Affection Exchange Theory

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Affection Exchange Theory is based on evolutionary biology, suggesting that affectionate interaction plays a crucial role in forming and maintaining strong emotional bonds between people. According to this theory, when two individuals engage in affectionate behaviors, they not only express their love and care for each other but also reinforce their connection on a deeper level. Affectionate exchanges promote feelings of security, warmth, and comfort, creating a sense of emotional closeness and unity.

Early in relationship development, couples bathe in the hormones of connection, sharing affectionate communication. The sweet exchange of young lovers is the fodder of poems, songs, and romantic cinema. Humans are driven by biology to connect in love. Affectionate communication creates bonds of closeness through soft (and sometimes silly) exchanges. Affectionate communication is more than just words, sometimes the communication is expressed through behaviors of holding hands, kisses, and hugs. The affectionate exchanges fires up neurons, ignites flows of hormones, and drives human connection.

Key Definition:

Affection exchange theory is based in evolutionary biology, creating a framework to understand how affectionate communication functions in interpersonal relationships to contribute to the long-term viability and procreative success in humans.

History Affection Exchange Theory

Affection Exchange Theory was proposed by Kory Floyd in a series of papers on affectionate communication beginning in 1998 and culminating in the affection exchange theory formally in a three papers, with the first published in 2001, and two more in 2003. Floyd published is work while employed as an assistant professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. He is now a professor at University of Arizona where he continues to contribute valuable research and publishing in the field of human connection.

A fundamental element of Floyd’s theory is not that affection is good for relationships but that affection is a biologically driven behavior. He wrote, “humans don’t just love to be loved; we need to be loved. And, perhaps equally as important, we need to be shown that we are loved” (Floyd, 2008). We have a fundamental need to belong. Affectionate communication signals that this fundamental need is being filled.

Details of Affection Exchange Theory

Moreover, the Affection Exchange Theory posits that affectionate behaviors have a reciprocal nature. In other words, when one person initiates an act of affection, the other person is likely to respond with a similar gesture. This reciprocal exchange of affection further strengthens the emotional bond between individuals, fostering a sense of mutuality, trust, and intimacy. Consequently, affection is the engine that creates connection.

Floyd explains that “affectionate exchange theory treats affectionate communication as an adaptive behavior that contributes to human’s long-term viability and procreative success.” Affection contributes to survival by “promoting pair bonding and the increaced access to resources that pair bonds provide” (2001).

Floyd explains that affectionate exchange theory “identifies the origins of affectionate communication, accounts for variation in interpretations of affection, and predicts personal and relational benefits for those who exchange it” (Floyd, 2015).

Talk not of wasted affection; affection never was wasted.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Affectionate Communication

Affectionate communication is defined as the “behaviors through which people convey feelings of love, fondness, and appreciation” (Hesse & Floyd, 2008).

Central to the theory is the role of affectionate communication. Floyd explains that affectionate communication “contributes to physical health, mental well-being, and academic performance, and mitigates loneliness and depression.” He continues, “it is through one’s expression of affection for another that a relationship is formed or transformed” (Floyd, 2008). One study observing couples discussing emotional issues found that partners “who expressed more affectionate emotions while they were discussing something upsetting with their partner were more likely to be together five years later” (Waldinger & Schulz, 2023, Kindle location: 2,812).

Daniel Siegel Wrote that affectionate communication is in essence an integration of two minds. He explains “when we feel love for another, our whole being longs for connecting ourselves with that person in mind and in body. We show affection through touch, through the resonance of two minds, through the expression of our intention of good will, with the sharing of loving kindness. These are each reflections of enhanced integration” (Siegel, 2009, Kindle location: 3,283).

Floyd concludes, “few communicative behaviors are more consequential for the formation, maintenance, and satisfaction level of personal relationships than the exchange of affection” (Floyd, 2023).

Benefits of Affectionate Communication

Some of the benefits of affectionate communication are:

  • the establishment or maintenance of a significant relationship,
  • the reciprocation of the affectionate feelings,
  • and a host of salutary mental and physical effects (Floyd, 2008)

However, there are some risks. Expressions of affection is always subject to rejection. Children raised in toxic environments where there expressions of affection are rebuffed, rejected, or only randomly received, learn to stuff their feelings rather than risk vulnerability. Floyd explains that affectionate communication can “entail substantial risks, including misinterpretation, misattribution, and the lack of reciprocation” (Floyd, 2008).

Relationships that Benefit from Affectionate Communication

While we typically think of romantic relationships as the focus of affection, all relationships benefit. A wide range of research has found beneficial effects of affection on:

  • marriages,
  • families,
  • cohabitating relationships,
  • parent-child relationships,
  • sibling and sibling-in-law relationships,
  • caregiver relationships,
  • friendships,
  • small group relationships,
  • and even among those meeting for the first time (Floyd, et al., 2023)..

Excessive Affection and Deficits in Affection

Certainly, we understand that hurt associated with affection depravations, however, there is also some challenges and costs of excessive expressions of affection. Affection exchange theory suggests that both excessive affection and affection deprivation may lead to poorer health, compared with receiving the level of affectionate communication that one desires (Hesse, Floyd, & Mikkelson, 2023).

Unwanted affection from those we despise or just prefer emotional distance naturally provokes anxiety. However, those we love may also offer excessive affection. Sometimes we just need space. In these cases, affection, instead of inspiring closeness, crowds the mind and feels claustrophobic. Love is subject too the push-pull of abandonment and engulfment. One partner’s reaction to feelings of abandonment (expressions of affection) may lead the other partner feeling engulfed. The engulfed partner instinctively pulls back magnifying the first partner’s anxiety of impending abandonment.

Couples must seek balance to fulfill each others needs. However, this can’t be accomplished perfectly. We must learn our partner’s natural inclinations and sometimes regulate and soothe our needs, respecting a partner’s individual comfort level with expressions of affection. More affection is not always the answer.

Affectionate Communication and Alexithymia

One interesting study found that affection may mediate the effects of alexithymia disorder. People who have alexithymia can’t put words to their feelings and thoughts. Susan David PhD., a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, explains “people with this condition are also more likely to report physical symptoms like headaches and backaches. It’s as if their feelings are being expressed physically rather than verbally” (David, 2016).

One study found that “affectionate communication mediates the relationships between alexithymia and the various indices of relational and mental health, including depressions, happiness, and relationship closeness” (Hesse & Floyd, 2008).

Cultural Impact on Affectionate Communication

While the theory of affection exchange suggests that the biological need for affection is universal across nationalities, and cultural barriers, it does recognize that cultures define how we express affection. It is important to note that affectionate behaviors can vary across cultures and individuals, as different societies may have unique norms and customs regarding the expression of affection.

Some cultures might prioritize physical touch, while others may emphasize verbal expressions or acts of kindness. Regardless of the specific form it takes, however, the underlying purpose of affection remains the same – to convey love, care, and support to those we hold dear. Whether it’s a simple hug, a loving compliment, or a kind gesture, the exchange of affectionate acts can foster a sense of positivity, emotional well-being, and overall relationship satisfaction.

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

Intuitively, we probably already knew that affection is healthy. Through the research connected to the affection exchange theory, we can see the science behind affection and its many benefits. So, reach out and express some affection with those close to you. Respect their boundaries but also be willing to accept a little vulnerability. Remember, small acts of love and kindness can go a long way in nurturing the bonds that matter most in our lives.

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David, Susan (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. ‎Avery; First Edition.

-Floyd, Kory (2001). Human Affection Exchange: I. Reproductive Probability as a Predictor of Men’s Affection with Their Sons. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 10(1), 39-50. DOI: 10.3149/jms.1001.39

-Floyd, K. (2015). Affection Exchange Theory. In The International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication (eds C.R. Berger, M.E. Roloff, S.R. Wilson, J.P. Dillard, J. Caughlin and D. Solomon). DOI: 10.1002/9781118540190.wbeic115

-Floyd, Kory (2008). Communicating Affection: Interpersonal Behavior and Social Context (Advances in Personal Relationships) . Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

-Floyd, K., Debrot, A., Horan, S., Hesse, C., & Woo, N. (2023). Affectionate communication, health, and relationships. Personal Relationships, 30(1), 44-75. DOI: 10.1111/pere.12444

Hesse, C., & Floyd, K. (2008). Affectionate experience mediates the effects of alexithymia on mental health and interpersonal relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25(5), 793-810. DOI: 10.1177/0265407508096696

Hesse, Colin, Floyd, Kory, & Mikkelson, Alan C. (2023). Affection deprivation is more aversive than excessive affection: A test of affection exchange theory. Personal Relationships, 30(1), 296-313. DOI: 10.1111/pere.12458

-Siegel, Daniel J. (2009). Emotion as Integration A Possible Answer to the Question, What Is Emotion?. In The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice. Editors Daniel J. Siegel, Marion Solomon, and Diana Fosha. ‎W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition.

-Waldinger, Robert J.; Schulz, Marc (2023). The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. Simon & Schuster.

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