The Power Dynamics Behind Gift-Giving

Christmas is just around the corner, and you know what that means… We’re wrapping up the end of the year (pun intended) with another seasonally relevant topic: gift-giving! 

Gift-giving is a major part of holidays – whether it be for Christmas, Mother’s/Father’s Day, or Valentine’s Day. It’s an important behavior and one that is found in almost all human cultures. It serves to signify some sort of relationship between giver and recipient, establishing, strengthening, and demonstrating social ties and commitment that keeps our communities together. Its role in expressing love has been recognized in mainstream culture, as it even has a spot as one of the coveted five love languages – and rightly so! 

However, gift-giving isn’t always as innocent or selfless as it seems. Power dynamics play a part and there are certain obligations as a participant in this process to give, receive, and repay. Even if you were giving a gift out of the “goodness of your heart”, there is still some benefit to you as the giver. Known as a “self-gift”, this type is meant to boost your self-esteem and self-image. 

When it comes to gift-giving in romantic relationships, these power dynamics really come into play. Once someone gives you a gift, there is an imbalance in the relationship. Suddenly, the giver is someone that the receiver is now considered dependent on, and the receiver can feel socially bound by the obligation to repay the giver in one form or another. 

There are discrete gender differences in gift-giving and gift-receiving behaviors, especially in heterosexual relationships. More often than not, men are the gift-givers and women are the gift-receivers. When a group of 18 to 25 year-old men were asked why they got their girlfriends gifts for Valentine’s Day, they reported feeling obligated to give gifts out of tradition for the holiday, and for their self-interest as they usually expect some sort of reciprocity from their girlfriends in the future.

Given the previous discussion on dependence and power, this means that women are often in the position of being dependent, and men end up holding more power until that gift is repaid. Psychological literature supports the idea that women perceive romantic gifts from men less favorably because of the power imbalance that it creates. 

Gift-giving is no doubt a risky gesture. It is more transactional than we like to think, and it has the potential to create tension within a relationship because of the obligations intertwined in the process. Though heterosexual romantic relationships were the focus of the conversation, similar principles still apply to other types of romantic relationships. They can even apply when you’re exchanging presents for your annual office Secret Santa! 

Nevertheless, we don’t want to discourage you from giving or receiving gifts to any extent or to discredit gift-giving as a valid form of expressing love. Instead, we want to bring into light and contemplate some interesting nuances when it comes to our social and romantic relationships. Hopefully we were able to achieve this with all of our pieces this year. Thanks for reading and we are excited to see you in the new year!