The public display of affection is a topic that often sparks debate. Some argue that it is a natural expression of love while others believe it is inappropriate or uncomfortable for both those involved and those who witness it.
Why do dramatic expressions of love and sexual attraction, like those of Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly, attract bad press and why do Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s apparent lack of chemistry attract ridicule?
We are quick to make inferences about the status and dynamics of a relationship based on a couple’s tendency to engage in public displays of affection. But do these inferences hold water?
Here, I’ll explore three common inferences people make about PDAs, and if there’s any truth to them.
Inference #1: The more PDAs, the happier the couple.
The belief that excessive public displays of affection are a direct reflection of a couple’s happiness may not be entirely accurate. Although physical touch is a direct expression of love and comfort in a relationship, it is not the only determining factor, and there may be underlying motives behind excessive public displays of affection, such as particular among young people.
Research published in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that young people often engage in “performative” affection for reasons beyond a genuine emotional connection.
Additionally, constant physical contact serves two purposes for many couples:
- This sends 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 meaning of the wedding ring takes over, leading to a decrease in the affection received by some women. In other words, males may no longer feel the need for excessive PDA because courtship has already proven itself.
- Excessive public displays of affection can be a sign of attachment insecurity and can serve as overcompensation for underlying fears within the relationship.
Thus, couples who seem very happy thanks to their PDA are not necessarily as happy as they seem. A couple’s true state of happiness is influenced by factors beyond mere physical contact.
Inference #2: No PDA means there is no love in the relationship.
Many people also believe that no public display of affection in a relationship is cause for concern. But the discomfort around publicly professing love may be due to reasons other than a lack of love, and may have more to do with the individual. Two reasons can prevent someone from being physically affectionate in public:
- Education and parental influence. Childhood experiences play an important role in shaping our values and relationship preferences. If individuals grew up in families where public touch or affection was not emphasized or even discouraged, they may feel less inclined to engage in PDA. Research published in the Divorce and Remarriage Diary suggests that children from broken families with high levels of conflict tend to experience more discomfort with PDAs.
- Personal choice. The decision whether or not to engage in PDA may simply be a matter of personal choice. Some couples may prefer to express their love in private rather than in public. Each person has their own 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’s important, but it’s not the only determinant of relationship satisfaction. One can be more proficient with words, giving gifts, doing favors, or spending quality time with one’s partner.
However, if you find yourself and your partner on different pages regarding the importance of touch in your relationship, open communication becomes crucial. Finding common ground where both partners feel comfortable and valued is key to maintaining a satisfying relationship.
Love can express itself in many different ways, and the absence of PDA does not necessarily reflect a lack of love or connection between partners.
Inference #3: Avoid the PDA to avoid public scrutiny.
Research shows that couples often refrain from showing their physical affection in public for fear of being judged. Minority groups such as interracial or same-sex partners may not feel entirely comfortable with open disclosure of their relationships and prefer to be more vigilant due to 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 heterosexual relationships.
A natural human tendency might be at play in such cases: in order to protect ourselves from social stigma, we tend to internalize it. We hold ourselves back from engaging in behaviors that could ultimately bring us happiness, and we censor ourselves before anyone has a chance to raise questions.
Private and public displays of affection share strong links with relationship satisfaction. While everyone has the choice to openly profess their love or keep it a secret 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 with the same damaging gaze as society, are we really protecting ourselves from the judgment we so fear?
If you’re trying to twist your relationship beyond recognition to fit societal norms, it may help to talk about it with your partner or a mental health professional. In the end, what really matters is your happiness and that of your partner.