How Physical Affection and Emotional Exposure Affect Couples

New research shows what can help couples sustain connection during the pandemic.

Posted May 30, 2020

During this time of the pandemic, do you find yourself wanting more physical touch, more contact, more emotional closeness? But confined with your partner, perhaps with children, irritations and minor conflicts may flare up more easily. You might also feel an absence of empathy from your partner — that he or she isn’t tuned in to what you’re feeling inside. How you deal with all of the above could fuel a positive “flow” in the relationship — or stir thoughts of post-pandemic divorce

My work with individuals and couples during this “stay at home” period highlights how essential a deep longing for meaningful, positive connection, both physically and emotionally, is to most of us. Recognizing what leaves that desire unfulfilled during “ordinary” times can show what may help in today’s more stressful circumstances.

For example, the two partners’ desire and expectations for physical affection – both giving it and receiving it — may differ. That diminishes the quality of the relationship, if ignored and not dealt with in ways that promote mutual understanding and greater intimacy.

In another part of the relationship, the capacity — or desire — to tune in or “read” each other’s emotional experience may also differ. How each partner engages that dimension of the relationship is crucial to building positive connection, or diminishing it. That’s especially relevant to emotionally charged situations — for example, when one partner feels critical about the other and wants him or her to change some behavior or attitude.

Two recent studies shed light on both of those potential conflicts – non-sexual display of affection and emotionally tuning in to your partner. And they indicate what might help. Like much academic research, the findings are limited in what they indicate about “real life” situations, but they do corroborate what we see clinically with individuals and couples.

One study, from SUNY Binghamton, investigated relationship patterns concerning affection among 184 adult, heterosexual couples. The basic finding was that greater occurrence of physical touch – hugging, touching of one’s arm or hands, and so forth – was linked to more solid, satisfying marriages. There were some differences, as described in this summary, but that major finding held, regardless of the partner’s attachment style – e.g. more anxious or avoidant. People of both orientations felt more satisfied with their partner’s touch when it was more frequent, more routine. As lead researcher Samantha Wagner said, “More is better because they can more easily see that their partner is trying to engage with them.”

That conclusion has even more significance in the pandemic era. As Wagner pointed out, “Couples may want to consider adding more affection to decrease stress — as long as their partners are receptive and willing. There's plenty of evidence that suggests touch as a way to decrease stress."

I think these findings, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, highlight a broader issue about the keys to sustaining a positive, intimate connection over time. The physical connection has to join with a shared vision of life, both as a couple and as individuals. And there are several dimensions to that. See, for example, my previous post describing some helpful steps.

The other study examined when reading your partner’s emotions can be positive or negative for the relationship — that is, how it affects the quality of the relationship, especially the motivation to change an attitude or behavior that a partner may seek from the other. The upshot of the research is that when partners accurately perceive authentically expressed emotions by the other — about him/herself or about some behavior or attitude of the partner’s – couples tend to have better relationships. But couples that perceive emotions of anger or contempt from each other, especially around a desired change, have less satisfying relationships, and less confidence in their sustainability.

The research, conducted by the University of Rochester and the University of Toronto and described here, found that accurately perceiving such emotions as anger or contempt has a destructive impact on the relationship. That’s whether the perception is on the part of the person requesting the change, or the person receiving the request. 

As lead researcher Bonnie Le notes, "If you accurately perceive threatening displays from your partner, it can shake your confidence in a relationship. If your partner is angry or contemptuous…that signals very different, negative information that may hurt a partner if they accurately perceive it." And, “In order to really propel your partner to change, you may need to use more direct communication about exactly what kind of change you are hoping for." The research was published in Psychological Science.

The researchers emphasize that if you accurately read in your partner such emotions as sadness, shame, or embarrassment, you generally enjoy a strong relationship. But I think the researchers are mistaken in labeling such emotions as “soft,“ “appeasement” emotions. That reflects one of the limitations of some academic studies, in laboratory settings, that lack sufficient context of people’s actual experiences or of how adults grow more intimacy over time or fail to do so. Viewed from a broader perspective, the essence of the study’s findings is the importance of authenticity in your emotional life with your partner. Exposure and vulnerability can be frightening. It means working at revealing to each other, with respect and two-way openness, what each feels, desires, fears, and hopes for. I’ve written previously about this, in the form of practices that build “radical transparency” in couples’ lives.