The look of love says so much more than the gift

Are you looking for the perfect low-budget gift for your sweetie this Valentine’s Day? Take heart, advises a Twin Cities expert on the language of love. Expressing one’s affection isn’t as much about the gift as about how it’s delivered. 

That doesn’t mean the way it arrives on your porch. The point instead is the giver’s behavior when presenting the gift, says Susanne Jones, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota. Saying “I love you” will mean more than any gift — pricey or not, she says.

Some of the best gifts can cost nothing at all. But there’s more you need to know. Even more important than words are the appropriate nonverbal messages. When they’re out of sync, she says, a gift or words of love can “cause more damage than good.”  

He comes home and says “I love you,” then heads for the garage to work on his race car. She tosses the chocolate on the table and says nothing at all. “What causes problems is when the nonverbal message is either negative or neutral,” Jones explains. That discrepancy between the gesture and the nonverbal cues tends to destroy the moment. She calls the result “expectancy violation,” and it’s not a feel-good gift.

Humans have traditionally paid more attention to nonverbal cues than to language, she reminds us. “Back to the days when we were living in caves,” she says, “we were always able to communicate nonverbally.” We respond to nonverbal messages because they give us information, such as “I’d better get out of the way or I’m going to get hit,” she says. “We trust nonverbal cues more (than language) because they are us.”

It’s a fact of human behavior. Another one is that Valentine’s Day pressures couples.

Beware of prime breakup time
A 2004 study by researchers at Arizona State University shows that more couples break up during the week before or after Valentine’s Day than any other time of the year. “What’s probably happening is, in light of Valentine’s Day, they’re thinking about their relationship,” Jones says. “Probably thinking I really don’t want to be in this relationship. Not interested in romance. I realize now how crappy the relationship has been. They’re feeling the pressure of having to do something. So they decide this is it.”

Here’s another one: Putting the romance in Valentine’s Day is often easier for newer couples. “A couple that has been together six or seven years or more talks less with one another and is less intimate,” Jones says.

In light of the economic crisis, she suggests that when couples think about gifts for each other, it helps to go back to square one. “Focus on simple, and each other. Cook each other a nice meal. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Pour each other a bath. Rub each others’ backs. Reminisce over the milestones and turning points in your relationship. What you did when you just started to date. Where you met. What you felt. What the other one was wearing.”

There are some games on the market that prod people to remember, she says. “That makes a beautiful Valentine’s gift.” 

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