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Valentine Presents Cause Anxiety at the Gift Counter

Attachment theory helps explain why some people consider giving gifts to their romantic partners a pleasure, while others find it decidedly uncomfortable.
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Have you bought that special someone a Valentine's Day gift yet? If so, was the process of picking out a present joyful, or stressful?

If you chose the latter, you are far from alone. According to newly published research, "at least half of the population perceives gifting their romantic partners as more of an obligation, and less of a pleasure."

Writing in the Journal of Business Research,Hieu Nguyen of California State University, Long Beach, and James Munch of Wright State University describe the psychological factors that underlie this discomfort, and they provide provocative advice to both gift-givers and the stores that serve them.

Nguyen and Munch use the framework of attachment theory, which was formulated in the 1960s by psychologist John Bowlby and refined in the 1970s by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Its central notion is that infants need a primary caregiver who is available and responsive to their needs without being overbearing.

Lacking such a figure, children fail to develop a strong sense of security, which makes it difficult to connect with others in a mature, mutually beneficial way as adults. Previous research has suggested that "secure individuals typically make up 50 percent of the population, while anxious and avoidant individuals split up fairly evenly in the other half," Nguyen and Munch write.

Anxious individuals tend to have a deep-seated fear of abandonment or neglect. "They focus their attention on their partners and constantly assess whether their partners are showing enough affection," the researchers write. Avoidant individuals, on the other hand, "invest less than others in the relationship, because they do not expect their partner's support. They tend to value their autonomy."

Sound like anyone you know?

Nguyen and Munch conducted two experiments, one featuring 141 students, the other 89, to examine the relationship between attachment styles and the experience of gift-giving. The participants, all of whom were in romantic relationships, answered a series of questions designed to assess their attachment orientation, relationship satisfaction, commitment and self-esteem, as well as the amount of pleasure they receive giving gifts to their partner.

Among their findings: Both individuals with avoidant and anxious orientations were more likely than their secure counterparts to view gift-giving as an obligation rather than a pleasure. The anxious "use gifts as a means to secure attachment," meaning the emotional stakes are high, and mistakes have major consequences. No wonder pleasure is minimal! Meanwhile, the avoidant take a skeptical stance toward relationships; they may see the entire ritual as a charade they're obligated to participate in.

Among anxious individuals, those who were less satisfied in their relationship were even more likely to think of gift-giving as obligatory, and less likely to find it pleasurable. This follows logically from attachment theory: If you feel emotionally needy and those needs aren't being met, gift-giving could become an almost desperate attempt to forge a stronger connection. Under such conditions, how could it not be stressful?

Nguyen and Munch argue gift-giving tension could be lessened if merchants understood the underlying emotional needs of people with different attachment orientations, and tailored their advice accordingly. "Sales associates might describe each attachment orientation (to a customer) and ask gift-givers to select the orientation most closely resembling the recipient's," they write. "This type of information may help gift-givers select more appropriate gifts and reduce gift-giving stress.

"For example, if the gift recipient is an anxiously attached person, gifts that represent commitment and love might be highly appreciated because that is what most anxious individuals are obsessed about. On the other hand, an avoidant recipient may not prefer those gifts, because they signal the giver's attempt to get closer to them."

The researchers add that “‘I love you and envision our future together’ gifts could be merchandised together because they may be more appealing to secure or anxious givers who want to show the recipients their love and commitment. ‘You’re cute’ and ‘I like you’ gifts may be displayed together for avoidant givers who want to show the recipients that they enjoy the relationship, but want to avoid making commitment through gifts.”

That nicely wrapped DVD box set of Woody Allen’s cinematic odes to ambivalence does make a statement.

This approach doesn’t mesh well with the romantic-love-conquers-all mythology that typifies Valentine’s Day celebrations. But understanding your partner's needs and limitations — and presenting them with tokens of affection based on that knowledge — is arguably the most loving gift of all.

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