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A Little Affection Can Go a Long Way for Your Relationship

Research shows the potential benefits of small gestures of affection.

G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock
Source: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock

Are there times you take your partner’s love for granted? Do you feel that there’s no real need to exhibit those little signs of affection that used to be such a common occurrence in your day? After all, you know that you love each other, so why should you have to demonstrate it? Indeed, the idea of public displays of affection seems so unnecessary, and the restraints of facemasks when you are out and about can limit how much you can show physical signs of your love.

On the other hand, do you think that the only appropriate form of romantic love is to show your emotions with a capital “E”? Does anything less than a huge expression of devotion count? If you can’t muster the resources for the big romantic gesture, why bother?

As it turns out, according to a recent study by Sabrina Bierstetel of Wayne State University and Richard Slatcher of the University of Georgia, even the slightest touch or smile could be enough to make a difference in your partner’s life. Examining the effects of small expressions of affection on the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, Bierstetel's and Slatcher's work suggests that even behaviors like holding your partner’s hand may be enough to produce measurable health benefits.

Prior research on couples conducted under controlled conditions has already shown, according to the authors, that when partners express warmth and affection toward each other, their cortisol levels subside. By contrast, expressions of frustration or anger can provoke spikes in this key indicator of the body’s level of stress. What the existing lab research failed to consider, however, was what happened after couples left the lab and went home.

When it comes to cortisol and health, the long game turns out to be even more important than whatever short-term jolts may occur in response to a stressful interaction between partners. Cortisol ordinarily shows regular patterns of diurnal variation in which it rises and falls along with your daily, or circadian, rhythms. Typically, cortisol production peaks in the morning and then descends steadily until it reaches its low point at night. When you’re under stress, those daily patterns flatten out which, in turn, can have potentially negative effects on your health. As noted in an earlier study by Northwestern University’s Emma Adam and colleagues (2017), flatter cortisol variations during the day are associated with a range of adverse mental and physical outcomes, including depression, poorer cardiovascular health, and even higher mortality.

Returning now to the Bierstetel and Slatcher study, the researchers took that additional step of monitoring the cortisol levels in their study participants over that longer term, in this case, a two-day period. The authors had at their disposal data on married couples studied in 2006-2007 at the University of Texas as part of a project on behavioral interactions in relationships. The couples, all heterosexual, ranged in age from their early 20s to mid-40s. All had at least one young child living with them at home. About two-thirds were White, with a median income of $75,000.

The Georgia study took place over a two-day period with two visits to the lab. At the first visit, participants provided basic demographic information and completed a measure tapping their typical quality of emotional expression around the home. At that point, the experimenters trained them in the basic methods needed to collect saliva samples, which would be the source of cortisol measurement. Over the next two days, participants collected their own saliva every two hours while awake. When they returned to the lab, they participated in two 10-minute videotaped discussions intended to replicate similar discussions they might have around the house.

Trained raters produced scores for each discussion on each of 10 behaviors. The positive behaviors on the rating checklists included affection, humor and engagement, and the negative behaviors included anxiety, disengagement, defensiveness, aggressiveness, scorn, frustration, and hurt.

Think now about how you would rate on these behaviors as you recall the last conflict you and your partner tried to resolve. Were you able to laugh off your differences of opinion? Did you express support for your partner’s point of view? What small ways were you able to show affection toward your partner even though you disagreed? Did you reach out with a reassuring gesture to help offset the fact that you were on different sides of a position?

How about on the negative side of the equation? Were you unable to control the tone of your voice? Did you belittle your partner, showing you had no regard for your partner’s position? Were you sarcastic or even contemptuous? Turning the tables, how did your partner treat you? What positive and negative behaviors can you think of as you replay the disagreement in your head?

Turning now to the findings, higher levels of positive behaviors during the recorded disagreements indeed were related to the more desirable patterns of more pronounced diurnal variations in cortisol. As it turned out, of the positive behaviors, affection emerged as the top-ranked influence on cortisol variations. Humor ranked second as a predictor of cortisol variations.

Overall negative conflict behaviors, by contrast, had no overall relation to diurnal cortisol variations. However, looking at specific negative behaviors showed there to be a relationship between flatter cortisol patterns and a greater expression of scornful and hurtful remarks during conflict.

It’s important to point out that the ordinary exigencies of daily life, as reflected in external sources of stress (such as finances, work), also appeared to impact diurnal variations in cortisol. However, the ways that couples negotiated disagreements went above and beyond these effects. In other words, your partner may make your life better or worse depending on how the two of you navigate the disagreements you inevitably might face.

Furthermore, your partner’s affection toward you can even help give you a sunnier outlook on your problems. As the authors note, “It is also possible that those who experience high levels of positive behavior during marital conflict may perceive the situation to be less threatening, which is known to influence physiological reactions to events.” If, as is known, stress is in the mind of the beholder, the beholder’s partner may be able to reverse some of your own stressful interpretations of your daily experiences.

To sum up, the Bierstetel and Slatcher findings show that being affectionate with your partner need not be limited to expressiveness with a capital “E.” You don’t have to make big romantic gestures to help ease your partner’s stress or to reduce the stress of a potential difference of opinion. Showing that you care in these small but important ways could help your health, and your relationship, flourish.

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Adam, E. K., Quinn, M. E., Tavernier, R., Mcquillan, M. T., Dahlke, K. A. & Gilbert, K. E. (2017). Diurnal cortisol slopes and mental and physical health outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 83, 25-41. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.05.018