Why do we Struggle to Express Affection?

Source: Hernán Piñera/Flickr

Expressing affection and gratitude for your partner not only increases your own relationship satisfaction but also strengthens your partner’s appreciation for you and commitment to your relationship. But if the benefits of affection and gratitude are so great, why do so many of us find it difficult to thank our partners? Why do we sometimes resist showing affection if it would strengthen our relationships?

A team of psychologists from New York and California have recently tackled this question. They wondered if people in relationships are driven by two opposing goals: to develop a satisfying relationship and minimize the risk of rejection. Behaviours that support one goal could undermine the other. For example, expressing affection can have positive outcomes, but if our affection is not returned we may feel rejected. What’s more, some people are more concerned about the risk of rejection than others. For people with low self-esteem, expressing affection may induce feelings of vulnerability. To minimize the risk of rejection, it can sometimes feel safer to withhold affection and gratitude entirely: to pursue the goal of minimizing rejection to the detriment of developing a satisfying relationship.


Anna Luerssen and her team invited 60 couples to their laboratory. Each person was separated from their partner to receive instructions about the experiment. One partner was given the role of “speaker”: his/her task was to offer his/her partner three complements. The other partner was the “listener”: he/she was told that his/her partner had been given a list of topics to speak about, and had chosen “things about my partner I really like”. The listener would listen to the speaker, and not offer any verbal response. Of course, the speaker had not really chosen to complement his/her partner: the researchers said this so that the listeners would think the complements were spontaneous.

After their interaction, both partners completed questionnaires about how the activity made them feel. They also spat into a test tube so that the researchers could test their hormone levels! Finally, the speaker completed a self-esteem questionnaire.

Progesterone boost

Luerssen and her colleagues found that speakers with lower self-esteem offered less affectionate complements, and thought the task was more difficult and uncomfortable. Previous research has shown that affection can increase our levels of the hormone progesterone, but speakers with low self-esteem did not experience this progesterone boost.

However, listeners whose partners were low in self-esteem reacted just as positively to the complements as did listeners whose partners were high in self-esteem. In fact, the progesterone boost experienced by listeners with a partner low in self-esteem were slightly higher.

The researchers say:

participants with lower [self-esteem] were less inclined to believe that their partners experienced emotional benefits from their affection, suggesting that their perceptions are inaccurate and biased.

In other words, people with low self-esteem are more motivated by the goal of minimizing rejection than developing a satisfying relationship. They may avoid expressing affection and gratitude because they are worried about their partner’s negative reactions. But the research suggests that they are misguided: everyone benefits when we tell our partners how much we cherish them.



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