Among the many paradoxes of human communication, is that of expressing affection. We often see affection as entirely good for relationships, but let’s face it; relationships are never that simple. Sure, if our partners want our affection, then expressing it can dramatically improve our relationships. But when our partners misunderstand or deny our affectionate advances, we may then feel hurt, afraid, or even angry. As equal participants in a relationship, we must then walk a fine line between freely expressing affection and playing it cool.
In a recent article published in Women’s Health, Casey Gueren (2013) attempts to help us navigate this fine line. The article cites a study by Horan and Carton (2014) in which participants reported withholding affection from their partners around five times a week. Their reported reasons for withholding affection ranged from not wanting to embarrass a partner to trying to punish them. Gueren accurately identifies that the most common reason (reported by 22 of the 36 participants) for withholding affection was to avoid appearing too needy or clingy.
Gueren argues that withholding affection isn’t necessarily bad for a relationship, as most of the participants withheld affection for harmless reasons. However, she warns us not to withhold too much affection, as we may then miss out on the “major benefits” of a relationship. This is true, as affection can promote feelings of intimacy, warmth, and security and can even be beneficial to physical health (Floyd & Pauley, 2011).
Furthermore, Gueren identifies warning signs for when we may be holding back affection too much in a relationship. She warns us that withholding out of spite or to get back at our partner won’t get us what we want. (Partners aren’t usually mind readers, thank goodness.) Gueren also mentions that if you’re playing it too cool in your relationship, you might miss out on the benefits of being in an affectionate relationship, such as decreased blood pressure and stress.
Gueren ends with some thoughtful advice on how to be more perceptive of our own tendencies to withhold affection. She tells us to ask ourselves why we are withholding. If we’re just not feeling lovey-dovey, then there’s no reason to fake it. But if we’re trying to punish our partners, we should recognize that this isn’t the best way to deal with whatever issue we’re going through. Instead, she urges us to communicate our feelings with our partners, which will be much more beneficial in the long run. Her bottom line is simple, but it is music to Communications scholars’ ears.
Overall, Gueren’s advice is on point and based on quality research in the field. She successfully identifies the pitfalls of withholding affection and even encourages self-awareness and open communication. While Gueren seems to have done her research, we can’t always trust journalists who interpret the research to do the same. Relationships are complicated and paradoxical, and there is almost never one solution to a problem. Be cautious of articles that that oversimplify issues or provide you with only one answer. Like affectionate expression, journalism is good, except when it isn’t.
Carton, S. T., & Horan, S. M. (2014). A diary examination of romantic and sexual partners withholding affectionate messages. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31(2), 221-246.
Floyd, K., & Pauley, P. M. (2011). Affectionate communication is good, except when it isn’t: On the dark side of expressing affection. The dark side of close relationships II. (pp. 145-173) Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, New York, NY.
Gueren, C., (2013, July 29). Are you showing enough affection? Women’s Health. Retrieved from http://www.womenshealthmag.com/sex-and-relationships/be-more-affectionate