As if we needed another sign that Valentine’s Day is getting awfully expensive, the coupon Web sites have now gotten into the game.
These group buying sites may be trying to strike decent bargains for users. But now that so many people subscribe to their e-mails, gift givers have to be playing a weird psychic game with themselves. Will he know I used a Group on? Will she think less of me for doing so? Cut-rate romance feels somehow wrong, so plenty of people simply pay up. It’s a special day, after all.
Once you head down that road, however, it’s hard not to feel like a sucker, swept up in the frenzy of an occasion that might not have endured were it not for the Hallmark crowd. After all, there is something kind of pathetic about having to designate a day to be good to your mate. Still, we dutifully participate in this mass ritual of public devotion, paying extra for the prix fixe while packed elbow to elbow with others when it would be way more romantic to have a great restaurant mostly to ourselves the next night.
It all seems wrong somehow. So I set out to prove that successful couples have gotten wise to all the fuss and spend less on gifts for one another as time passes. No such luck, alas. The data does not seem to exist. What I did discover, however, was that many of us were probably taking the wrong approach to quantifying our generosity in the first place. Long-term relationships do not survive without gifts, to be sure. But they are not the gifts you may think.
Allen M. Parkman has been married 37 years, though his parents divorced in 1944, when he was just 4 years old. Figuring out why marriages fail has driven part of his research as an economist and (now emeritus) professor of management at the University of New Mexico.
His 2004 article in the journal Economic Inquiry, “The Importance of Gifts in Marriage,” went a long way toward cracking the code, he says. It began by noting, as other researchers had, that unlike people in his parents’ generation, those marrying more recently were seeking increases in psychological welfare in addition to material gains. To his mind, many gains come from gifts, which he defined as an offering where you incur a cost but receive no direct or immediate benefit.
That certainly encompasses all of the usual trinkets and baubles. While we don’t know how total spending on these things changes over time, Thomas Bradbury, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies marriage, noted that the grand totals were not the right metric. He suggested considering the proportion of income that people spent instead.
This makes a lot of sense. After all, there is a display of plumage that goes on during many courtships, a wooing based in part on establishing one’s credentials as an exceedingly generous soul. A lot of disposable income goes toward this sort of thing. The De Beers people seized on the metric in a brilliant and insidious way, suggesting that no price was too high for an engagement ring — simply pile up two months’ worth of salary.
But this is only half the story, Mr. Parkman says. Many gifts are of the psychological and intangible sort. They range from simple empathy, affection and a catch-all category called “understanding,” to complex actions like sacrificing your career so your family can move to a city where a spouse or partner has a new and better job.
This is a useful construct during tough economic times. Worrying about the gift-giving ritual is a high-class problem, after all. But if you count yourselves among the working (or nonworking) class and can’t afford to buy many gifts, it sure seems as if there are still plenty of gifts you can give.
Generosity on this front, however, is a harder thing to test for during courtship. And you can’t just go out and buy these psychic gifts as a partnership matures, even if you make a lot more money than when you first met. So it’s no wonder that failure here tends to sink lots of marriages, according to Mr. Parkman’s research.
Regularly scheduled giving, then, is not necessarily a mark of successful marriages. Charlie Turpin and his wife, Jewell, of Minneapolis have been married 56 years. Mr. Turpin describes traditional gift-giving as something they have outgrown.
“It really is liberating,” he said, noting the stress that came from needing to read one another’s mind on command because of a mark on the calendar. “Early in life, presents and occasions are important, but as you get older, you have everything you want.” Now, he and his wife channel much of their generosity toward their family.
“We gave away a lot of money, but it wasn’t tied to an occasion, and it was not required,” he said. “You know you are doing the right thing. It’s not stressful at all.”
A gift can also be as subtle as granting implicit permission for a spouse to pursue a passion that is somewhat pricey, even if you’re not a spender by nature. Bob and Mary Kuhn of Glen Mill, Pa., decided to call a halt to traditional gift-giving on state occasions at least 15 years ago. The couple, both 68, have been married for 43 years.
Ms. Kuhn laughed as she recalled her husband’s radio-controlled airplane habit. “Those things crash,” she said. “So that can be a gift until someone is no longer interested in that sort of hobby.”
Shelly Lundberg, an economics professor at the University of Washington who has studied bargaining within marriages, likes this example for the signals it sends. “It shows not only that I know what you like, but that I value an aspect of you that you consider important,” she said, say a mechanical mind or a tinkering spirit.
The other nice thing about Ms. Kuhn’s offering was that there was no occasion she was observing when she made it. Ike and Mae Mosher, who have been married for 70 years, never established much of a traditional gift-giving ritual between them because they stretched their finances early on in their relationship to support his mother and sister when his father died. Ms. Mosher’s sacrifices early on were her own gift to Mr. Mosher and his family.
Over time, their giving to one another became more spontaneous. “He would give me gifts just for the sake of giving me a gift,” said Ms. Mosher, who lives with her husband in the Classic Residence community in Chevy Chase, Md., “not necessarily because it was a day you have to give a gift.”
This maps exactly, it turns out, to some of the findings of Terri Orbuch, a professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan who leads a continuing study of married couples that dates to the mid-1980s. “Romance and passion is all about using the elements of surprise and the elements of newness,” she said. “That’s what couples say, and that’s what I’ve found in the research.”
So practice random acts of generosity, whether it’s with traditional gifts or more psychic ones. And if you and your better half want to partake in this national ritual of devotion, it certainly can’t hurt.
But it probably isn’t necessary, either. “It is very sweet and nice when you are 20 or 25,” said Ms. Mosher, 92. “But we are so safe and secure in our love for each other, there is no need for that kind of thing.”
Copyright 2011 by The New York Times