Public display of affection is a topic that often ignites debate. Some argue that it is a natural expression of love while others believe it to be inappropriate or uncomfortable for both the individuals involved and those witnessing it.
Why do dramatic expressions of love and sexual attraction, like Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly’s, draw bad press and why does Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s apparent lack of chemistry attract ridicule?
We’re quick to make inferences about the status and dynamics of a relationship based on a couple’s tendency to indulge in public displays of affection. But do these inferences hold any water?
Here, I’ll explore three common inferences people make about PDAs, and whether there is any truth to them.
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Inference #1: The more the PDA, the happier the couple.
The belief that excessive public displays of affection are a direct reflection of how happy a couple is might not be entirely accurate. While physical touch is a direct expression of love and comfort in a relationship, it is not the sole determining factor, and there can be underlying motives behind excessive public displays of affection, particularly among young individuals.
Research published in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that young people often engage in ‘performative’ affection for reasons beyond genuine emotional connection.
Additionally, constant physical touch serves two purposes for many couples:
It conveys the message that they are in a committed relationship, especially in the early stages. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that, after marriage, however, the significance of the wedding band takes over, leading to a reduction in the affection received by some women. In other words, men may no longer feel the need for excessive PDA because the courtship has already proven successful.
Excessive public displays of affection can be a sign of attachment insecurity and may serve as overcompensation for underlying fears within the relationship.
Thus, couples who appear very happy due to their PDA may not necessarily be as happy as they seem. The true state of a couple’s happiness is influenced by factors beyond physical touch alone.
Inference #2: No PDA means there’s no love in the relationship.
Many people also believe that no public display of affection in a relationship is a cause for concern. But the discomfort around publicly professing one’s love can be due to reasons other than a lack of love, and may have to do more with the individual. Two reasons that may hold someone back from being physically affectionate in public are:
Upbringing and parental influence. Childhood experiences play a significant role in shaping our values and relationship preferences. If individuals grew up in families where touch or public affection was not emphasized or even discouraged, they may feel less inclined to engage in PDA. Research published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage suggests that children from broken families with high levels of conflict tend to experience more discomfort with PDAs.
Personal choice. The decision to engage in PDA or not can simply be a matter of personal choice. Some couples may prefer to express their love in private settings rather than in public. Each person has their own unique way of expressing and receiving love.
Physical touch is just one of the ‘languages of love,’ identified by counselor and relationship expert, Gary Chapman. It is important, but not the only determinant of relationship satisfaction. One may be more proficient with words, giving gifts, acts of service, or spending quality time with their partner.
However, if you find you and your partner on different pages regarding the importance of touch in your relationship, open communication becomes crucial. Finding a middle ground where both partners feel comfortable and valued is essential for maintaining a satisfying relationship.
Love can be expressed in various ways, and the absence of PDA does not necessarily reflect a lack of love or connection between partners.
Inference #3: Avoid PDA to avoid public scrutiny.
Research shows that many times couples hold back from showing physical affection in public due to a fear of being judged. Minority groups such as interracial or same-sex partners may not feel entirely comfortable with an open declaration of their relationships and prefer to be more vigilant because of the dangers of social stigma.
Another study found that women in same-sex relationships felt more uncomfortable with public displays of affection than women in different-sex relationships.
A natural human tendency might be at play in such cases: in order to protect oneself from social stigma, we tend to internalize it. We hold ourselves back from indulging in behaviors that might ultimately bring us happiness and censor ourselves before anyone has the chance to raise questions.
Private as well as public displays of affection share strong connections with relationship satisfaction. While everyone has the choice to either profess their love openly or keep it under wraps in public, doing it against your will to avoid scrutiny can be exhausting and unsatisfying.
As such, a situation like this begs the question, if we view ourselves from the same prejudiced gaze as society does, are we really protecting ourselves from the judgment we are so afraid of?
If you find yourself trying to twist your relationship beyond recognition to meet society’s standards, it may be worth having a conversation with your partner or a mental health professional about it. At the end of the day, what really matters is your and your partner’s happiness.