There are many theories on why people have trouble showing affection, and also cultural studies on how different groups show affection. Medical researchers can focus on specific groups that have an extraordinarily difficult time with any displays of affection, such as autistic children, or children and adults with varied degrees of autism based disorders. A significant problem with most of these studies and theories is that affection itself is a tricky thing to define.
Is affection latching on to a husband or wife with a big sloppy kiss, hugging your children or telling your parents you love them? Is affection remembering anniversaries, picking out thoughtful gifts, really listening to another person, or patting your dog on the head? Our different definitions of what constitutes affectionate behavior may make it very challenging to explain why some people have trouble showing affection; what appears to be trouble to one person may seem like a reasonable level of affection to another person. For the purposes of this article, let’s consider affection as small or large physical gestures that convey emotion, a hug, caress, kiss, a pat on the shoulder, et cetera.
Some theories suggest that such gestures of affection are often determined by our degree of nurturance as children. In families or cultures where affection is common, people will more commonly show affection. Others also suggest a gender difference, especially in many Western cultures, between showing affection to boys and girls. Girls may receive more affection than boys, especially when they are emotionally distressed. Boys, alternately, may be told when they seek affection, such as when they are injured, to toughen up. Even though we think we’ve shed these gender differences, evidence to the contrary is available in a variety of studies; we are still harder on boys.
This can matter a lot when boys and girls grow up, because girls will expect a higher degree of affection than boys, who have been nurtured to give less. Women will claim their husbands have trouble showing affection, and men may actually complain that their wives show too much. Studies on lesbian and gay couples include some interesting reveals on affectionate behaviors on same sex couples. By in large, lesbian couples tend to give and show more affection than do gay male couples, which can argue the case that men have been taught to be less affectionate. There are certainly exceptions and numerous wonderfully affectionate males, and less affectionate females.
There are other reasons why people may have difficulty showing affection. People who have experienced sexual or physical abuse may find it very difficult to receive or give affection, even very simple things like a caress or hug. For these folks, touching itself has become a violation of self, and they don’t want to receive touching, or give it and possibly be considered as abusers too.
More simply, some children are just less acclimatized to affection than others. Parents can love their children but have trouble showing affection to each other or to children. This doesn’t mean that these parents love their children less; it simply means that physical affection is expressed less frequently in a home. Generally what you’re shown as a kid tends to have an influence on adult behavior; the old nurture argument, and certainly the difference in cultural views of affection come into play.
With so much today being shown to have a genetic basis, many people question whether trouble showing affection may be in the genes. Research on autism, though genetic basis for this condition has not been clearly established, clearly shows that many of these children are completely cut off in their ability to show affection. Some make the leap and say some people may simply be “wired” to be less affectionate than others. Strong cultural precepts on displays of affection, and nurturing may tend to bring out what is already genetically predetermined. Even the most affectionate parents, may not produce the most affectionate children if there is a genetic factor determining a lesser degree of affection.
Can you fix such a problem? There are certainly many mental health professionals and marriage and family counselors that believe you can, when the condition is not medical. People may be able to learn to show affection, though at first it may seem unnatural or forced. For those with trouble showing affection, especially when this becomes a problem in couple relationships or in parenting, it may be worthwhile to get through this awkward phase to improve relationships. This may be very true when other parties in relationships are unhappy with the level of affection they receive.