- Affectionate touch promotes intimacy and signals a desire for closeness.
- Relatively little is known about what leads people to engage in more affectionate touch with their romantic partners.
- New research suggests that partner responsiveness is predictive of affectionate touch in romantic relationships.
Affectionate touch, such as hugging, holding hands, kissing, or cuddling, is a way of expressing fondness, love, and support in our intimate relationships. It has been well documented that affectionate touch is positively associated with relationship satisfaction. It promotes intimacy, enhances positive affect, and signals a desire for closeness.
However, the research to date has primarily focused on the positive outcomes of receiving affectionate touch in our relationships. In contrast, little is known about what might promote affectionate touch, or even what might lead someone to engage in more affectionate touch with their romantic partner.
The New Research
As part of a recently published four-part study , researchers used multiple methods to explore what might predict affectionate touch in romantic relationships. They were particularly interested in the role of perceived partner responsiveness. That is, they wondered if having a partner respond in a way that feels supportive, kind, and loving would encourage participants to respond with physical affection.
Across all studies, the sample consisted of 824 individuals who were in coupled relationships. Couples were eligible to participate if they had been in an exclusive romantic relationship for at least six months for the preliminary study, and at least 12 months for studies one, two, and three. Across all four samples, couples reported being together for 4.4 years on average. More than half of participants were dating exclusively, about 30 percent were married, and 8.5 percent were engaged. About two-thirds were living together. Participants were 26.4 years on average and the majority (64.6 percent) were White.
Are Responsiveness and Affectionate Touch Related?
The preliminary study explored affectionate touch across all data sets to determine whether participants’ perceptions of their partner being responsive were related to reports of affectionate touch.
Questions that tapped into partner responsiveness included “my partner understands me,” “my partner sees the real me,” and “my partner is responsive to my needs.” Scores on this scale were then correlated with scales measuring affectionate touch, which included questions such as: “how often do you hold hands with your partner?” and “how often do you give each other neck rubs, back massages, or any other warm touching activities?”
The authors reported that perceived partner responsiveness was positively associated with affectionate touch, and that responsiveness predicted affectionate touch.
For study one, the researchers used a two-week daily diary study to explore whether higher responsiveness in relationships might be related to spontaneous affectionate touch throughout couples' everyday life.
At time one, participants answered scales that addressed responsiveness in their relationship. Then, each night, couples were asked to complete a 10-minute questionnaire. This questionnaire included an open-ended question asking participants to briefly describe an interaction with their partner that made the “biggest impression” on them that day. The participants were not prompted to discuss affectionate touch specifically, but the authors noted that affectionate touch was frequently used as an example.
The results from this study suggested that participants who perceived higher responsiveness in their partners at the outset of the study reported more affectionate touch in their subsequent everyday interactions with their partner over the course of the next two weeks.
Does Expressing Gratitude Lead to More Spontaneous Affectionate Touch?
In study two, the researchers invited couples into the lab. One participant was asked to express their gratitude to their partner. Immediately afterward, the partner who received the words of gratitude reported on how responsive they felt their partner was using a 10-item scale.
Afterward, the couple was invited to be alone in a lab and were monitored for five minutes to observe how they engaged and interacted with one another. Two trained coders observed the interactions and noted moments of affectionate touch, defined as “warm physical contact that communicates fondness and positive regard, as well as love and support.”
Participants who perceived their partners as being higher in responsiveness when they expressed gratitude in the lab subsequently engaged in more spontaneous affectionate touch afterward, and they were specifically more likely to kiss their partner when given the opportunity to be alone with them.
Does More Responsiveness Lead to More Affectionate Touch?
Study three focused on whether perceived changes in responsiveness led to more affectionate touch. That is, the researchers wanted to know: On days when one participant perceived their partner as being more responsive than usual, would they, in turn, be more likely to initiate affectionate touch?
Couples took part in a daily diary study over the course of four weeks. The results suggest that on any given day, participants who perceived their partner as more responsive than their average level of responsiveness also reported greater affectionate touching of the partner on those days, even when controlling for their level of affectionate touch the prior day.
This seemed to have a positive spill-over effect, as when a partner received more affectionate touch, they also perceived their partner as being more receptive to their needs the following day.
While it is well known that affectionate touch plays a positive role in our intimate relationships, there has been little research exploring how couples might promote affectionate touch in their relationships or what leads someone to engage in more affectionate touch with their romantic partner.
The findings from these studies suggest that not only is perceived partner responsiveness related to affectionate touch, it appears to be directly responsible for increasing affectionate touch in some romantic relationships. While responsiveness may look and feel different depending on the person, according to this study, responsiveness typically meant feeling one’s partner was behaving in a way that felt supportive, and that the person felt understood, validated, and cared for by their partner.
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Jolink, T. A., Chang, Y.-P., & Algoe, S. B. (2021). Perceived partner responsiveness forecasts behavioral intimacy as measured by affectionate touch. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1-19, doi: 10.1177/0146167221993349