Affectionate Touch

What Is Affectionate Touch?

Affectionate touch is a special kind of touch; one that reflects general friendship, warmth, and intimacy. Moreover, this type of touch is primarily used to show affection, rather than to give comfort, show appreciation, or congratulate someone.

Putting an arm around another person’s shoulder or softly touching someone’s face can also reflect intimacy (Lee & Gerrero, 2001).

Indeed, face touch, hand-holding, arm around the shoulder, and arm around the waist are perceived as highly to moderately intimate forms of touch (Burgoon, 1991; Burgoon & Walther, 1990). This is probably because these forms of touch are fairly invasive.

The face is a vulnerable part of one’s body, so letting someone touch your face involves trust. Letting someone invade your space by reaching around your waist or shoulders requires a similar level of trust. Thus, it is no wonder that people back away when those they dislike or do not know try to engage in these forms of touch.

Stroking, rubbing, interlocking fingers while holding hands, and hugging are also special ways of expressing affection (Derlega et al, 1989; Floyd & Morman, 1998).

In a creative series of studies by Hertenstein, Keltner, App, Bulleit, and Jaskolka (2006), people from the United States and Spain tried to identify the emotions of a person who touched them from behind a curtain. Love was associated with strokes, rubs, and interlocked fingers. In fact, of the eight emotions people had to choose from, love was the only emotion that was associated with interlocked fingers.

Think about how you hold hands with different people. Holding hands without interlocking your fingers is generally considered to be less intimate than having your fingers entwined.

Image courtesy of Sean PeaceOpens in new window

Friends, family members, and couples are all likely to use hugs to show affection, but couples may have the widest latitude in terms of the types of touch they can use to display affection.

Guerrero and Andersen (1991) found that hand-holding was the most frequent type of public touch used by romantic couples. The couples in their study also commonly put their arms around one another’s waists or shoulders and touched one another’s backs. In Guerrero and Andersen’s study, seriously dating couples used these types of touch more than casually dating or married couples.

A recent study by Hanzal, Segrin, and Dorros (2008) also suggests the type of relationship two people have influences perceptions of touch. In their study, people were surveyed to see how they would react to touch in different body regions by their significant others.

Married women perceived touch to reflect more warmth and love than did unmarried women. The reverse was true for men; unmarried men perceived touch to reflect more warmth and love than did married men.