How the Psychology of Gifting Can Help a Sexual Relationship

According to the National Retail Foundation, 54% of the money spent on Valentine’s Day in 2021 was spent on a significant other. The act of gift-giving–an activity inextricably linked to Valentine’s Day can be, nonetheless, one of the more stress-inducing activities of this holiday, but it can also offer us lessons in how we relate to partners with intimate and erotic behaviors. In a recent research review by Galak, J et al of studies researching gift-giving, the authors hypothesize that many giver-recipient discrepancies are partly due to the notion that when givers choose a gift, they are focused more on the anticipated moment of when their gift will be unwrapped and viewed for the first time, whereas receivers usually focus on how valuable a gift will be once they own it.  Gifts are valued expressions of warmth, love and friendship to and from others. However at times, gifts may also be used in a more transactional manner or even as expressions of competition or power as in: “Which one of us bought the more expensive gift?”  Most folks, though, give gifts on Valentine’s Day because they desire to make a partner or best friend happy, and choose to provide them something, even if it is a modest present or a thoughtful act, to provide joy, and to show the receiver that they are held with warmth or love in the giver’s heart.

So during the Valentine’s Day season, I invite you to consider lessons partners can glean from this gift-giving-receiving process and how it might relate to couple’s offerings and accepting sexual and erotic behaviors to one another? How does the process of gift-giving relate to challenges partners confront when it comes to sexual initiations? 

The first thing to consider is that some partners don’t want to give or receive a gift from their partner similar to the way a partner identified as Asexual has decided they want to be emotionally close to a partner without engaging in a sexual act.  Another example occurs when a partner feels so anxious or frightened of getting the wrong gift for their partner, much in the way a person who is suffering from sexual pain, Erectile Disorder or traumatic history  avoids any initiation of intimacy for fear of physical pain, embarrassment, disappointment and disassociation. While these couples might agree to pause on any or some sexual activity with one another, other couples need help in finding better ways to initiate intimacy into their sexual practice.  

So how does a partner consider their sensual offerings without falling victim to the most common mistakes social psychologists have discovered when it comes to gifting?  During Valentine’s Day, when one is deciding on what gift to get a partner, it’s critical to put themselves in their partner’s shoes beyond the moment of when they will be unwrapping their gift. Similarly partners need to understand what their partners’ primary erotic language is and initiate an erotic or sexual experience in the  language that aligns with the partner’s sensibilities and what will feel pleasurable to the receiver.   

Another common error that people make whether they’re purchasing Valentine’s Day gifts or initiating a sexual encounter is that they offer their partner what they, the giver, would want to get, not necessarily thinking about what the receiver might desire. Whether it’s a habit of just responding to advertisements or an unconscious way to send a partner a not-too-subtle hint that they feel underappreciated, giving-to-get-back can be experienced as transactional by the receiver.  For example, if one partner likes to be seduced by having their genitals touched directly they might approach the second partner in the same way and turn them off with this approach because it’s not their preferred way of being invited into intimacy.  When thinking about initiating much as in deciding on what to get as a V-Day gift, a partner would be much better off by asking their partner what sexual or erotic signals they find meaningful or exciting. This process doesn’t always have to be drawn-out, either. Ask your partner directly and listen carefully. 

Oftentimes, a receiver might feel pressured by the invitation and respond immediately to an initiation by saying no. Giving and receiving are two sides of an experience, so a receiver can also gain skills on how to express gratitude for an initiation whether or not it’s a good time for them and offer in return further insight into what they’d love to experience. Just as a receiver would say thank you for a VDay gift even if it’s not what they most want, first expressing appreciation in positive tones goes a long way to the gift and initiation scenarios. 

 Both sexual encounters and gift exchanges require skill and nuanced responses for givers and receivers. The giver may do the bare minimum in choosing a gift or signaling they want to have sex, but that latent desire to please is rendered meaningless if the receiver begrudgingly takes what is put in front of them to satiate a partner who is putting pressure on the other. Frequently a receiver responds to what the giver wants for themselves with the hope of receiving pleasure later on in the event in a transactional way (as in I “do” you then you “do” me), or because it is expected (“we should be having sex”).  What can also become a negative exchange occurs when the receiver communicates abruptly that they don’t want to accept it because it’s not exactly what they want, or it was given at the wrong time of day which will most likely cause the giver to feel misunderstood, criticized and/or rejected.  If the giver got it wrong, the receiver should find something positive in the gift/sexual initiation and then gently explain how the receiver’s needs were misunderstood and how they might pivot by rescheduling, finding an alternative activity in the moment or deciding to try something the receiver suggests.  The receiver should still take into consideration the giver’s thoughtfulness in making the initial gesture with expression of gratitude for their efforts. To give and to receive are not mutually exclusive. 

Fully appreciating both the giving/receiving relational dynamic can be challenging for many partners whether on Valentine’s Day or below the sheets. While some people may struggle to conceptualize what their partner would truly desire, others may know erotically what it is their partner desires, but not how to enact it. For the former group, discussing erotic turn ons is critical so that these fantasies or desires can be spelled out and each partner can give examples of each turn on.  For the second group they may still need guidance verbally or nonverbally on what techniques would satisfy their partner’s erotic and sexual turn ons.  If, for example, one’s partner is particularly into tactile expressions, the giver might think about getting them a new vibrator, dildo, or clothing that has the feel they find sexy. Or a giver may begin by asking the receiver to guide their hand onto their skin to demonstrate how they want to be touched.  

Sexual intimacy can be nourishing when both halves of the pair are ready, willing and able to work as a team to give and receive pleasure with humility and erotic inquiry.  Gifting can be reconceptualized as an opportunity for learning more about your partner, yourself and improving sexual attachment. Everybody has a different language of love, just as everybody has varied erotic desires. These are steps in creating a more authentic emotional and erotic relationship on Valentine’s Day and going forward..