When Holding Hands Isn't So Simple
New research identifies the construct of PDA-related vigilance.
Posted June 29, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Physical affection is crucial for human development at all ages; when affection is deprived, mental and physical health suffer.
- Same-sex and gender-diverse couples experience unwanted stigma when they share affection with partners in public.
- Sharing affection in public, or even thinking about it, can increase a sense of vigilance for those in marginalized relationships.
When I tell people that I study "PDAs" (Public Displays of Affection), often it seems that their first thought is to think of a young couple making out on a park bench or stopping traffic for a dramatic kiss. People often tell me that they just aren't the PDA type and that they have difficulty understanding why some people have such a need to blatantly display their sexual relationship to unwitting strangers around them. But then I explain that these are not the main types of PDA that I study. In my research, I am more interested in the small, innocuous forms of affection that couples share with each other throughout the day, often while in public.
For example, you might reach out and put your hand at the small of your partner's back as they enter through a doorway, or you might link your arms while walking down the street or move the hair off their face. Others may hold hands, link fingers, or rest their tired head on the other's shoulder while waiting in a long line.
When I make this clarification, people often respond, "Oh yeah, we do that all the time, I don't even notice." What these behaviours, known as tie signs, have in common is that they tend to be small gestures of affection that are more common among romantic couples than they are between other types of dyads, such as friends. Yes, friends may do these things sometimes, but most often when we see two people engaging in tie signs, we tend to categorize them as a couple, or at least put them in the "likely to be a couple" category.
Given the important role that affection plays in helping us to categorize dyads as couples versus friends or acquaintances, affection can become a trickier behaviour for individuals in relationships that are often met with societal disapproval. For example, those in same-sex, inter-racial, age-discrepant, or gender-diverse relationships all experience greater perceptions of disapproval and stigma from friends, family, and society at large. As a result, even simple gestures of affection can 'out' the nature of a relationship and bring a couple into the crosshairs of those who do not approve.
Scanning Before Reaching for a Hand
In a recent study published as an open-access article in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, my colleagues and I explored the experiences of a concept we call "PDA-related vigilance" in a sample of individuals in same-sex, mixed-sex, and gender-diverse relationships. PDA-related vigilance refers to the heightened sense of awareness concerning one's surroundings in the moments immediately preceding or during the exchange of affection between members of a romantic dyad. In other words, PDA-related vigilance involves scanning one's environment for potential signs of danger whenever one even thinks about sharing affection with a partner, no matter how small.
While all types of couples in our study experienced PDA-related vigilance to some degree, the experience was most common for those in same-sex relationships, for whom affection can often serve as a catalyst to unwanted attention, sexual harassment, and even violence.
Affection Is a Human Need
Individuals who do not receive enough affection suffer a variety of mental and physical health consequences. In childhood, affection-deprived children may not develop properly. In adulthood, a lack of affection is associated with greater loneliness and more mental health struggles. Affection is even associated with positive physical health benefits, such as improved stress regulation and cardiac health. We often use affection to communicate support and love for another person and to provide comfort in an attempt to reduce negative emotions such as stress, grief, or anxiety.
Consider for a moment that you are in a public place when you receive some kind of negative news; perhaps a loved one has died. If you are with your partner, and you are in a happy, healthy relationship, there is a good chance that your partner will attempt to console you through some form of affection. They cannot remove the pain you have experienced, but research shows that their physical touch—over anyone else's, like a friend or stranger—can help to reduce your experience of pain and help you to reach a place of calm sooner than you would have if left on your own.
Now, instead, imagine the same situation, but as soon as you and your partner turn to each other for a hug, you both pause, scan your environment, and wonder whether anyone will react negatively to your impending affection. This latter scenario describes the experience of PDA-related vigilance and how this vigilance can interrupt the natural process of sharing affection with a loved one.
Minority Stress and Potential Health Consequences
Participants in same-sex and gender-diverse relationships did not just report experiencing PDA-related vigilance more frequently than individuals in mixed-sex relationships, they also indicated that they tended to share affection with each other in public less often. Further, those who reported higher levels of PDA-related vigilance also reported worse psychological and physical health.
The Minority Stress Model has long been used to help explain health disparities within the LGBTQ+ community. The model essentially suggests that it can be stressful to manage a stigmatized, minority identity on a day-to-day basis. Minority stress, then, is the additional stress, over and above all the other types of stress that people experience on a regular basis, that comes from holding a minority identity that requires 'management.'
What does "managing" an identity mean?
For those in the LGBTQ+ community, it can often mean managing the extent to which your identity is known, or visible, to others, particularly strangers. When it comes to same-sex couples, sharing affection in public may be one of the most obvious ways in which the nature of their relationship can become known to others, and therefore, an experience of couple-level minority stress involves monitoring their affection and consciously deciding when and where it may be safe to do so. Thus, the small, tiny, innocuous acts of affection that many engage in mindlessly and with little consideration become conscious acts that may often be deemed too risky to partake in for those in same-sex or gender-diverse relationships.
This realization, that one cannot comfortably reach out for a partner's hand, brings with it an additional layer of stress and the potential for relationship hurdles if partners differ in their perception of an environment. Even if the couple goes ahead and shares affection anyway, the split-second moment in which they become aware of that affection, its visibility, and its ability to 'out' them is a thought that cannot be erased and which perhaps permanently alters the experience of that moment of affection.
Longing to Be Unremarkable
One of the reasons that Pride is so special for many in the LGBTQ+ community is because these events are some of the only places and times when same-sex and gender-diverse couples can experience affection sharing without the additional vigilance. Many describe the experience of holding hands with their partner during their first Pride event as a revelation of what it “must be like” to exist in a world where your affection and relationship are just plainly accepted and neither remarked upon as exceptional nor deviant.
No couple should have to wait for a single weekend in the year to be able to walk down the street holding hands without constantly scanning their surroundings to make sure that they are safe. And yet, for many, this is their reality. One of the things that always saddens me each year during Pride is to watch couples as they leave the event area. As they leave the festival or walk a few blocks away from the gay village, all too often they inevitably stop holding hands as they “re-enter” the wider world and their PDA-related vigilance returns to remind them that it may not be so safe for two men or two women or two gender-queer individuals to hold hands in public.
While others reach out to hold their partner’s hand for reassurance and a sense of safety, for many in the LGBTQ+ community, letting go of a partner’s hand can feel like the ‘go-to’ response for increasing one’s safety – but that decision always comes with a lingering sense of everything else that it means to let go of a partner’s hand and a subtle reminder that their relationship remains different, no matter how loudly anyone chants "love is love."
Blair, K. L., McKenna, O., & Holmberg, D. (2022). On guard: Public versus private affection-sharing experiences in same-sex, gender-diverse, and mixed-sex relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 02654075221090678.