One Christmas a long time ago, I gave my then-boyfriend a Leatherman. He was a handy kind of guy, a theater techie, so I took myself down to Lowe’s, found one I could afford, and popped it into a festive bag. I was pretty proud of this gift: It wasn’t too much or too little for our six-month relationship, it was certainly something he wanted—because he’d commented on a colleague’s—and it demonstrated that I’d been paying attention to him and cared about him. I presented it to him on Christmas eve with great fanfare. He was delighted with it, as I’d thought he would be. He presented me with…nothing.
It prompted a huge fight. I couldn’t understand why he’d completely avoided the whole idea of Christmas; he couldn’t understand why I’d made an inexpensive multi-purpose tool a symbol of our relationship and commitment to each other.
Hieu P. Nguyen and James M. Munch, professors at California State University Long Beach and Wright State University, respectively, recently published a paper in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour that describes the effects of attachment style on how people feel about giving and receiving gifts. In short, both the giver’s and the receiver’s attachment style can influence whether the giver feels anxiety or excitement about selecting the “perfect” gift, the message communicated by a particular gift, and the way the receiver feels about getting that particular gift. It’s an interesting way of understanding why some people fret endlessly about what gifts to buy, why some people are never satisfied, and why some people, paralyzed by fear, avoid it altogether.
Quick primer on attachment style: attachment theory, conceived by John Bowlby in the late sixties and early seventies, is a way of describing the intimate relationships we have with other people from childhood on. Children who are “securely attached” to their parents or caregiver—meaning the parent responds in an appropriate and consistent way to the child’s needs—have positive self-esteem and see themselves as deserving of love as adults. They are generally happy and comfortable in romantic relationships. “Insecurely attached” people—who as children had inconsistent or abusive caregivers—have negative self-esteem and do not believe that they are worthy of love. They see others as unreliable and untrustworthy; they’re less satisfied in their intimate relationships. “Insecurely attached” further breaks down into two subcategories: “insecure-avoidantly” attached or “insecure-anxious/ ambivalently” attached styles. This paper describes the two insecurely attached styles as follows:
“Insecure-avoidantly attached adults are uncomfortable with intimacy and have difficulty trusting or depending on people; an avoidant individual may feel as though others want to be closer to her than she wants to be to them. Insecure-anxious/ ambivalently attached adults, on the other hand, desire intimate relationships and in fact often want to be closer to others than others want to be to them, but they are afraid of rejection; they may be preoccupied with fears of abandonment, and their neediness may actually increase the chance that they will encounter rejection.”
Social scientists have noted that gifts function as “relationship signals”; a partner can indicate that he or she is feeling love, caring, and trust towards someone as an intimate relationship develops. For two securely attached people, I imagine that gift-giving is a bonanza of cheer: You find the perfect tomato-red melamine iPod docking station for him, he tracks down a vintage teal wool swing coat for you, you’re both thrilled and delighted to have found each other, mighty equals in gift-giving prowess. Hooray!
But for the rest of us, there are pitfalls. I’ve only learned about attachment theory recently, but the framing resonates. The anxiety I used to feel about being part of a couple—particularly in the initial stages—pinged back and forth between what I dimly conceived of as panicky-avoidant or terrified-anxious. Meaning I would shut off the phone and work for days on end, avoiding the potential beau. This, in my lizard brain, was easier than trying to behave in a way that hid how I was really feeling, which was frightened. Or I would try to carefully calibrate how much I called, emailed or texted, based on my (no doubt distorted) perception of how the other person felt about me on any given day.
Gift-giving is just an extension of this nervous hopping around. Like, what if you started dating someone in November? (The absolute worst month to begin a relationship, by the way.) Is a holiday gift even called for? If so, what’s better, a few small things or one big thing? Define big? My husband and I started dating in January, a huge stroke of luck. The only minefield was Valentine’s Day—in fact, our third date was on February 13th, and by unspoken agreement, we didn’t communicate at all the next day. Call it chrono-avoidant. In hindsight this seems pretty silly, but these things assume outsized importance in early dating. And I guess the important thing was not the celebration or lack thereof, but that we were on the same page: I am not acknowledging the existence of Valentine’s Day, this is not happening.
Nguyen and Munch note that “it is conceivable that the gift-giving experience can be a stressful one for the gift-giver in contrast to the joy and celebration often associated with the gift-giving occasions.” Well, yes, that is conceivable! In other words, some people are like, whatevs, it’s the thought that counts, while for others a gift is a referendum on the relationship and possibly their whole sense of self-worth.
So knowing your attachment style—and your partner’s—might help you be a better gift-giver and gift-receiver. But at the very least, it can help you understand why the holidays, for some people, are fraught with anxiety. It takes the heat off of every gift selection, and you can manage your feelings when you give or receive something that is either way too much or way too little, or just plain wrong.
The good news is that attachment styles aren’t immutable: Nguyen and Munch note that there is an “individual” attachment orientation and a “relationship-specific” attachment orientation—meaning that willing partners, communicating effectively, can settle on a gift-giving norm within their relationship.
I think my long-ago techie boyfriend was anxiously avoiding the whole idea of Christmas and presents, right up until the moment when I handed him his gift. This is where the “willing partners, communicating effectively,” thing broke down for us: Our mismatched understanding of gift-giving was actually our mismatched understanding of the kind of attention, affection, and support we wanted from each other in our relationship. We broke up a month or so later. So yeah, it may have been our different attachment styles, or, as my mother informed me, it may have been because a Leatherman is a knife. And everybody knows that a knife, as a gift, is bad luck.
This article was originally published on