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How to give a Valentine's Day gift that says 'I love you'

It’s a matter of showing and telling them that you care.

by Sarah DiGiulio /  / Updated 
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There are certain moments in life when we want to tell the people that we care about how much they actually mean to us. And for many, one of those moments is Valentine’s Day. But that's easier said than done.

When it comes to telling someone that we care it can be difficult simply because of the different ways that we use everyday language, explains Alison Wood Brooks, PhD, Assistant Professor of Business Administration and Hellman Faculty Fellow in the Negotiation, Organizations, & Markets Unit in Harvard Business School.

“In conversation, we often say things we don’t really mean or we don’t say the things we really mean in the right way,” she tells NBC News BETTER. “It’s not to be deceptive, rude, or mean, but rather because conversing is hard.”

People talk quickly. And people respond quickly. “There’s not a lot of time for deep thought and reflection,” she notes.

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That means we use phrases like “thank you” and “I love you” constantly. We’re not aiming to express the deepest sense of those emotions every time. Sometimes “I love you” means “you’re a lifesaver and I’m grateful for your help” (not “I want to marry you”). We tend to pick up on meaning based on body language, such as the inflection in someone’s voice, an eye roll, laughter, as well as context and our understanding of the relationship or situation we’re conversing about, Brooks explains.

In conversation, we often say things we don’t really meanor we don’t say the things we really mean in the right way.

In conversation, we often say things we don’t really meanor we don’t say the things we really mean in the right way.

To get better at using those other cues to let someone know that we really care it’s a matter of not just saying the words, Brooks adds. Ask questions, like: “How are you feeling?” and “How was your day?” And listen to the answers and respond. “It shows that you are listening, validating, and caring about who you’re conversing with,” Brooks says.

(One study from Brooks and her colleagues that looked at behaviors that were more likely to elicit success in speed dating found that people who asked more questions ended up going on more second dates than people who asked fewer questions.)

And give compliments. Research shows it works, Brooks says. Studies show flattery helps make the person receiving the compliment feel good about themselves and helps make it easier to like the person giving the compliment.

Ask questions, like: “How are you feeling?” and “How was your day?” And listen to the answers and respond. It shows that you are listening, validating, and caring about who you’re conversing with.

Ask questions, like: “How are you feeling?” and “How was your day?” And listen to the answers and respond. It shows that you are listening, validating, and caring about who you’re conversing with.

How to Give Gifts That Actually Say “I Love You”

And to give gifts that say and show and tell that you really care (whether it’s someone you love romantically or love affectionately), give gifts that show you know the person and you’re paying attention, explains Stuart Fensterheim, a licensed clinical social worker and family counselor in private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“If your partner mentions something they like or want, file that away for future reference,” Fensterheim says. The act of remembering something that means something to that person is what tells them that you care, not just that you bought a box of candy because of the date on the calendar.

Here are a few ideas and tips:

1. Donate your Valentine’s dollars to a charity or cause you both care about

Instead of buying material gifts, spend the money on a benefit dinner or race that profits a charity or cause that’s important to both you and your partner. Studies show that gifts that are experiences that both the recipient and gift giver can do together strengthen relationships more than material gifts. “It’s a great way to give back and have fun celebrating your love at the same time,” Fensterheim says.

The act of remembering something that means something to that person is what tells them that you care, not just that you bought a box of candy because of the date on the calendar.

The act of remembering something that means something to that person is what tells them that you care, not just that you bought a box of candy because of the date on the calendar.

2. Book a housekeeping or housecleaning service

It’s definitely not the sexiest V-day gift, but if taking care of mundane household chores is keeping you or your partner from having time to spend together doing things you enjoy, giving each other the gift of time can mean a lot. And it can do your relationship a lot of good, says Ashley Whillans, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Negotation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School, who researches the psychology behind how we spend our time and money. “Time-saving purchases make us feel closer to our partners because they allow us to spend more quality time with our partners.”

Research from Whillans and her colleagues that analyzed data from seven studies including 3,206 individuals living with a significant other in a committed relationship found that time-saving purchases among couples meant those individuals were more likely to spend more quality time together and be more satisfied in their relationships.

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3. It doesn’t need to be perfect — it just needs to show that you care

The best gifts are the ones that show you know the recipient, their likes, and their interests, says William J. Doherty, PhD, Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at University of Minnesota. “Love and care are shown best with actions such as listening, helping, sharing, and appreciating someone for who they are.”

And if you can’t think of that perfect gift before the 14th, don’t stress about it, Doherty adds. Give them a gift they’ll like and use words or a note tailored to that person and your relationship that expresses you care, he says. “Think long haul,” he adds. “Loyalty and steadfastness (thick and thin) are the best markers of care.”

4. Commit to a daily routine of 3 minutes of appreciation

Give your partner the gift of committing to spend a few minutes every day telling them why they make you happy and why you are happy to have them in your life, suggests Laura L. Young, LCSW, a psychotherapist and couples counselor in New York City.

“It is astonishing how couples will almost always, unequivocally make time for criticism. How about a three-minute daily routine of sincere appreciation?” It’ll go a lot farther than that box of chocolates, she says.

Social psychology says that when it comes to gift giving, no matter who you’re buying for, the most appreciated gifts are the ones that recipients actually want in the first place.

Social psychology says that when it comes to gift giving, no matter who you’re buying for, the most appreciated gifts are the ones that recipients actually want in the first place.

5. Give them something that takes them out of the daily humdrum

Do something that’s not part of the daily, weekly, or monthly routine, Young says. Go ice-skating. Take a bike ride. Book a couple’s massage. Make breakfast in bed. “It’s the small things in life that make people remember and value their Valentine’s Day with their Valentine.”

6. Give them what they want

Social psychology says that when it comes to gift giving, no matter who you’re buying for, the most appreciated gifts are the ones that recipients actually want in the first place. A review published by researchers from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business that looked five studies found that people were in fact most appreciative of gifts they explicitly requested compared with gifts they didn’t want.

7. Keep giving all year long

Remember to tell and show people you care all year long, not just on holidays or anniversaries, Fensterheim says. It can be as simple as writing a love message on the bathroom mirror or tucking messages in purses and pockets that get discovered throughout the year (or a jar with 365 love notes that your partner can read every day of the year).

“Show it often. Don’t ever assume that the people in your life know how important they are to you,” he says. “Show up with gifts when your partner is not expecting it, too. That has so much more impact.”

NEXT: 14 gifts that will strengthen your relationship

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