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Dec142016

The Importance of Physical Affection for Relationship Satisfaction

Physical affection (e.g., hugging and kissing) is an important aspect of romantic relationships. Displays of physical affection are associated with relationship satisfaction,1 and in turn greater relationship satisfaction is associated with greater sexual satisfaction.2 Therefore, physical affection plays a large role in the emotional and sexual benefits derived from a romantic pairing. In addition, research has shown than a person’s satisfaction with the physical affection in their relationship is a strong predictor of love, liking, and overall satisfaction.3 Despite this connection, the ways in which we can express physical affection vary, and as such, more research is needed.

Researchers surveyed 295 college students to examine the link between physical affection and relationship satisfaction, as well as peoples’ preference regarding expressions of affection.1 It was hypothesized that the more affection there is between couple members, the more relationship satisfaction they will report. The study included several types of affection, such as: backrubs/massages, caressing/stroking, cuddling/holding, holding hands, hugging, kissing on the lips, and kissing on the face.

The survey consisted of three sections. The first section required participants to rank the seven different types of physical affection on four different dimensions: favorite, frequent, intimate, and expressions of love. Specifically, each participant had to decide how much they valued each form of affection, how often they engaged in it, how intimate they felt it was, and how indicative it was of the love they felt for their partner. The second part of the survey was a scale asking participants to rate their attitudes toward physical affection and how it can influence the quality of the relationship (e.g., “There is less conflict in romantic relationships when partners give each other physical affection.”) The third part of the survey asked participants to estimate how frequently each week they engaged in each type of physical affection.

With the exception of caressing/stroking and holding hands, each of the other types of physical affection (i.e., cuddling/holding, hugging, kissing on the lips, and kissing on the face) were associated with greater relationship satisfaction. Participants also reported feeling more loved and understood when given affection and believed that physical affection shows love for a partner. The amount of physical affection given and received by the participants was not related to conflict experienced in the relationship. However, there was an association between physical affection and ability to resolve conflict, in that the more affection given and received, the easier it was to find a resolution.

Cultural differences are likely to influence the results. For example, in many cultures a kiss on the cheek is seen as an important part of a greeting, and not a behavior that expresses romantic interest. As a result, what one may view as a signal of physical affection in one culture, may not be used for the same purpose in another. The authors note that it is important to sample a more diverse group of participants before definitive conclusions the role of different types of physical affection can be drawn. 

1Gulledge, A. K., Gulledge, M. H., & Stahmann, R. F. (2003). Romantic physical affection types and relationship satisfaction. American Journal of Family Therapy, 31(4), 233-242.

2Sprecher, S. (2002). Sexual satisfaction in premarital relationships: Associations with satisfaction, love, commitment, and stability. The Journal of Sex Research, 39,190–196.

3Dainton, M., Stafford, L., & Canary, D. J. (1994). Maintenance strategies and physical affection as predictors of love, liking, and satisfaction in marriage. Communication Reports7(2), 88-98.

Dr. Marisa Cohen

Marisa, along with a colleague at St. Francis College, founded the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL) in Fall 2014. Research has focused on the development of relationships throughout the life span, including factors influencing mate choice and peoples’ perceptions of what makes relationships survive and thrive. Her specific focus is on how various relationship configurations impact the satisfaction derived from them.

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