Affection and Affectionate Behavior

Alan C Mikkelson & Kory Floyd. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. Sage Publications, 2009.

Love and affection are often regarded as fundamental human needs. The expression of affection is vital to both the development and maintenance of personal relationships. Although affection and affectionate communication (also called affectionate expression) are related experiences, they are not synonymous terms. Affection is an internal psychological state of positive, often intimate regard for another. Thus, affection is a positive feeling or emotional disposition toward another that does not necessarily include the expression of these feelings. Affectionate communication is defined as an individual’s enactment or expression of feelings of closeness, care, and fondness for another. Thus, affectionate communication is the enactment of behaviors (e.g., hugging, kissing, saying “I love you”) that portray or enact feelings of affection. However, the expression of affection is separate from feelings of affection, as it is possible to feel affection without expressing affection and to express affection without feeling it. Often times in initial romantic relationships one might not express strong feelings of affection verbally (i.e., “I love you”) for fear of scaring the other person away. Conversely, partners in a strained marriage might say the words “I love you” without truly feeling affection for one another.

This entry distinguishes affectionate communication from other related experiences, discusses the factors that affectionate communication is related to, and explores the benefits of affectionate communication for both relational and physical health.

Conceptualization and Measurement

Affection is thought to be distinct from other positive relational experiences such as intimacy. Affection is characterized by a sense of liking, positive feelings, and high regard for another. Intimacy, in contrast, involves a sense of interdependence between people who rely on each other to fulfill needs. Another key difference between the concepts is that affection is an individual level variable and intimacy is a relational variable. Although conceptually different, affection and intimacy are often interrelated as high levels of affection, and the expression of those feelings can often lead to increases in intimacy in the relationship and vice versa. Furthermore, some statements and behaviors can communicate both intimacy and affection concurrently.

Affection can be expressed in a number of different ways. Researchers have claimed that affectionate expressions can be grouped into three distinct subdimensions: verbal, nonverbal, and support affection.

Verbal affection includes the use of language (spoken or written) to convey affectionate feelings for another. Some of these messages express the sender’s feelings for the receiver, such as “I like you” or “I love you.” Other messages can help form or affirm the current status of the relationship, such as “You’re my best friend” or “I care about you more than any person in my life.” Others affirm future hopes for the relationship, such as “I hope we will be together forever.” Finally, other statements express the value of the relationship by stressing how the sender would feel without it, such as “I would be so sad if I couldn’t see you.” Verbal affection is unique from other forms of affectionate behaviors because of the use of language. Often, people use verbal forms of affection (rather than nonverbal forms) when they wish to be clear and reduce the chance of misinterpretation.

Nonverbal affection includes behaviors, not including language, that express affectionate feelings. Nonverbal displays of affection can vary in nature and interpretation. Nonverbal displays of affection are thought to be under less conscious control and thus are assumed to more accurately reflect the emotional state of the sender than verbal cues. Common nonverbal expressions of affection can include, but are not limited to, facial behaviors (e.g., smiling, winking, and eye contact), touch (e.g., kissing, hugging, and holding hands), vocalic behaviors (e.g., heightened pitch and baby talk), and shared physical proximity. Compared to verbal affection, understanding nonverbal affection is more complex and difficult because the meaning is often more ambiguous than that of verbal statements.

Finally, support affection includes behaviors that provide social, psychological, emotional, or instrumental support. These behaviors convey affection indirectly through some provision of assistance and/or by fulfilling needs. Example of support affection could include providing a sympathetic ear to a friend going through a hard time with a relational partner, taking care of yard work for a friend who is a single parent, or offering money to a brother who just lost his job. One difficulty with support affection is sometimes these behaviors have no affectionate connotations. Thus, the recipient (or a third-party onlooker) may overlook or not understand that these behaviors are meant to express affection. For example, a husband may fill the gas tank and wash his wife’s car because she has been particularly busy lately. However, the wife might not recognize this instrumental display of support because of its indirect nature. Consequently, certain forms of support affection can be easily overlooked.

The dimensions of verbal, nonverbal, and support affection can vary greatly in their intensity. Verbal statements such as “I like you” and “I’m in love with you” are similar in that they both convey feelings of positive regard and care for another; however, they vary greatly in the degree of affectionate feelings they express. Similarly, a kiss can range from a nonintense peck on the cheek to a prolonged open-mouthed kiss. Finally, support affection can vary in the intensity of the help that is given. For example, giving a friend a ride to work when his or her car breaks down is less intense than giving him or her $1,000 to help get his car fixed. One study examined the intensity of verbal and nonverbal displays of affection. The verbal statement “I love you” and the nonverbal behavior of a kiss on the lips were considered to be the most intense behaviors, whereas the verbal statement “I admire you” and the nonverbal behavior of shaking hands were considered to be the least intense affectionate behaviors.

Although affectionate communication is a physical or behavioral event, it is often measured using self-report methods, as some affectionate behaviors are difficult to observe. Typical methods for measuring affectionate behavior often ask people to rate their own or others’ amount of affectionate behaviors. For example, people might rate how often they say “I love you,” give a hug to a particular loved one, or engage in support behaviors such as helping with problems or giving praise.

Affectionate communication has also been measured as a trait-level variable for both affection given and affection received. Trait affection-given measures the extent to which one is, by nature, an affectionate person (“Anyone who knows me well would say that I’m pretty affectionate”), whereas trait affection-received measures a person’s tendencies to receive affectionate expressions from others (“People are always telling me that they like me, love me, or care about me”).

Influences on Affectionate Communication

Individual, relational, and contextual factors, such as biological sex, sex composition of the relationship, gender, relationship type, relationship stage, and even the public or private setting, have been found to influence how affection is expressed.

Numerous studies have examined the influence of biological sex on affectionate communication, and nearly all have found that women are more verbally and nonverbally affectionate than men. However, researchers have found that men are less affectionate than women in same-sex relationships, but no difference appears in opposite-sex relationships. Furthermore, it appears that in male–male relationships support affection is more commonly expressed than verbal or nonverbal forms of affection.

Some studies have examined the extent to which gender influences affectionate expressions. Gender refers to a person’s psychological sex-role orientation (masculine and feminine) rather than to his or her biological sex. In father–son relationships, sons’ femininity was positively associated with their expression of nonverbal and supportive affection, and fathers’ femininity was positively related to the expression of supportive affection. This same study found that sons’ masculinity was also positively related to their expression of nonverbal affection, and fathers’ masculinity was positively related to their expression of verbal, nonverbal, and supportive affection. The relationship between masculinity and affection was unexpected, as one would not necessarily expect that masculine qualities (such as aggression and competitiveness) would be positively related to affectionate behaviors. However, three other studies have replicated links between masculinity and affectionate communication (some using a different measure of gender) in other relationships such as cross-sex adult platonic relationship and sibling relationships. Consequently, it appears that the relationship between masculinity and affectionate communication is not an artifact of the measurements or the relationship being studied. Unfortunately, no satisfactory explanation exists for this relationship between affectionate communication and masculinity.

Relationship type also appears to influence the amount and type of affectionate communication. In relationships with parents, people were most likely to communicate affection through support affection, less likely to communicate affection through verbal channels, and finally, least likely to communicate affection through nonverbal behavior. In addition, women reported being more affectionate, in all three affectionate types, with their parents than men do.

Studies examining father–son relationships that compared differences between biological and non-biological sons (adopted and stepchildren) found that fathers reported expressing more nonverbal and support affection to biological sons and adoptive sons than with stepsons. However, in this regard, biological and adoptive sons did not differ from each other.

Differences in affectionate expression are also seen during the different stages of relationships. In the initial stages of romantic relationships, affectionate expressions often serve as critical incidents (e.g., first kiss, saying “I love you” for the first time) by which relational growth is gauged. Conversely, in established relationships, the lack of affectionate behavior is often used (and understood) as an indication of relationship de-escalation and deterioration. Consequently, changes in affectionate behavior often serve as turning points by which relational development or deterioration can be judged.

Finally, contextual characteristics, such as a public or private setting, can influence the amount and type of affection expressed. Baby talk was used more often in private settings to express affection to friends than in public. However, other research has shown that with friends and siblings affectionate behaviors were judged to be more appropriate in a public setting than in a private one. These differences can be understood by the risk factors associated with expressing affection. Sometimes expressing affection in public may be more risky than expressing it in private, whereas in other cases the opposite might be true. For example, someone might be more likely to express romantic affection to a friend in a private setting than in a public setting because it cannot be seen and heard by others.

Benefits of Expressing and Receiving Affection

The benefits of receiving affection have been well documented. Receiving affection contributes to overall mental health, physical well-being, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. Other studies have shown that affection is inversely associated with depression and loneliness. In social relationships, affection is related to a range of relational benefits, including closeness, love, and relational satisfaction in marriages, parent–child relationships, and friendships.

In examining affection as a trait variable, those who were highly affectionate communicators were more self-assured, more comfortable with closeness and intimacy, were happier and in better mental health, and were less stressed and depressed than low-affection communicators. In spite of these findings, it is difficult to determine if the positive effects of expressing affection are different than the effects of receiving affection. One study found that after controlling for affection received, expressing affection was associated with increased happiness and self-esteem, higher relational satisfaction, decreased fear of intimacy, and decreased risk of depression.

Expressing affection also appears to have important physical benefits. Expressing affection has been related to lower resting heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiological measures. Expressing affection through writing helps reduce the stress response by accelerating the recovery of the stress hormone cortisol to baseline levels. Furthermore, affectionate writing (e.g., writing about how much one cares and loves another) has been found to reduce total cholesterol in two separate trials. Thus, research indicates that the benefits of expressing affection are separate and distinct from the benefits of receiving affection.