Most interesting about Lowrey’s research is what she found out by going back to her subjects over the course of more than a decade. “The steady couples started out giving more selfishly,” Lowrey explains, “[the women] giving what they wanted their husbands to have. ‘He doesn’t do well around the house; I’ll give him a level.’” These women were acting as socializers. With time, they moved into the role of pleaser. Although they spent smaller amounts, their gifts became less about themselves and more about their loved ones.
As one might have guessed, the selfish giving tended to be far more extravagant. “The younger, single, childless women were spending tons of money on their significant others,” Lowrey comments. “One woman tried to set up a home office for her boyfriend and broke up with him the next year.
“They were trying to impress their hopefuls,” Lowrey suspects. “The more relaxed you are in a relationship, the less the gift is necessary as a symbol.” My brother, of owl-house fame, bears this out: “We used to spend more—a few hundred bucks. But we’re to the point where it doesn’t have to cost a lot.” Plus, he explains, “I’ve kind of fed all her interests.” Luckily, Jane is on the same page. “You learn over the years: Why get stressed out?,” she says.
Russell Belk, whose research has taken him inside cultures around the world, says gifts that aspire to signify romantic love share some common qualities. They tend to be spontaneously acquired. They are chosen without regard for price; intended for a unique individual who is valued as a whole; suggestive of sacri?ce; and expressive, emotional, and deeply pleasing. There is no reciprocity implied in such a token. There is no sign of obligation or habit or personal gain.
One of Grant M.’s gifts to Paul F. gets pretty close to that ideal. Almost a year into their relationship, Paul had already intoned the scary words, “I love you.” Grant had waited. Then, on their ?rst February 14 together, he announced to Paul, “I want to give you your Valentine gift.” After a pause, he said, “I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” Paul accepted.