Communication Currents

Affectionate Communication is Good For You

December 1, 2008
Interpersonal Communication

If you're like most people, you'd probably say that hearing the words “I love you” from your spouse or significant other makes you feel good. Perhaps you can even describe the sensations of warmth, comfort, and protection you experience when you receive such expressions. Although most of us would be content simply to enjoy the positive feelings romantic affection brings us, researchers at Arizona State University have been working to identify what happens in the body to bring them about. In other words, why does affectionate communication feel good?

One possible answer is that receiving expressions of affection lowers those hormones in our bodies that are elevated during times of stress. Thus, affectionate communication may feel good because it causes us to be less stressed out. To examine this possibility, Kory Floyd and Sarah Riforgiate recruited 20 married couples to report on their levels of affectionate communication with each other. Spouses indicated how often they expressed three different types of affection to each other: verbal statements (such as saying “I love you” or “I care about you”); direct nonverbal gestures (such as kissing, hand-holding, or hugging); and social support behaviors (such as listening to each other or helping each other with problems).

During the study, one spouse in each couple also collected multiple saliva samples over the course of a normal workday. Participants deposited their spit into pre-tagged plastic vials, which they then shipped via overnight delivery to a laboratory. The researchers analyzed the saliva for levels of two important stress hormones, cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEA-S), both of which are produced by the body's adrenal gland.

After comparing the participants' hormone levels to the reports of affectionate communication, the researchers found that the more often people received expressions of affection from their spouses, the healthier their stress hormone levels were. This finding supports what several other studies have found in recent years: Giving and receiving affectionate communication is good for you physically. The study was based on Floyd's affection exchange theory, which speculates that affectionate communication evolved among humans because it contributes to physical safety and well-being.

If affectionate communication is related to lower stress hormones, as this study indicates, then increasing affectionate behavior in close relationships may be able to improve health conditions that are exacerbated by stress, such as hypertension, elevated blood sugar, and high cholesterol. In a series of randomized, controlled trials, Floyd and his colleagues have demonstrated just such an effect. They speculate, in fact, that encouragement to increase affectionate communication in families and romantic relationships may someday be a common component of relational therapy.

Interestingly, the health benefits of affectionate communication are largely confined to emotionally close relationships, such as marriages, family relationships, and friendships. In fact, when people behave affectionately toward others inappropriately, the expressions of affection usually elevate stress, rather than reduce it. In close relationships, however, sharing feelings of love and affection is, for many people, what makes those relationships so special.