A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin sheds light on the importance of perceived partner responsiveness in promoting affectionate touch within romantic relationships. Across a series of four studies, the researchers found that people who felt more cared for and supported by their partners tended to engage in more affectionate touch.
Psychologists use the term affectionate touch to refer to physical touch that is intended to communicate care, warmth, and affection — such as hugging, hand-holding, cuddling, and kissing. These types of touch behaviors are crucial to the development of social bonds and are common across romantic relationships.
Until now, little research has considered factors that motivate people to engage in affectionate touch. Study authors Tatum A. Jolink and her team propose that the provision of touch within a relationship might have to do with perceptions of intimacy. Perceiving one’s partner as more caring and supportive should promote psychological intimacy, which then prompts a person to engage in intimate behaviors — i.e., affectionate touch. The researchers conducted four studies to explore this.
An initial study across four data sets offered support for this line of reasoning. People who rated their partners as more responsive reported having engaged in more affectionate touch with their partner the previous month — even after controlling for sexual activity.
Next, the researchers asked a group of 80 couples to keep a daily diary for two weeks. At each entry, participants reported on the most notable interaction involving their partner that day. These diary entries were coded and any instances of affectionate touch were tallied. Importantly, at the start of the study, all participants had completed a general rating of their partner’s responsiveness. It was found that those who felt their partners were more responsive reported more instances of affectionate touch throughout the two weeks — even after controlling for attachment style.
In order to zero in on touch behaviors in the moment, Jolink and her colleagues next took their research to the lab. The researchers recruited 129 couples, and one member of each couple was asked to express their gratitude to their partner. The participant who listened to the expression of gratitude then rated their partner’s responsiveness.
The couple was then briefly separated before being reunited and left alone in a room to wait for the next part of the experiment. While the couples sat on a couch, their interactions were recorded for 5 minutes. It was found that the more participants felt their partner was responsive, the more they subsequently initiated affectionate touch behaviors toward that partner.
Finally, a 28-day diary study offered evidence that changes in perceived responsiveness influence future affectionate behavior. Every night, couples reported how responsive they felt their partner was and then reported the touch behaviors they had initiated toward their partner that day. The researchers were able to calculate average ratings of perceived partner responsiveness and average scores for affectionate touch.
People who reported feeling like their partners were more responsive to their needs than usual also reported engaging in more touch behaviors that same day. This was true even after controlling for the amount of touch behavior they had initiated the day before. Furthermore, there was evidence that this process was feeding into their partners’ perceptions. Participants who initiated more touch (compared to their average levels) had partners who perceived them as more responsive the next day.
“The current evidence suggests that finding ways to promote perceived responsiveness within romantic relationships can make way for more affectionate touch within them,” Jolink and colleagues note. “This is true for both members of the dyad, as the interpersonal process may theoretically jump start a mutual process that translates to cumulative physiological benefit by way of increases in affectionate touch.”
The study, “Perceived Partner Responsiveness Forecasts Behavioral Intimacy as Measured by Affectionate Touch”, was authored by Tatum A. Jolink, Yen-Ping Chang, and Sara B. Algoe.