How to Show Affection in a Relationship

BIPOC couple showing affection with their foreheads touching

Delmaine Donson / Getty Images

That feeling of liking and caring, called affection, is important in romantic and familial relationships.

People demonstrate their affection in various ways. While some people have a difficult time showing affection, it’s an important skill to develop so that you can show your loved ones that you care for them.

This article defines affection, explains why it's important in relationships, what affectionate behavior looks like, and how showing affection can mitigate relationship conflict. This article also covers potential negative aspects of affection and how affection relates to the five love languages.

What Is Affection?


Affection is the fondness you have for another. The term describes a tender attachment between people.

It’s a bond that is especially important for babies and their caregivers. It begins when we are young and desire close proximity to our parents. Attachment theory focuses on the deep bond that begins with our first caregivers and enables us to have healthy relationships with others throughout our lives.

Why Affection Is Important?

Although some people are introverts or prefer a less social lifestyle, human beings don’t do well in isolation, so meaningful connections are invaluable. These connections can be built with friends, family members, or a romantic partner(s).

You can demonstrate and affirm your love for others by showing affection.

What Does Affectionate Behavior Look Like?

While affection can lead to intimate sex, it is often a non-sexual gesture. When you want to express your feeling of closeness to someone, you can communicate affection through a range of behaviors. You might playfully pinch your nephew’s cheek, for example.

Signs of affection can vary by culture. For example, in France, friends greet each other by kissing both cheeks. Two American friends might find it more comfortable to high-five one another or hug.

Affection is also shown through communication. For instance, you just call someone to say you’re thinking of them.

Examples of Affectionate Behavior

Other ways to demonstrate affection include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Hugging
  • Kissing
  • Cuddling
  • Holding hands
  • Patting someone’s back
  • Wrapping your arm around another’s shoulder or waist
  • Sending cards and gifts
  • Reassuring someone when they are down
  • Discussing the positives in the relationship
  • Offering to be there if someone is depressed
  • Cracking a joke if you and a loved one are in a disagreement

Affection Can Mitigate Conflict

Affection can be a positive force even when you disagree with somebody you’re deeply connected to. It can also be a healthy tool to reduce the negative byproducts of conflict, like anxiety and stress.

Most of all, affection reminds your loved one of your sincerity and your deep connection.

A recent study explored how loved teens felt by their parents on a daily basis. Results showed no matter the closeness of the parent and child or the conflict at hand, the more the parents showed affection on that day, the more teens reported feeling loved. Before, during, or after the conflict, teens need warmth from their parents.

Another research study looked at adult couples and their cortisol levels during a conflict. Scientists videotaped their positive behaviors (including humor and affection) and negative behaviors (including frustration, scorn, and defensiveness) during the conflicted interactions.

Those who experienced more positive behaviors during the disagreements showed a healthier pattern in cortisol. Among the positive behaviors, affection was the most influential of all the positive behaviors on cortisol variations.

What If Your Loved One Isn’t Affectionate?

Some people aren’t raised to show their feelings due to cultural or social reasons. Others are just not comfortable expressing themselves in that way. For them it’s could be a sign of weakness or fear of revealing too much.

For example, there's still so much pressure on men to be macho and not show feelings. This is often called toxic masculinity. This pressure to be strong at all times does much more than good for them and their loved ones.

You don’t have to offer big gestures or go overboard with showing affection in public. But, showing that you care in small ways, even non-physical ways, can help your relationship thrive.

If there is someone in your life that you're not receiving enough affection from, it's a good idea to bring up your needs and explain why affection is important to you. Then, ask them if they would be able to show more affection.

If they are uncomfortable with affection and are having trouble showing you affection, then it might be time to enlist the help of a relationship counselor.

How Self-Esteem Impacts Affection

Having high self-esteem means we value ourselves. If you have a healthy amount of self-esteem, you're likely able to cope better than others with life’s setbacks. You may also have increased prosocial behavior and feel that you're worthy of giving and receiving love.

Therefore, those who are more confident in opening themselves to their partners and have healthy self-esteem are more likely to express elements of affection.

A recent study set out to determine whether the opposite was true: did those who were more vulnerable and had low self-esteem express less affection with their partners in romantic relationships? Results confirmed that they did.

Those with lower self-esteem expressed less affection and they also “experienced less positive emotional, cognitive, and physiological reactions when doing so. People with low self-esteem also underestimated the benefits of affection and acting affectionately boosts relationship satisfaction.

Having high self-esteem means you're likely to give affection and feel worthy of receiving affection. If your overall sense of self-worth is positive and you feel deserving of good things, it’s easier to accept a big hug or a compliment.

Can Too Much Affection Be a Red Flag?

Affection can be given for the wrong reasons. Someone might be overly touchy-feely because they want sexual intercourse. Or someone might misuse affection because they’re manipulating you, i.e. pretending their intentions are forever, when they’re only focused on one night.

The supreme kind of manipulation is when someone showers you with excessive affection, gifts, and attention, all of which can be signs of the more dangerous act of love bombing.

Affection and the Five Love Langauges

How do you know what kind of affection is most meaningful to your loved one? If you're feeling unsure, you can look into the five love languages for insight.

The Five Love Languages describe five ways in which people express and receive love. The idea is that we enjoy all these languages, but a person usually speaks, or appreciates, one or two of these languages more than the other.

The love languages are:

  1. Words of Affirmation
  2. Quality Time
  3. Physical Touch
  4. Acts of Service
  5. Receiving Gifts

Once you learn your special one’s love language, you can show your affection in meaningful ways. You might realize that kissing them (physical touch) means more to them than saying they're a great person (words of affirmation). Maybe spending the afternoon with a loved one riding bikes (quality time) means more to them than an expensive birthday present (receiving gifts).

A Word From Verywell

Overall, showing and receiving affection is an important aspect of any healthy relationship. So, if you're unsure of how to go about expressing it, try some of the tips covered in this article with your loved ones. Or ask them how they like to receive affection. Having these conversations might be awkward but they'll only build deeper and longer-lasting connections with the special people in your life. If too much affection or a lack thereof is negatively affecting your relationships, speak to a relationship counselor as they can help you find ways to effectively communicate your needs with others.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Coffey JK, Xia M, Fosco GM. When do adolescents feel loved? A daily within-person study of parent-adolescent relationsEmotion. 2022;22(5):861-873. doi:10.1037/emo0000767

  3. Bierstetel SJ, Slatcher RB. Couples' behavior during conflict in the lab and diurnal cortisol patterns in daily lifePsychoneuroendocrinology. 2020;115:104633. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2020.104633

  4. Luerssen A, Jhita GJ, Ayduk O. Putting Yourself on the Line: Self-Esteem and Expressing Affection in Romantic RelationshipsPers Soc Psychol Bull. 2017;43(7):940-956. doi:10.1177/0146167217702374

By Barbara Field
Barbara is a writer and speaker who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.