Adventures in Dating

A savvy guide to courtship and communication.

Angry Hugs: Using Affection to Lie

Understanding how and why couples use deceptive affection

Affection has long been thought to be a positive and important message in relationships. After all, Schutz (1958) classified affection as one of our three fundamental needs (along with inclusion and control).

Not surprisingly, there are numerous benefits associated with affectionate communication. The programmatic research of Dr. Kory Floyd, of Arizona State University, has revealed that affectionate communicators report higher self-esteem, lower levels of depression, are more satisfied in their romantic relationships, and are better able to respond to stress (compared to less affectionate communicators). Clearly affectionate communication is beneficial, but what happens when the expressed affection is not an authentic representation of a communicator’s affectionate feelings

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When the affectionate feelings and affectionate expressions do not match, deceptive affection occurs. This has been the subject of my research, often co-authored with Dr. Melanie Booth-Butterfield of West Virginia University. Deceptive affection occurs one of two ways. First, communicators can withhold affectionate messages when feeling affection and, second, communicators can express affection when not feeling affection. The second example illustrates deceptive affectionate messages, and our recent study details how and why such communication occurs.

Our study, which will be published later this year, involved individuals maintaining a 7-day interaction log where they recorded the deceptive affectionate messages that they expressed to their romantic partners. About 90% of participants reported using affection to lie to their partner during the week of data collection. Of the 10% who did not report deceptive affection, 5% explained they did not lie to their romantic partner. Interestingly, though, this is inconsistent with research that repeatedly shows we lie most to the individuals that we date (see, for example, the work of DePaulo). The remaining 5% did not provide usable data.

Now for the interesting part: the 90% who reported using affection to lie. Results indicated that communicators expressed deceptive affectionate messages to partners about 3 times in a week. We studied three parts of this communicative process including the feelings lied about, the affection expressed (which was inconsistent with participants’ feelings), and the motive driving this communication. Feelings lied about were self-oriented (mostly negative; included jealousy, anger, regret, and frustration), partner-oriented (related to a feeling about their romantic partner, including dislike of appearance and activities), or context-specific (a negative feeling related to the unique situation, included tired, stressed, and hungover). For example, one person described, “I just didn’t want to cuddle and hug him. I was in a bad mood.” Perhaps the most appropriate description of a feeling came from a research participant who stated, “I was feeling the complete opposite of what I told her.”

Despite these negative feelings, participants chose to express affection to their partners. Common affectionate messages included verbal confirming or avoidant responses. Examples of confirming messages were “I said ‘I love you more than anything in the world. I wish you were here,” and, “She asked if she was the one that I was going to marry. I said, ‘of course sweetheart.” Avoidant responses were those where participants used affection to avoid something, whether it be a difficult situation or their partner altogether. A participant explained that she told her partner she “missed him.” However, she “had already seen him that day” and did not actually “miss” him. Instead, she was busy and wanted to avoid spending time with him.

Nonverbally, communicators expressed inauthentic affection using space, touch, and movement. Examples of these deceptive affectionate messages included hugs, kisses, physical teasing, massages, and putting your arm around your partner.

This begs an important question, though, of why individuals chose to communicate such positive affectionate messages when feeling negatively. Three main motives were identified, the first of which was face saving. This involved expressing affection to protect yourself or your partner from embarrassment and to avoid hurting your partner’s feelings. Participants explained they expressed deceptive affection “so he would not realize how sad or upset I was feeling” and “so he would feel better about doing poorly.”

The second motive was conflict management/avoidance, where participants expressed affection to avoid, manage, or ease a conflict. Finally, emotion management was a deceptive motive. This occurred two ways: a) communicating affection out of habit/routine to avoid hurting their partner and b) communicating affection to ease negative emotions. Participants explained they expressed affection because it was better than a “guilt trip” or that “It was sort of habit to say that [affectionate message] when getting off the phone. I didn’t want to end on a bad note.”

Collectively, communicators expressed deceptive affection to romantic partners using a variety of affectionate messages that masked negative feelings. This introduces an important question: when your partner hugs you, is it really an authentic affectionate message, or are they upset with you? Research shows we are not able to tell when someone is lying to us, and we are less likely to suspect deception when we grow close to someone. So, you will likely never know how (dis)honest your partner is being with their affectionate communication. This might not be a problem; we argue that deceptive affection may help maintain your relationship and its current state. Admittedly, this is an interesting topic and I will have more to say about this in future entries, including whether or not deceptive affection is a “risk” for communicators. In the meantime, enjoy your hugs this week… 

Follow me on Twitter @therealdrsean for relationship commentary/links, complaints about mass transit, and support for WVU Athletics. Continue to follow this blog for future entries about deception, online dating, using affection to lie, workplace romance, and other issues that make obtaining and retaining a mate oh so interesting.

Sean M. Horan, Ph.D. is a faculty member at Texas State University who researches the communication that occurs in dating relationships.

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