SYR Podcast # 11 Session Notes
(Scroll down to end of notes for podcast audio)
Love and affection go hand-in-hand. At least in theory they do. The reality is that many couples love each other yet despite their love, there is little-to-no affection in their relationship.
It’s a curious phenomenon when we love someone (often deeply) and fail to demonstrate our love through affection. Why does this happen? Is it that we simply don’t know how to show affection? Or do we know how but there are barriers that prevent us from expressing the love and affection we feel?
It’s no surprise that the couples who come to see me for couples counseling are experiencing an affection deficit – distressed couples are less likely to express affection when hurt, anger or defensiveness have taken over. Yet the mantra “I need love and affection” underlies many of the complaints that bring couples into counseling (even though their protests may inadvertently shut down further displays of affection).
Affection is a powerful way to turn the passive experience of love into demonstrable action. You can tell your spouse/partner that you love him/her all you want, but if you do not demonstrate your love, your partner may not fully experience the love you feel (or may not fully believe you).
Showing affection can make your partner feel loved, cared for and special. In other words, finding ways to show affection to your partner feeds your relationship. Think of it as an essential nutrient required for the overall health of your marriage or relationship.
5 Tips on How to Show Affection in Your Relationship
1) Change Your Mindset
Often with the couples I work with, one partner is distressed because s/he wants more displays of affection from his/her partner. And at some point I hear from the partner who is being asked to show more affection, “I’m just not an affectionate person…” or some version of, “Growing up in my family no one ever [said I love you; hugged me; showed affection].” These are given as explanations (or excuses, depending on your perspective) for why the individuals are not being more demonstrative with their love.
But what these explanations really tell us is that showing affection might not come naturally to this person. It doesn’t mean you can’t be more affectionate; it means it will take more effort from you compared to someone who is more naturally affectionate. But as long as you define yourself as someone who isn’t affectionate, or as long as you convince yourself that your past is preventing you from giving your partner what s/he needs, these limiting mindsets will contribute to a continued lack of affection in your relationship.
2) Take Stock of Your Relationship
Is there some dynamic in play between you and your partner that’s getting in the way of you and your partner being more affectionate?
Here are a few relationship issues that might block you from ramping up affection:
The first has to do with lingering, unresolved feelings that might be interfering with affection and emotional intimacy.
One wife I worked with would physically tense up whenever her husband touched her (though her tensing wasn’t perceptible to him). She would also tense up whenever she tried to show him physical affection (like hand-holding, or leaning into each other while watching television).
Her body’s reaction (through tensing up) was telling her a truth that she wasn’t fully aware of: she was still upset with him over a major argument they had about four months earlier. As we explored this issue in therapy, she came to realize that she was still very hurt and angry, and that she felt pressured by him to “just get over it already.” As long as these feelings remained unresolved between them, a wall would remain in place that prevented the physical affection they both desired.
Another example involved a husband who believed that his wife should know that he needed her to be more affectionate. So he waited and waited and his frustrations continued to mount until he became increasingly withdrawn from her. When I asked him if he had told his wife about his need for more affection, he stated that if he had to ask her then she wouldn’t really mean it when she did show affection. In this example, a failure to communicate his needs directly set the relationship up for failure.
3) Just do it!
Yes, the ubiquitous Nike slogan has become somewhat of a cliche, but its popularity cannot be denied. Its motivating simplicity speaks to us in a powerful way. Its message? “Yes, there are excuses and reasons for not doing something. There will always be excuses and reasons. You can indulge them and remain stuck in inertia, or you can make the decision to bypass them and just do it.”
The same idea can apply to ramping up the affection in your marriage/relationship. You know it’s good for your relationship; you know your partner’s been after you to be more affectionate; and you can spend your time over-thinking all the reasons why you’re not more affectionate (“I forget”; “It’s been a stressful week at work”; “I’m just not touchy-feely”; “I need you to remind me…”)
Or you can just push through the inertia to increase the affection in your relationship.
We all have the potential to get stuck in relationship ruts: those patterns of doing the bare minimum; coasting through your relationship on autopilot; giving the best of yourself to work, friends and others. Words and physical acts of affection are usually diminished by the mind-numbing effects of a relationship rut. Your way out of this? Make a plan and let the old Nike motto get you moving in the right direction.
4) Know your partner
If you give your partner flowers knowing she really isn’t that crazy about them, your act of love and affection will clearly flop. What feels like a loving and affectionate act to one person may not to another.
Blanket efforts to increase affection in your relationship (through words of affirmation/love, increased physical affection, gifts, loving texts/notes) may work for your partner since sooner or later you’re going to hit the mark. But you can also fine-tune your efforts based on what you know about your spouse/partner.
Answering these questions can guide you:
⇒What makes him/her feel loved/emotionally close to you?
⇒What are your partner’s likes and dislikes?
⇒Does s/he prefer direct expressions of affection (hearing “I love you”; receiving hugs) or indirect expressions (working side-by-side on a project together)?
You may know the answers to these questions, but if you aren’t sure, you can always ask. Knowledge of your partner offers you a powerful way to add relevant acts of affection to the relationship mix.
5) Don’t Let Your Own Needs Obscure What Your Partner Needs
We’re all different in our need for emotional and physical affection. Some of us get uncomfortable with certain levels of affection (at a certain point it can feel too much, making us uneasy) and as stated above, communicating love and affection doesn’t always flow naturally for everyone.
If you need fewer expressions of affection and love than your partner, you’re faced with an area of incompatibility that exists between you. Don’t panic, it’s common for couples to have some areas of their relationship where incompatibilities exist. This dynamic usually involves one person wanting more of something than the other (affection, sex, “meaningful” conversation, time together).
The challenge with these types of compatibilities is that one partner feels satisfied in that particular area of the relationship (“We have plenty of affection, I don’t need any more”) while the other partner is distressed because s/he is experiencing a deficit in that area.
In these cases, the options are for the distressed partner to find ways to accept the reality of not getting what s/he wants; or the partner who feels everything is fine can increase his/her efforts in order to fulfill the needs of the dissatisfied spouse/partner. Or some compromise is made between these two outcomes.
We all differ in our need for expressed affection and love. That’s not to say that some of us do not need to love or be loved. We do. But the shape and intensity of these needs vary widely from person to person.
We’ve entered this world desperately needing affection and love. If we didn’t receive consistent expressions of loving affection, our psychological, emotional and physical development would have been compromised.
For the developing child, affection is like food, a necessary ingredient for survival. The need for love that is expressed through affectionate acts continues throughout our lives. Of course, the shape of our adult need for affection is different from the childhood version of that need.
But the need still exists. And it’s up to each of us to meet our partner’s version of this need so that the love in our relationship can continue to flourish.
Love and Affection Resource
Are you ready to discover new, fun, practical ways to show more affection in your relationship?
I’ve recently completed a short book (the newest addition to the Enhance Your Love Series) to help you make loving acts of affection a regular part of your marriage/relationship (and it’s only 99 cents!).
It’s offered exclusively on Amazon. Click 50 Ways to Give Your Marriage a Hug for more information or to purchase your copy.
Wishing you a relationship filled with love and affection!
Dr. Rich Nicastro