’s displays of love and commitment—which is ultimately what gifts to your girlfriend are. Maybe understanding that can help you convert gift-giving from a perilous chore to a way to tell your girlfriend that you love her, that you don’t take her for granted and that it means something to give her a little burst of happy.
Unfortunately, this may not make your shopping any easier on Official Girlfriend Holidays (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, your anniversary and her birthday). What might help is asking for advice from women close to her—her mom, her sister, her BFF. As a bonus, they’re likely to gab about what a loving, thoughtful boo you are. As a secondary bonus, if some gift is a bust, they’re also handy targets for blame.
However, there’s a way to minimize the effects of any big-gift fails, and it’s with semi-frequent little gifts—like picking up her favorite overpriced smoothie or that special cheese she raves about. Doing this tells her something very important: That you love her enough to pay attention—uh, to more than the game scores from a hidden earpiece while she’s telling you about all the intrigue at Book Club.
Q: I’m a struggling musician (singer/songwriter), so let’s just say I’m not swimming in cash. I adore my girl, but I don’t have money to spend on her like her previous rich ex (who’d buy her expensive jewelry and designer handbags), so I feel weird buying her anything at all. What can I get her that shows my love without breaking the bank?—Underfunded
A: It probably hasn’t escaped her that you sometimes prepare for dates by visiting the Coinstar machine.
Money—even just a little bit of money—actually can buy happiness, but it helps to know what to spend it on. Research by psychologist Thomas Gilovich finds that money spent on experiences tends to make people happier than money spent on material stuff. That’s because we quickly acclimate to the new things in our lives and they stop giving us the same happiness bump they did at first. But an “experiential gift”—like writing a song for your girlfriend and singing it to her in a romantic location—is what we might call “reusable happiness.” Experiences are a renewable resource because we re-enjoy them as we reflect on them and talk about them. They also become part of a shared relationship history, and that’s very bonding.
Who knew? It seems there’s an upside to not having a bunch of money to spend: Your girlfriend looking back fondly on a day with you in a way she never could with all those romantic afternoons she spent with her Prada purse.