Psychology knows a great deal about the role of emotional connections between romantic partners, but little about the physical affection side of the equation. Yet, in daily life, everyone can attest to the mental, if not physical, health benefits of locking lips with a loved one.
After doing some digging in my university’s online archives, the latest empirical study I could find was one published back in 2003 by Brigham Young University researchers Andrew Gulledge and colleagues. Like many studies in the literature on close relationships, the participants were undergraduate students, and in this case, all were from Brigham Young and were in heterosexual relationships. If you’re not a person with these characteristics, fair warning: The findings may not apply to you, as I'll discuss below. However, the results give us at least some ideas about how to categorize, and eventually understand, what it means when your loved one exclaims “I want to hold your hand,” as the song says.
The starting point in all of this is deciding what we mean by physical affection. According to the Brigham Young team, it’s best defined as “any touch intended to arouse feelings of love in the giver and/or recipient” (p. 234). For the purposes of developing a classification scheme of physical affection in general, the researchers decided to eliminate sexual intimacy which isn't specifically aimed at arousing "feelings of love."
There were nearly 300 participants in the study, the majority (2/3) of whom were female, and in a heterosexual romantic relationship (2/3). In addition to answering questions about physical affection, those in romantic relationships also rated theirs and their partner’s (perceived) satisfaction.
See how you would score on the questionnaires used in this study. For each of the following, rate frequency in your current relationship, whether the form of affection is and expression of love, whether it’s an expression of intimacy, and your preference for this type of affection. After you’ve made your own ratings, try to see if you could predict the ratings your partner would give.
The 7 types of physical affection are:
Among the Brigham Young sample, all forms of physical affection except holding hands and caressing/stroking were strongly related to the degree of satisfaction the participant felt with the relationship and the partner. There was no connection between the amount of physical affection and amount of conflict, but cuddling/holding, kissing on the lips, and hugging were all associated with how easily the couple resolves the conflict they do experience.
What is it about physical affection that seems to make it such a key factor in relationship satisfaction? As they stated in response to a series of questions, the participants in this study believed that physical affection helped them feel more loved and understood. Secondly, they felt that physical affection reinforces their feelings of intimacy. Surprisingly, most of the participants weren’t particularly aware of what the researchers found statistically to be the role that physical affection plays overall in promoting relationship satisfaction and helping partners navigate conflict.
Given the common stereotypes of how men and women differ in what they value about relationships, it might be surprising for you to learn that there really were no gender differences in attitudes toward the importance of physical affection. However, when asked to rank order the 7 types of physical affection, men and women did show differences in the manner of physical affection they said they expressed to their romantic partners. Men gave the strongest preference to kissing on the lips and backrubs/massages, stating that they felt that these forms of affection were expressive of love. Women preferred cuddling/holding and holding hands as ways of expressing their feelings.
Additionally, though, when asked to rate how much they enjoyed each form of physical affection, it turned out that although men liked giving, women also liked getting those massages and rubdowns. Fortunately, both men and women liked kissing on the lips (or the men would’ve had no one to kiss). These ratings of enjoyment of physical affection also showed that women, more than men, liked to hug and be hugged.
Because the participants were, in the majority, members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, this created some important limitations to the study’s findings. The Church strongly advocates premarital sexual abstinence and advises that couples not engage in “excessive” physical affection, including backrubs/massages. Furthermore, as the study focused on non-sexual physical affection, this means that any expressions of intimacy associated with sexuality could not be studied as correlates of relationship satisfaction.
One might argue that the number of types of physical affection must surely total more than seven. However, when the authors examined other possibilities, these tended to be readily reduced to the ones they tested. There are also cultural variations in expressions of physical affection, such as the tendency of people from certain European or Latin American countries to kiss on the cheek as a sign not of affection, but of politeness.
Even with these potential limitations, the study was groundbreaking in nature, focusing the research lens on one of the most common areas of couple communication. Unfortunately, in the decade following its publication, there have been no published studies to advance research specifically on this topic of affection outside of sexual intimacy. With the plethora of research on intimacy in general, it would seem worthwhile to return to the original question posed by these researchers.
What does this all mean for you? According to the study’s authors, there are clear implications for helping couples improved their relationship satisfaction. As they state in the paper, couples therapists are always looking “for ways to improve their clients’ relationships.” Physical affection is one stone that has “heretofore been mostly left unturned” (p. 239).
You might argue that couples who are happy naturally engage in more physical affection and so it is the relationship satisfaction that causes the affection rather than the other way around. There never will be an experimental way to “prove” that physical affection can bring about greater happiness among couples in existing relationships. However, we may not need the ultimate experiment to be conducted in order to highlight the role of physical affection in relationship satisfaction. People whose relationships are in trouble can benefit from taking a page out of the playbook of their happier counterparts. Hugging, holding hands, and giving backrubs seem like simple ways to start rebuilding bonds between couples who are losing their feelings of emotional connection.
A relationship needn’t be in serious trouble for a couple to benefit from increasing their amount of physically affectionate interaction. This may be particularly true for couples who, for various reasons, are less sexually active than they once were, whether it’s due to changes associated with aging, physical illness, or just natural evolution from passion to companionate love.
On the matter of backrubs, the findings also show the importance of considering gender differences. As the authors pointed out, men see giving massages as a greater indication of love than do women. They may be more likely to express their feelings in this way which, for the woman, may be a physically enjoyable experience but not as direct a way of saying “I love you” as is just plain cuddling or holding. If you were looking for ways to incorporate physical affection into your relationship, you’d want to take this gender difference into account. On the other hand, giving a backrub or massage takes a great deal more effort, including effort that is somewhat selfless. It may be for this reason that of all the forms of physical affection, this was the one form that correlated most highly with relationship satisfaction. Giving your partner a great massage or rubdown definitely requires dedication.
Just talking about which form of physical affection you, and your partner, find both enjoyable and as an expression of intimacy can get an important conversation started, and once that happens, who knows where it might lead?
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Gulledge, A. K., Gulledge, M. H., & Stahmann, R. F. (2003). Romantic physical affection types and relationship satisfaction. American Journal of Family Therapy, 31, 233-242. doi: 10.1080/01926180390201936