This story begins in a classroom. I was taking a course on interpersonal communication and well-being, in which we discussed how communication in our relationships has measurable and substantial impacts on our health. That’s not limited to our relationship’s health! It also means physiological and mental health as well.
We were looking at a body of research that explored how expressing affection in our relationships has statistically significant impacts on each of these areas of health. Study after study after study has consistently—and impressively—found support for how even minor affectionate exchanges can have actual, measurable impacts on our physical and relational health.
In some cases, the results are so incredible it almost defies reality! To me, it seemed almost too good to be true. How is it, as one study showed, that writing a brief letter to a loved one can reduce your cholesterol?
The more I looked into the topic, the more frustrated I became. How is it that this simple interpersonal behavior can have such consistent, significant impacts on our bodies? And what does that mean for our relationships?
How do we express affection?
First, let’s step back a bit, and define what “expressing affection” actually means. There are three primary categories for how people express affection that researchers have identified:
Verbally: These are the ways in which we directly express to our partner how much we love, care and appreciate them. Verbal affection can be expressed face-to-face, over the phone or through written means such as through text, email or a letter.
Non-verbally: These are gestures or touches that are meant to express those same sentiments of love and care toward our partner. For example, these behaviors include hugs, holding hands and smiling.
Indirect Tasks: These are overt methods for expressing love, care and appreciation for our partner, such as through cooking or spending time together.
In a study published this year, researchers asked Americans how they specifically express affection in their relationships. The most common answers were through verbal messages, physical touching, complementing and listening to their partner. They also reported helping their partner complete tasks, spending time together, cooking, talking to one another or flirting with them.
Related: 5 ways we can support our partners
Affection Exchange Theory
OK, so now that we know how we express affection, let’s talk a little about why we express affection.
One theory about affection posits that the act of expressing affection is a biological imperative. We as a human species are driven to express affection to more effectively maintain our romantic relationships in an effort to facilitate the continuation of our species. In other words, we do it so we can make babies!
Each person has a particular tolerance for the amount of affection they like to give and receive. Receiving too much or too little affection can have negative consequences for building a relationship. Naturally, increasing affectionate communication in our relationships has measurable impacts on our relationship satisfaction, which includes everything from satisfaction with the communication we have with our partner to feelings of love and closeness with our partner.
But the act of expression affection has also been found to improve mental well-being, cardiovascular health, metabolic health, sleep health and stress reactivity.
One research study in particular examined how the amount of affection expressed in a person’s most affectionate relationship may affect their ability to cope with and recover from a stressful event. Participants took part in several purposefully stressful rounds of difficult oral math and logic problem sets for approximately 40 minutes to elevate their heart rate and promote the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. Individual survey responses about the amount and types of affectionate communication in their relationship were linked to their biological recovery processes after this stressful experience. Affectionate communication positively impacted people’s ability to regulate their heart rate after a stressful event. It also positively impacted their stress hormone recovery process.
Another study took an inventory of people’s overall well-being, in their mental, physical and relational health, and their perception of being deprived of affection. When we experience a lack of affectionate communication in our relationships, this study found there are significant impacts on feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, physical pain, poor sleep health and more.
Related: The myth of love languages
These studies are just a few examples. Here are some other specific outcomes for particular affectionate exchanges:
Increased instances of hugging over a two-week period can improve markers of inflammation. It can also decrease experienced symptoms after exposure to the common cold or flu.
Cuddling with a romantic partner for 30-45 minutes can improve perceptions of relationship satisfaction.
Kissing your partner more often for a six-week period of time can improve your cholesterol, relationship satisfaction and stress.
What does this mean for your relationships?
So, what should we be learning from all of this? To me, the most interesting takeaway from this entire body of research is that the benefits of affection are most prominent for the person expressing that affection! The act of showing affection to your partner or another loved one has significant and somewhat immediate health benefits.
Whether you’re in a romantic relationship right now or not, find ways to express affection to your loved ones, friends, and family. Take the time to share with your partner or friends what they mean to you. Maybe write them a note telling them what you love and appreciate about them! Your partner will appreciate hearing it, and you’ll probably feel better, physically and mentally, for having done it!
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.
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