When it comes to PDA, or public displays of affection, what are you comfortable with? Holding hands? A light kiss? How about a passionate kiss at sunset on the end of pier somewhere in Florida? Or is that starting to get gag-worthy? 

PDA is often a touchy subject in married couples (pun intended — my bad). But seriously, it can be difficult to find a level of public affection that you’re both comfortable with. Research has some interesting findings on the use of PDA, how it can help marriages, and some ground rules to bear in mind.

If PDA Includes Sexual Behavior, That’s an Issue

Ultimately this discussion of PDA is about what you each are comfortable with and how to work with that in your marriage. We want you to maximize the amount of affection you show and experience.

But there are limits here. There’s a line crossed from a public display of affection to a public display of sexual behavior. The former is a great way to show love to your spouse; the latter is not such a good idea.

I think there are some clearly sexual behaviors: touching your spouse’s private parts in public with your hand is sexual — that is indecent in any public context. That’s immodest. It is not respecting your spouse. It is objectifying your spouse in front of others. Think about it this way: intimacy is about vulnerability. The greater the vulnerability the greater the safety required. You can’t offer safety for this level of vulnerability in public. So if it’s not safe to be this vulnerable, don’t be that intimate.

But there is a grey area. For example, kissing. In North America, a kiss goes all the way from a peck on the cheek — that’s probably the most innocuous — to a full fledged French kiss where we have tongues playing tonsil hockey and so on. At this stage you have to respect a couple things.

First is your culture. Our podcast, at the time of recording, has been downloaded in 169 countries. In some of them, the peck on the cheek might earn you jail time or at least attention from a policeman if it was seen. In others, if you didn’t actually greet your spouse with this if you reunited in public (say, coming off an airplane) then your family would wonder what was wrong with your marriage and start worrying about the two of you. So keep your culture in mind.

The second comes back to sexuality. If your kissing is becoming sexual then we go back to the previous cautionary note about respecting each other and respecting the people around you. As the Bible says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor. 10:23). It might be legal. It probably isn’t helpful to anyone.

So let’s establish those two general guidelines: “is it sexual?” and “what does your culture allow?” as starting points. Now as we go through the research keep in mind that from now on we’re making the assumption that we’re looking at decent PDA.

Let’s actually look at PDA and relationship satisfaction because we want to be focusing on marriage. And then let’s look at factors affecting PDA inside each marriage, and then how to find the balance.

PDA and Relationship Satisfaction

The research shows that both private and public physical affection increase relationship satisfaction.

Expressing affection and love for your spouse through a variety of means is unquestionably a good thing. We’ve looked previously at the concept of the Five Love Languages, of which physical touch is one, but today’s research suggests touch is something everyone should be using.

Here are a couple studies. First, Kent & El Alayi[i] surveyed women in committed relationships and found that they experience higher relationship satisfaction, relationship commitment and feelings of intimacy when private and public displays of affection were part of their marriage.

Most couples believe that physical touch is a good thing. That’s obvious to us but it’s not to everyone (we’ll get to that later) but “research has shown that individuals believe physical affection to serve a causal role in enhancing their romantic relationships. For example, people report using physical affection as a maintenance behavior for their relationships[ii]“. So it’s something that couples actively use rather than just a thing that researchers notice.

Another study[iii] found the same: all types of physical affection were correlated with high satisfaction with the relationship and with the spouse. But they also found that physical affection improves conflict resolution: while it had no effect on the frequency of conflict in the relationship, higher rates of cuddling/holding and kissing (both in private and in public) were linked to greater ease of conflict resolution. So that feeling of intimate connection caused by physical contact has very positive effects on marriage.

A later study from Gullege et al[iv] showed other benefits to physical affection:

  1. Stress relief
  2. Decreased blood pressure
  3. Decreased anxiety and aggression
  4. Reduced sexual dysfunction

The mechanism here is important. There’s affection for affection’s sake. But touch also has a huge supportive component because life is just rarely a walk in the park. We all have big challenges we’re facing constantly. And physical touch helps spouses feel supported and reduces feelings of distress[v].

Physical touch is supportive even if the receiving spouse did not ask for support, and they often do not even perceive the touch as an attempt to comfort them. It’s just an unconscious thing that couples do to support each other. And that’s a really good thing. So there’s a supportive component as well as a significant impact on marriage satisfaction.

Which leads us nicely onto the bonus content for this post. If you become a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People today, you’ll not only be helping us continue and expand our mission to help marriages but you’ll also get access to extra bonus content each week.

Talking About Your Public Displays of Affection

The bonus worksheet for this topic takes you guys through a conversation about PDA so that you both know where you’re at. It’s really important that you have this conversation so that you’re comfortable with each other in public and can enjoy the benefits of PDA in a way that both of you are happy with.

Factors Affecting PDA

So we know there are benefits to PDA. But at this point couples may be feeling a little tension because one spouse is more comfortable than the other. So what impacts our different comfort levels?

We already mentioned culture in the sense of what culture you both reside in. We’ve seen in a previous post how this idea of emotion culture shapes what levels of emotional expression men and women are comfortable with. But what about differences in culture between you? If your marriage is cross-cultural, what culturally informed expectations do you bring? That’s something to talk through. Here are some of the individual factors which can impact the way PDA works in your marriage.

Gender Differences. Gender matters. Men tend to initiate more PDA than women[vi]. Higher rates of male initiated PDA have been found in younger and non-married couples, and higher rates of female-initiated PDA tend to be found in older and married couples[vii][viii].  I don’t know why.

There are some specific actions which men and women tend to prefer. Males tend to prefer putting their arm around their spouse while women prefer to link arms/hands[ix].

For younger or un-married males, physical touch and PDA were seen as a courting behavior whereas for women in secure relationships it’s more about feeling connected to the person you’ve already “successfully courted”. So there are differences in meaning. Men may get married and PDA drops off because they are no longer mentally in that courting stage.

I hate to put it this bluntly because I don’t want to say anything to promote the objectification of women or treat them as property, but a young man may reach for his girlfriend’s hand in public to make a statement that this one is taken. Once she is wearing his wedding band, he may subconsciously shift away. Well, what about continuing that same PDA just for the joy of touching? For the guys reading this, women clearly enjoy it when you’re willing to show your affection in public, so why not make a real effort to step up your PDA? Regardless, be aware of differences in gender.

Perceived Marginalization. If you feel that people would disapprove of your relationship for any reason you are less likely to engage in PDA[x]. This was found to be a particular issue for interracial couples[xi] and same sex couples[xii] and extends to any couple who perceive themselves as marginalized or think that others would disapprove of their relationship.

Even if you think your church doesn’t approve (maybe you’ve remarried after divorce) or somehow your family doesn’t approve of your marriage, this is going to impact your PDA. And that’s a shame, because you’re letting worries about other people’s reaction limit your use of a behavior that’s really good for your marriage.

Parental Effects. Young women whose parents had divorced were found to be more uncomfortable viewing PDA than women whose parents were still together[xiii]. Why? Hard to say. But it does suggest that your attitudes towards PDA are informed by what you saw when you were being raised. If your saw your parents engaging in PDA as a child, you will likely be less uncomfortable with it now.

Danger Arousal. This one is interesting. Did you know that sexual arousal and physiological arousal in response to danger are sometimes hard to differentiate? So sexual activity in public may seem more sexually arousing because of the increased “danger” it presents. “If you look at our two core instincts—survival and reproduction—then you can split arousal into two categories: danger arousal, which is a call to arms or to action, and sexual arousal, which is a call to reproduce. They’re two sides of the same coin, but the brain doesn’t always know the difference and can easily confuse the two.[xiv]

Meaning that you may put the two together and the risk and enjoyment of PDA combine, making things hotter. This may lead to extreme PDA or sexual behavior in public. Arousing but probably something you want to watch out for.

What’s the Right Amount of PDA for You?

This gets interesting for a marriage therapist like myself. Because, if there is an imbalance in the desire for PDA you can get into a pursuing/distancing cycle and that can end up being harmful for the relationship. So one spouse is pursuing in order to feel connected and the other is withdrawing in order to feel comfortable, but this leads to concern about rejection which leads to an intensified pursuit and a stronger withdrawal and boom, you’ve gone from a little bit of fun chasing to a negative cycle[xv].

In this kind of negative cycle, you’re now pursuing your own needs at the expense of your spouse rather than offering safety and connection and acceptance. It’s no longer for the benefit of the relationship: it’s really only your own benefit that you’re securing.

At the end of the day this comes back to having a conversation. The conversation needs to acknowledge the unacknowledged:

  1. “Rules” that you have formed based on your own expectations
  2. Cultural values and their impact on your comfort levels around PDA
  3. Perceptions you have about how others see your PDA as a couple

Talk these things through. They matter.

But also start talking about what you like or dislike. I like it when you hold my hand in the mall. I like it when you nibble on my bottom lip, but not in public, thank you very much. Or when you’re out in public you can respond to PDA by giving non-verbal cues like “purring” or using body language that conveys relaxation or appreciation, or backing off a little if you’re uncomfortable.

So for PDA you want balance. But in all kinds of affection: public and private, you want to develop this as a skill in your marriage. More affection is better. But it may just mean more hand-holding publicly—it doesn’t mean either of you should be pushed towards more discomfort.

But privately, there really are no limits for the couple. Affection is a powerful resiliency factor for keeping you together in the face of conflict, in the midst of stressful life situations, and is good for your health. More is better.


 

References:

[ii] Kent and El-Alayli.

[iii] Andrew K. Gulledge, Michelle H. Gulledge, and Robert F. Stahmannn, ‘Romantic Physical Affection Types and Relationship Satisfaction’, The American Journal of Family Therapy, 31.4 (2003), 233–42 <https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180390201936>.

[iv] Andrew K. Gulledge and others, ‘Non-Erotic Physical Affection: It’s Good for You’, in Low-Cost Approaches to Promote Physical and Mental Health, ed. by Luciano L’Abate (New York, NY: Springer New York, 2007), pp. 371–84 <https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-36899-X_18>.

[v] Kelley J. Robinson, Lisa B. Hoplock, and Jessica J. Cameron, ‘When in Doubt, Reach Out: Touch Is a Covert but Effective Mode of Soliciting and Providing Social Support’, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6.7 (2015), 831–39 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550615584197>.

[vi] Judith A. Hall and Ellen M. Veccia, ‘More “touching” observations: New Insights on Men, Women, and Interpersonal Touch’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59.6 (1990), 1155–62 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.59.6.1155>.

[vii] Frank N. Willis and Leon F. Briggs, ‘Relationship and Touch in Public Settings’, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 16.1 (1992), 55–63 <https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00986879>.

[viii] Hall and Veccia.

[ix] Hall and Veccia.

[x] Kent and El-Alayli.

[xi] Elizabeth Vaquera and Grace Kao, ‘Private and Public Displays of Affection Among Interracial and Intra-Racial Adolescent Couples’, Social Science Quarterly, 86.2 (2005), 484–508.

[xii] Kent and El-Alayli.

[xiii] Jenna L. Scisco and others, ‘The Effect of Parental Divorce on Discomfort and Cardiac Activity in Response to Public Displays of Affection in College Females’, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 51.4 (2010), 221–37 <https://doi.org/10.1080/10502551003597881>.

[xiv] Emily Schaffer, Sarah Edelman, and Stephanie Dixon, ‘Public Displays of Affection on Miami’s Campus’, Prezi.com <https://prezi.com/i3hdjp5vnqyd/public-displays-of-affection-on-miamis-campus/> [accessed 20 April 2017].

[xv] Gulledge and others.

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