When couples downplay affection for each other, nobody wins

Couples withhold affection for each other to protect themselves, but it may end up hurting them more, according to DePaul University’s Sean Horan.

Horan, an assistant professor of relational communication in DePaul’s College of Communication, looked at why people act aloof and distant toward a partner even when they have feelings of euphoria and love for them in his latest research on deceptive affection.

Horan’s study — “A Diary Examination of Romantic and Sexual Partners Withholding Affectionate Messages” — published during 2013 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, showed that couples withhold affectionate behavior about five times a week from their partners.

The downside of couples who play it cool“This work is intriguing because it reinforces the idea of lying regularly to our romantic partners,” said Horan. “Although people are quick to condemn deception as a negative act, our findings once again show that using affection to lie is widely accepted by society. The lack of backlash allows this kind of behavior to continue.”

Horan, along with doctoral student Shannon T Carton of West Virginia University, found that study participants withheld affection due to insecurity, fear that their behavior would appear inappropriate, negative emotions, and fear of rejection.

Complex reasons to downplay affection

“Our findings do not suggest that individuals are using or manipulating their partners in negative ways,” said Horan. “Instead, they show the complex ways in which communicators withhold affection. At times, it appears to be more of a source issue grounded in the fear of rejection or a violation of societal norms.”

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One study participant said, “I acted calm, cool and collected because were just casually seeing each other. I didn’t want him to think I was that into him so quickly.”

Playing down affectionate feelings for a significant other occurred most at night or when couples were in public. Alcohol factored in the display of deceptive affection, as reported by a number of participants.

Withholding affection can be problematic. According to past research, humans experience physiological benefits from affectionate communication. Reported benefits include an enhanced response to stress, lower blood pressure, lower heart rates and lower cholesterol.

By withholding affection, a person is denying themselves those benefits.



“Feeling affection and actually expressing it are two different things,” said Horan. “This study reinforces that complex and ever-changing relationship.”

The study is the latest research Horan has conducted into how and why couples use deceptive affection. Earlier in 2013, Horan showed that hugs, kisses and other affectionate behavior don’t necessarily correlate with happiness in a romantic relationship. Prior work in psychology indicates that a person lies to their significant other the most, and Horan’s work reveals how and why couples use affection – or lack thereof – to lie.



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