Affectionate Communication

What is Affectionate Communication?

Affection is a basic human need. According to Pendell (2002), affection is both a need and an emotion. Humans are wired to feel accepted and cared for by others. This need for affection is met through interpersonal interaction and forging mutually supportive relationships (Prager & Buhrmester, 1998; Rubin & Martin, 1998)

Affectionate communication is behavior that portrays feelings of fondness and positive regard to another (Floyd, 2006). Affection and affectionate communication occur in a wide variety of close relationships, including those between friends, family members, and romantic partners (Floyd & Ray, 2003; Pendell, 2002; Salt, 1991).

Affectionate communication is a key to establishing relationships and keeping them close. In fact, affectionate communication often acts as a “critical incident” that facilitates the establishment of close relationships (King & Christensen, 1983; Owen, 1987).

The absence of affectionate communication, conversely, can reflect decreased emotional closeness and propel a relationship toward de-escalation (Owen, 1987).

Floyd (2006) noted that there is a paradox of affection because “although affection is often intended and usually perceived by others to be a positive communicative move, it can backfire for a number of reasons and produce negative outcomes” such as distress and relationship dissolution (p. 2). For instance, showing affection too early in a relationship can scare potential friends and romantic partners away.

Affection Exchange Theory

The affection exchange theory was pioneered by Floyd (2001, 2002, 2006) as an approach to study how affectionate communication functions in various relationships.

The affection exchange theory is based on the idea that affectionate communication is a biologically adaptive behavior that evolved because it helps people provide and obtain valuable resources necessary for survival.

The theory draws upon Darwin’s (1872/1998) principle of selective fitness, which specifies that people who adapt best to their environment have the best chance to survive, procreate, and pass their genes on to the next generation.

Pendell (2002) expressed a similar belief about the adaptive value of affection, stating that “intimate relationships, pair bonding, and affection are basic human biological adaptations evolved for the purpose of reproduction and protecting the young” (p. 91).

Principles of Affection Exchange Theory

Affection exchange theory contains three overarching principles that illuminate how affectionate communication is adaptive.

  1. First, affectionate communication is theorized to facilitate survival because it helps people to develop and maintain relationships that provide them with important resources. For example, centuries ago, humans fared better if they had people to help feed them and protect them if attacked.

    Today, resources gained from one’s social network, such as having a friend help with homework or a parent finance one’s education, are helpful for surviving daily life as well as gaining the resources necessary to attract potential mates.
  2. Second, people who display affectionate communication are more likely to be perceived as having the skills necessary to be a good parent, thereby increasing their ability to attract potential mates and have reproductive opportunities.

    People are generally attracted to those who are warm and caring. When looking for a long-term romantic partner, both men and women usually wants someone who they believe will be a nurturing and responsible parent for any children they might have.
  3. Third, people are motivated to show affectionate communication to people who serve one of two basic evolutionary needs: viability and fertility (Floyd & Morr. 2003).

    Viability relates to the motivation to survive, whereas fertility relates to the motivation to procreate and pass on one’s genes. At an unconscious level, these needs motivate people to show affection to those with whom they share a genetic or sexual relationship.

    For example, parents are motivated to show affection to their children because “the benefits associated with receiving affection make the children more suitable as mates, thereby increasing the chances that the children will themselves reproduce and pass on their genes to yet a new generation” (Floyd & Morman, 2001, p. 312).

    People who grew up in affectionate families are also more likely to be affectionate adults who develop emotionally close relationships with their own spouse and children.

    People are also motivated to show affection to nieces, nephews, siblings, and cousins who share their genetic material. Thus, the goal is not necessarily to reproduce oneself but rather to pass on one’s genes either directly or indirectly through one’s relatives (Hamilton, 1964).

    Finally, people are motivated to show affection to sexual partners who can help them achieve the goal of procreation. Of course, people can also receive valuable resources from their broader social networks, which include friends in-laws, and acquaintances, but according to affection exchange theory, the motivation to exhibit affectionate behavior is strongest in relationships that have the most potential to fulfill viability or fertility needs.

Benefits of Giving and Receiving Affection

In affection exchange theory, affectionate communication is cast as a valuable resource that is essential for survival and procreation. One reason affectionate communication helps people survive and attract others is because giving and receiving affection is related to better mental and physical health.

In fact, people who regularly receive affection are advantaged in almost every way compared to people who receive little affection; they are happier, more self-confident, less stressed, less likely to be depressed, more likely to engage in social activity, and in better general mental health (Floyd, 2002).

Giving affection has similar benefits. People who readily show affection to others report more happiness, higher self-esteem, less fear of intimacy, less susceptibility to depression, and greater relational satisfaction (Floyd et al., 2005). A substantial body of research also provides compelling evidence that giving and receiving affection is associated with better physical health.

Floyd and his colleagues (2005) demonstrated a physiological link between affection and bodily changes. When people gave or received affection, adrenal hormones associated with stress tended to decrease, while oxytocin (OT) (a hormone associated with positive moods and behaviors) tended to increase (Floyd, 2006).

Other healths benefits of affection include lower resting blood pressure, lower blood sugar (Floyed, Hesse, & Haynes, 2007), lower heart rate, a less exaggerated hormonal response to stress (Floyd, Mikkelson, Tafoya et al., 2007), and helatheir changes in cortisol levels (Floyd & Riforgiate, 2008).

In one study, people in married or cohabiting relationships were either given instructions to kiss more over a 6-week period or were given no instructions about how to behave. Those who were told to kiss more reported less stress, more relational satisfaction, and healthier levels of cholesterol at the end of the study (Floyed et al., 2009). Even writing about the affection that one feels toward close friends, relatives, and romantic partners reduces cholesterol levels (Floyd, Mikkelson, Hesse, & Pauley, 2007).

Communicating Affection

There are numerous ways to communicate affection (Pendell, 2002). Floyd and Morman (1998), however, argued that it is useful to categorize affectionate communication into one of three categories:

The types of affectionate communication that fall under each category differ in terms of how they are encoded and decoded.

Direct and Verbal Affectionate Communication

Many verbal behaviors, such as saying “I care about you” or leaving a sticky note that says “I love you,” are direct ways of communicating affection. People usually encode direct and verbal expressions of affection with the intent of communicating affection to someone, and others easily decode these messages as clear and unambiguous expressions of affection.

Verbal statements of affection are also usually more precise than nonverbal expressions. As Floyd (2006) put it, “There is an enormous qualitative difference between saying ‘I like you’ and ‘I’m in love with you,’ a distinction that may not be conveyed quite as accurately through nonverbal behaviors” (p. 32).

Of course, words are not always completely unambiguous. The statement “I love you” could men “I love you as a friend” or “I love you as a potential romantic partner,” and it could be seen as sincere or insincere, thoughtful or rash.

Nonetheless, verbal statements provide people with a channel for communicating affection in a relatively direct and precise manner. Several types of verbal behavior communicate affection, including self-disclosure, direct emotional expressions, compliments and praise, and assurances (Pendell, 2002).

Self-disclosure, which involves revealing the self to others, allows people to develop shared knowledge about one another, and this shared knowledge leads to emotional and relational closeness (Prager & Roberts, 2004). In fact, when people are asked to describe how “close” or “intimate” friendships differ from more casual friendships, self-disclosure is the most common response (Monsour, 1992).

Direct emotional expressions involve expressing feelings by using phrases such as “I love you,” “You make me happy,” and “You’re fun to be around.” These statements are the most direct and least ambiguous way to communicate affection to someone, but they are also risky because they open a person up to rejection.

In some cases, compliments and praise communicate positive regard and liking (Pendell, 2002). Compliments can also strengthen feelings of affection and emotional closeness because they make people feel good about themselves and their relationships.

Finally, assurances, which have also been termed relationship talk, are direct messages about people’s commitment level in a relationship. Assurances have been conceptualized as relational maintenance behavior but are also expressions of affection. Statements such as “I want to see you again,” “I can’t imagine my life without you,” and “I hope our friendship never ends” are symbols of emotional closeness that reflects how much people care about and value each other (Floyd, 2006; King & Sereno, 1984).

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Direct and Nonverbal Affectionate Communication

Many nonverbal behaviors Opens in new window, such as hugging someone, are direct and nonverbal expressions of affection because others commonly interpret them as communicating affection (Floyd & Morman, 2001).

According to the social meaning model of nonverbal communication, some nonverbal behaviors have strong consensual meanings across different contexts (Burgoon & Newton, 1991). For example, smiling usually signals friendliness, and hugs usually communicate affection regardless of the situation in which people find themselves. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules. Sometimes a smile Opens in new window is fake, condescending, or sarcastic, and a hug is an obligatory rather than an affectionate move.

The social meaning modelOpens in new window, however, suggest that people recognize the exceptions to the rule because they do not look only at one nonverbal cue but rather a constellation of nonverbal cues that work in concert to communicate a message. A condescending smile, therefore, will look different than a friendly smile, and an obligatory hug will look (and feel) different than a genuinely affectionate hug.

Although a wide variety of nonverbal behaviors can communicate affection, three classes of behavior in particular have been found to do so in a relatively unambiguous manner that is consistent with the social meaning model, they include:

Physical closeness involves touch and close distancing. Floyd and Morman’s (1998) measure of affectionate communication includes several types of touch—holding hands, hugging, kissing, massaging someone, and putting one’s arm around another’s shoulders—as well as sitting close to one another.

Similarly, Pendell (2002) listed physical closeness and a wide variety of affection, including friendly roughhousing or mock aggression, hand squeezes, shaking hands, cuddling, snuggling, lap sitting, picking someone up, gently cleaning someone, and fondling.

Eye contact Opens in new window communicates affection in a relatively direct and unambiguous fashion, especially when it is prolonged and mutual, and when it is used alongside other behaviors that reflect positive emotions, such as smiling (Floyd & Morman, 1998; Pendell, 2002).

In one study, strangers were paired in opposite sex dyads. Each person was told to look at the partner’s hands for 2 minutes, look into the partner’s eyes for 2 minutes, or count the number of times the partner blinked (Kellerman, Lewis, & Laird, 1989). People reported greater liking when they had been told to look at each other, which demonstrates that mutual gaze is related to liking.

Finally, vocalic behavior Opens in new window, such as speaking tenderly or in a warm voice, laughing with someone, talking faster when excited, and using a moderate amount of talk time (i.e., not speaking more or less than one’s partner) are related to affection and liking (Palmer & Simmons, 1995; Pendell, 2002). Women are also rated as more affectionate if they speak in a somewhat high pitched voice (Floyd & Ray, 2003).

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Indirect and Nonverbal Affectionate Communication

According to Floyd and Morman (2001), there are two types of affectionate communication that are indirect and nonverbal expressions of affection:

Although these behaviors are frequently interpreted as communicating affection, sometimes they are not. The situation and the relationship people share often help determine whether or not these behaviors are construed as expressions of affection.

Support behaviors involve giving someone emotional or instrumental support. For example, friends and relatives might show support to a new mother by bringing her food, offering savings bonds for the new bay, and listening patiently when she complains about being overly tired. Although these types of actions do not communicate affection directly, the likely let the young mother know that people love and care for her.

Idiomatic behaviors “have a specific meaning only to people in a particular relationship” (Burgoon, Guerrero, & Floyd, 2010, p. 331). The primary reason romantic couples use idioms is to communicate affection (Bell, Buerkel-Rothfuss, & Gore, 1987).

Hopper, Knapp, and Scott (1981) gave several examples of idioms in romantic relationships, including twitching noses to signal “you’re special” and twisting wedding rings to warn “don’t you dare do or say that!”

Idioms can be used in other types of relationships as well. For example, Dan might sometimes tease Kevin by acting like he is sprinkling something over his head. This gesture may have a special meaning for the two of them because it leads them to recall an event they attended together where Kevin ended up with cake crumbs all over his head.

Other people—even Jennifer—will not understand the meaning of this gesture unless Dan or Kevin shares it with them. And even if Kevin explains it to Jennifer, since she was not there, she might not fully understand its meaning.

Another category of nonverbal behavior Opens in new window that plays a complementary and equally important role in developing and maintaining close relationships is immediacy behavior Opens in new window.