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Psychology of Relationships

Relationships are important. Time is short. Get it right.

  • Writer's pictureGary W. Lewandowski Jr.

The Five Best Free Gifts for Your Relationship This Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day. We could easily (and cynically) consider it a frivolous “Hallmark Holiday.” But, it can be so much more than that, for better and for worse.

First, the bad news, Valentine’s Day can break a relationship. Literally, because research finds that relationships are 2.5 times more likely to end around V-day.[1] Yikes. Here’s the good news: It only served as a break-up catalyst for already troubled relationships. In other words, if your relationship is healthy, you shouldn’t have to worry.

But, that doesn’t mean you should treat February 14th like any other day. Instead, use Valentine’s Day as your Relationship State of Our Union (minus the scripted speech and all the standing and clapping), where you take stock of where you are and where you want to be as a couple. Here are five completely free gifts you can give this Valentine’s Day:

1) Make it about memories, not money. Ready for a sacrilegious suggestion? This Valentine’s Day, skip the chocolates, overpriced flowers, or expensive gifts. Instead, opt for something less expensive, but more beneficial and meaningful. Money doesn’t make love stronger. In fact, a study of over 3,000 married people found that couples who spent more money on their engagement ring and weddings had their marriages end sooner.[2]

Similarly, Valentine’s Day success isn’t about spending money. A Monmouth University Poll of over 1,000 adults found that 80% preferred doing something with their partner instead of getting a gift for Valentine’s Day. Smart, because research finds the key to a happy life is spending time having unforgettable experiences, not buying stuff.[3] Doing something together builds shared memories in a way balloons or stuffed animals simply can’t.

2) Find things to do. Boredom is an early warning system that tells us to make a change.[4] Research shows we can combat relationship boredom by doing new, interesting, and challenging activities, that help us grow as a person.[5] Sure you could go skydiving, but something as simple as a goofy “minute to win it” game, starting a new series on Netflix, or making a meal together with a fun “secret ingredient” can improve relationship quality. Not feeling that adventurous? No problem. That same Monmouth University Poll found that only 1 in 10 wanted to do something new and interesting on Valentine’s Day, while 1 in 4 people said they would be happiest spending time at home with their partner doing a favorite activity. Consider this permission to keep things low key. Even better, happiness-boosting experiences don’t have to look like Bachelor-inspired dates, because even ordinary activities boost happiness.[6] A simply hug and kiss before heading out or taking a quiet moment to share a cup of coffee helps. Even a game like UNO (though I’d suggest not piling on the Draw 4’s) can spike oxytocinlevels (the so-called “cuddle hormone”).[7]

3) Be realistic. Many times we can be our relationship’s own worst enemy. Sometimes our expectations get the best of us. In a perfect world, our partner would perfectly match our every ideal. Since none of live in a perfect world, our partner falls short. The problem may not be our partner, but rather, our expectations. With excessive standards, even the world’s best partner will disappoint.

To determine expectations impact on relationships, a just-published study focused on how people view their partner’s sacrifices.[8] Generally, we should appreciate any time our partner puts self-interest aside for our relationship’s benefit. However, when people believed their partner should give up a ton, the partner’s sacrifices went unappreciated and the relationship didn’t improve. However, when people expected less, their appreciation for partner sacrifice was higher, resulting in greater satisfaction with the relationship. These findings suggest that holding unrealistically high standards may make us overlook our partner’s contributions. That may lead our partner to feel unappreciated, and discourage them from sacrificing in the future. It’s a bad cycle we can stop by simply giving the gift of having more reasonable expectations.

4) Take the time to truly listen. We talk to our partner all the time. But, when was the last time you truly listened? Sure you may have heard them, knew they were talking, and followed along closely enough to offer a well-timed, “Really” or “That stinks.” But, our partner and our relationship deserve so much more. They deserve the gift of active-empathic listening.[9] We need to pick up on our partner’s signals to know how they feel, process that information, and be able to summarize it accurately, all while showing that we care. This means avoiding outside distractions (i.e., put your phone away) and asking questions. Instead of looking to cut the conversation short, ask open-ended questions that help them process their feelings. The gift of good listening will not only help your partner feel heard, but research shows attentive listening not only helps our partner cope with stress but also strengthens the relationship.[10]

5) Get back on track in the bedroom. If our relationship’s sex life isn’t what we hoped it would be, it’s time to give the gift of getting our sex life back on track. Relationship scientists Laura Vowels from the University of Southampton and Kristen Mark from the University of Kentucky asked over 200 people what strategies they use to combat “desire discrepancy” (which is a fancy of way of saying one partner wants more sex than the other). From all the responses, the researcher identified 5 main strategies to deal with discrepancy: disengagement (i.e., do nothing, quit trying), going solo (i.e., masturbation), doing something other than sex (i.e., cuddling, kissing), communication (i.e., talk it out, perhaps by putting those active-empathy skills to use), and have sex anyway (self-explanatory). Among those options, but to maximize relationship and sexual satisfaction, it’s better to use tactics that are a team effort (e.g., communication, different activity, and have sex anyway) than solitary tactics (e.g., going solo and disengaging).

As you can see — without spending any money at all — this Valentine’s Day you can give your relationship several gifts that keep on giving the whole year.


[1] Morse, K. A., & Neuberg, S. L. (2004). How do holidays influence relationship processes and outcomes? Examining the instigating and catalytic effects of Valentine’s Day. Personal Relationships, 11, 509-527.

[2] Francis, A. M., & Mialon, H. M. (2014). ‘A diamond is forever’ and other fairy tales: The relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration. Available at SSRN:

[3] Gilovich, T., Kumar, A., & Jampol, L. (2015). A wonderful life: Experiential consumption and the pursuit of happiness. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25(1), 152–165.

[4] Bench, S. W., & Lench, H. C. (2013). On the function of boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3, 459–472.

[5] Aron, A., Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., Mashek, D., & Aron, E. N. (2013). The self-expansion model of motivation and cognition in close relationships.  In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.) The Oxford handbook of close relationships (pp. 90-115). New York: Oxford University Press.

[6] Bhattacharjee, A., & Mogilner, C. (2014). Happiness from ordinary and extraordinary experiences. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(1), 1–17.

[7] Melton, K. K., Larson, M., & Boccia, M. L. (2019). Examining couple recreation and oxytocin via the ecology of family experiences framework. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81, 771-782.

[8] Zoppolat, G., Visserman, M. L., & Righetti, F. (2020). A nice surprise: Sacrifice expectations and partner appreciation in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37, 450-466.

[9] Gearhart, C. C., & Bodie, G. D. (2011). Active-empathic listening as a general social skill: Evidence from bivariate and canonical correlations. Communication Reports, 24(2), 86–98.

[10]Kuhn, R., Bradbury, T. N., Nussbeck, F. W., & Bodenmann, G. (2018). The power of listening: Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping conversations. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(6), 762–772.


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