For Single People, Gift-Giving Is Not Reciprocal
The complicated psychological dynamics of giving more than you receive.
When one friend is single and has no kids and the other is married and has kids, gift-giving is often not reciprocal.
The psychological dynamics of gift-giving imbalances are complicated.
Some new practices are emerging that help recognize and celebrate single people.
We like to think of many relationships as roughly equal. With friends, coworkers, and relatives such as siblings and cousins, we usually don’t think of one person as more valuable or more worthy than another. Ideally, the give-and-take is fundamentally, if not precisely, reciprocal.
However, when one person is single and has no kids and the other is married and perhaps has kids, gift-giving is no longer reciprocal. By custom, people who marry are treated to gifts, sometimes lavish ones, to commemorate their wedding. Other costs to wedding guests can also pile up, such as the price of transportation to the event and hotel if the wedding is out of town, and special attire, especially for people in the wedding party. Throw in a gift for the wedding shower, too. According to recent estimates, single people, on the average, spend thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands, on other people’s weddings over the course of their lives. If babies are in the picture, add the costs of baby showers and baby presents, and maybe years of birthday presents.
Single people have many achievements and milestones worth celebrating, but those accomplishments are rarely commemorated with gifts from others. Sometimes they are not even acknowledged.
The psychological dynamics are complicated. On the one hand, many single people are truly happy for friends and relatives who marry or have children. (The others know they are supposed to be happy, or at least act that way.) And yet, the imbalances in gift-giving, and the lack of recognition of their own milestones and accomplishments, are deeply unfair.
Should single people make an issue of the unfairness? Do they? That’s complicated, too, because many single people do not want to jeopardize their relationships with coupled people they care about, individuals who are just following established customs with no intent to be unfair or unkind to the single people in their lives.
This is an issue that resonates. One of the most popular episodes of Sex and the City was, “A woman’s right to shoes,” in which Carrie’s friend Kyra tried to shame Carrie for buying expensive shoes. Carrie, who had spent thousands of dollars celebrating Kyra’s marriage and children, wasn’t having it and responded memorably. Legions of single women rejoiced.
Weddings and Babies
The social scientists Michal Kravel-Tovi and Kinneret Lahad decided to study single people’s online discussions of the lopsidedness of gift-giving. They searched for relevant writings about singlehood and gift-giving in blogs, columns, advice columns, and radio shows, then analyzed them. They described their findings in “It’s my turn now: How and why ‘single’ women complain about non-reciprocal gift-giving,” published in a recent issue of Sociology.
The topic comes up a lot. Single people are talking about this issue. The authors found 97 examples of online writings about gift-giving by single people between 2018 and mid-2020. They were looking for writings by anyone who was single, but all the examples they found were written by single women.
Single people document the disparities. The single women in the study did not expect other people to be aware of the non-reciprocity issue or to take their word for it. They often created inventories of the costs they had incurred celebrating other people’s marriages and babies. Then, having made their case, they expressed their frustration and sense of unfairness.
They emphasize their happiness for the people whose lives they are celebrating. Single women know that they are supposed to be “good” friends or family members or colleagues, and that means feeling happy for the people they are celebrating with their gifts. And so, the authors found, “most of the writers carefully present themselves as genuinely loyal, supportive and abiding participants in the emotional culture of gift-giving.” In fact, the authors thought the women sometimes overstated just how happy and pleased they were for the people for whom they were spending so much money.
They don’t name names. The single women avoided naming or blaming particular coupled people. Instead, they talked about what “people” were like, what “the world” was like, or how the prevailing norms had created strong expectations. That way, they minimized the risk of jeopardizing their relationships with the people they are discussing.
By documenting all they have spent, the single women establish that they are constant givers and that their critiques are legitimate. By emphasizing their genuine happiness for the coupled people they are celebrating, and by refraining from naming names, they are establishing themselves as worthy recipients who aren’t just whining.
Kravel-Tovi and Lahad focused on the role of single people with no kids as gift-givers, but not gift-receivers, in the context of engagements, weddings, baby showers, and children’s birthdays. But other events, such as Christmas, can come with their own set of imbalances, in which single people are again giving much more than they are receiving.
Imagine, for example, that you are a single adult with no children and you have three siblings, each of whom is married with two children. Maybe you would like to, or you feel obligated to, give gifts to each of your siblings, their partners, and their kids. That’s four people per sibling (the sibling, the spouse, and the two kids), multiplied by three siblings, or 12 gifts. Perhaps in return, each sibling gives you a gift from their whole family. That’s quite an imbalance of time, effort, and money. And it will recur each year.
What Can Be Done?
Kravel-Tovi and Lahad quoted an advice columnist, herself married with children, who was asked about all the gifts that single people give to their friends and relatives who marry. She told single people that they should just suck it up:
“This is, of course, all quite unfair if you never plan to get married, since you’ll never be the one on the receiving end … Today, there isn’t much social grace in telling people you are not buying them a gift because you don’t plan to get one yourself. You’ll just have to swallow the unfairness.”
Not all coupled people share that attitude. Some are sensitive to the potential lopsidedness and give particularly generous gifts to single people. Sometimes couples are especially thoughtful in other contexts, too, when, for example, they pick up the tab for single people at restaurants.
In the Christmas example I described above, some sort of Secret Santa approach could be a partial solution. Each of the adults can be assigned at random to buy a gift for one of the other adults. That way, each adult gives one gift and receives one.
The authors noted that some new practices are already emerging that recognize and celebrate single people. They include, for example, Friendsgiving instead of (or in addition to) Thanksgiving, and Galentine’s Day instead of (or in addition to) Valentine’s Day. They also mentioned “career showers, social clubs, and registries specifically catering to singles.” That, I think, is one of the most important answers: We need to acknowledge and celebrate single people’s milestones and accomplishments.
Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., an expert on single people, is the author of Singled Out and other books. She is an Academic Affiliate in Psychological & Brain Sciences, UCSB.