In our therapy practice, we believe humans are hardwired to connect with others. Just as we need air to breathe oxygen into our lungs, food to nourish us, and water to keep our bodies functioning, we also require certain emotional needs to be fulfilled. We refer to these as relational needs, and they are met through relationships and social connectedness. One of the relational needs is affection, which is expressing care and closeness through physical touch and words such as “I love you” or “I care about you” (Ferguson, Ferguson, Thurman & Thurman, 1994).
This relational need is especially important in romantic partnerships, as a lack of affection is a total relationship killer. I love to teach my couples counseling clients about the relational needs and help them discover specifically how they need to be met. One way I do this with couples in therapy is by helping them discuss and clearly define how they like to experience affection. Traditionally, affection gets lost in the idea of mushy-gushy love or sex, but I’m continually surprised by the various ways my therapy clients like to feel affection.
For many, affection is met through physical touch like hugs, kisses, holding hands, or sitting close. It might also be placing your hand on your partner’s knee while driving, a touch on their shoulder as you’re passing by, or a back rub after a stressful day. These little signs of affection help you feel closer to your partner and have a huge payoff.
The more obvious way to show affection is through touch, but affection does not have to be physical. It is ultimately about showing warmth and tenderness toward someone you care about. Someone with a high affection need would likely appreciate being greeted when they walk in the door with a warm smile or a hug and a kiss. Working as a couple to establish a ritual of how you greet and leave one another can be an anchor for affection in a relationship.
Additionally, affection can be expressed by sharing how much you care for your partner through words. Saying “I love you” or “You mean so much to me” is an important way to show your partner you care. Looking for more ways to show affection through words? One way is by letting them know they look good! Paying someone a genuine compliment can be meaningful, especially when you’re comfortable in the relationship. But it’s not all about looks. Share with your partner what you admire about them. If you’re not the verbally affectionate type, write them a note! Leaving a surprise message just for them can also show you care.
It doesn't always have to be grand, actually that would be exhausting. It’s the small things which, according to Pamela Regan, Ph.D. in an article for Psychology Today, are just as important, and sometimes even more important than the big things, as they "represent very important attempts by our partners to establish intimacy and to connect with us emotionally."
How is affection showing up in your relationship? Use the questions below to help you and your partner discuss what you both need.
Grab your partner and take turns asking and answering one another the questions below. Have a piece of paper handy so you can write down what they say. Make sure to switch so they write when you share.
- “How do you like to have your affection need met?”
- Give specifics!
- Try to come up with at least three specific ways your partner can meet your affection need.
- Ex: “A goodnight kiss and to say, “I love you,” before we go to sleep.”
- “It means a lot to me when you _______.”
- Let them know the things they are already doing that you love.
- Ex: “It means a lot to me when you text me just to say you love me while I’m at work.”
- “It would be meaningful for me to feel more _______.”
- Decide on one way you would like to see more affection from your partner.
- Ex: “It would be meaningful for me to hear from you when you think I look nice.”
- Tip: Using this sentence stem works a whole lot better than, “Why don’t you ever compliment me?”
Ferguson. D.L., Ferguson, T., Thurman, C., & Thurman, H. (1994). Intimate Encounters: a practical guide to discovering the secrets to a really great marriage. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.