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Public and Private Physical Affection Differences between Same-Sex and Different-Sex Couples: The Role of Perceived Marginalization

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Abstract

Despite its connection with relationship satisfaction, research on physical affection is scarce and fails to disentangle private and public displays of affection. It is important to examine both types if marginalized couples are less comfortable displaying affection publicly. The present study examined whether same-sex couples display less public (but not private) physical affection than different-sex couples due to stronger feelings of relationship marginalization. It also examined how public/private affection and marginalization relate to relationship satisfaction. Women in committed same-sex and different-sex relationships completed surveys of public affection, private affection, marginalization, and relationship satisfaction online. As predicted, women in same-sex relationships displayed less public affection than those in different-sex relationships, an effect mediated by general societal marginalization. Both private and public affection predicted higher relationship satisfaction, whereas feelings of marginalization by friends/family predicted lower relationship satisfaction. We discuss implications for relationship counseling and propose new ways of looking at marginalization.
149
Public and Private Physical Affection Differences between
Same-Sex and Different-Sex Couples:
The Role of Perceived Marginalization
Erin Kent
Amani El-Alayli
1
Psychology Department, Eastern Washington University
Abstract
Despite its connection with relationship satisfaction, research on physical affection is scarce and fails to
disentangle private and public displays of affection. It is important to examine both types if marginalized
couples are less comfortable displaying affection publicly. The present study examined whether same-sex
couples display less public (but not private) physical affection than different-sex couples due to stronger
feelings of relationship marginalization. It also examined how public/private affection and
marginalization relate to relationship satisfaction. Women in committed same-sex and different-sex
relationships completed surveys of public affection, private affection, marginalization, and relationship
satisfaction online. As predicted, women in same-sex relationships displayed less public affection than
those in different-sex relationships, an effect mediated by general societal marginalization. Both private
and public affection predicted higher relationship satisfaction, whereas feelings of marginalization by
friends/family predicted lower relationship satisfaction. We discuss implications for relationship
counseling and propose new ways of looking at marginalization.
Keywords: physical affection; public affection; marginalization; relationships; homosexual relationships
Imagine wanting to comfort your partner physically or hold your partner’s hand,
but feeling reluctant to do so for fear of social disapproval. Many couples use physical
affection to comfort their partner and show their love. However, same-sex couples may
limit their public displays of affection if they feel a looming sense of social disapproval
of their relationship. As a result, they may not reap as many of the relationship-
enhancing benefits stemming from physical affection. The purpose of the present study
was to examine whether same-sex couples display less public affection than different-
sex couples due to stronger feelings of social disapproval of their relationship. It also
examines how physical affection and perceptions of social disapproval
(marginalization) may be associated with relationship satisfaction.
The present study specifically examined women in same-sex relationships, a
group that is vastly understudied. Over the last 50 years, psychology has focused more
and more attention on personal relationships, though with a primary focus on
heterosexual pairings. When research entered the 1970s, psychology research began to
include homosexuals, but with a primary focus on gay males and their sexual lives
1
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Amani El-Alayli, Psychology
Department, Eastern Washington University, 151 Martin Hall, Cheney, WA 99004. E-mail:
aelalayli@ewu.edu
Kent & El-Alayli
(Christopher & Sprecher, 2000). It was not until the 1980s that psychology began to see
some research emphasis on relationships among lesbian couples. Thus, more and more
research on same-sex couples, particularly female couples, is needed, if we are to fully
understand same-sex relationships.
The research on physical affection itself is even scarcer, with only a handful
studies placing a central focus on non-sexual physical affection among couples (Bell,
Daly, & Gonzales, 1987; Burleson, Trevathan, & Todd, 2007; Gulledge, Gulledge, &
Stahmann, 2003; Gulledge, Stahmann, & Wilson, 2004; Haas & Stafford, 1998;
Mackey, Diemer, & O’Brien, 2000; see also Hall & Veccia, 1990, and Regan, Jerry,
Narvaez, & Johnson, 1999, for studies examining dyads appearing in public, who may
or may not be couples). Among these studies, only a few specifically investigated
same-sex relationships (Burleson et al., 2007; Haas & Stafford, 1998; Mackey et al.,
2000). Thus, research has only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding
the physical affection component of both different-sex and same-sex relationships. The
present study was aimed at increasing our knowledge of physical affection behaviors
among same-sex female couples, as well as our understanding of the connection
between physical affection to relationship satisfaction.
Physical Affection and Relationship Satisfaction
Gulledge et al. (2003) defined physical affection as “any touch intended to
arouse feelings of love in the giver and/or the recipient,” and identified seven main
types of physical affection: backrubs/massages, caressing/stroking, cuddling/holding,
holding hands, hugging, kissing on the lips, and kissing on the face (not lips). They
noted that the affection need not be intended as an immediate precursor to sexual
intercourse. We have adopted the same definition of physical affection in the present
study.
Much of the research exploring physical affection has examined its importance
to relationship maintenance and satisfaction. For example, Gulledge et al. (2003) found
that five physical affection behaviors (backrubs/massages, cuddling/holding, hugging,
kissing on the lips, and kissing on the face) were positively correlated with relationship
and partner satisfaction in a college sample (of unknown sexual orientation). In
addition, Bell et al. (1987) found that women’s estimates of their own and their
husband’s frequency of physical affection were each positively correlated with the
Public and Private Affection
151
women’s reports of their marital quality. Moreover, in a sample of long-term same-sex
and different-sex relationships, Mackey et al. (2000) found a connection between
physical affection, such as hugging and touching, and feeling psychologically intimate
with one’s partner. These studies have led researchers to conclude that physical
affection may be an important contributor to relationships.
Although causation cannot be established in the studies discussed above,
research has shown that individuals believe physical affection to serve a causal role in
enhancing their romantic relationships. For example, people report using physical
affection as a maintenance behavior for their relationships (Bell et al., 1987; Dainton &
Stafford, 1993; Gulledge et al., 2003; Haas & Stafford, 1998). Dainton and Stafford
identified affection as one of six day-to-day relationship maintenance behaviors among
heterosexual couples. In a follow-up study, Haas and Stafford asked members of same-
sex couples to indicate the routine things they do to maintain their relationships, and
40% mentioned shows of affection, such as “kissing goodbye in the morning.” Using a
sample of teachers (assumed to be heterosexual), Bell et al. found that wives rated the
use of physical affection as quite important in maintaining liking and solidarity within
their marriage. Moreover, the more they viewed the strategy as important to either
themselves or their husbands, the higher their perceived marital quality.
Not only do couples believe that physical affection increases the quality of a
relationship, but researchers have also explicitly supported this perspective, providing
various reasons for suspecting a causal relationship (see Gulledge, Hill, Lister, &
Sallion, 2007). For example, physical touch can cause the release of the hormone,
oxytocin, which appears to promote lasting relationship bonds (see Gulledge et al.,
2007, for a review). Given the potential contributions of physical affection to a
relationship, one goal of the present study was to extend past work by examining
whether same-sex couples show the same level of affection as different-sex couples, and
to examine possible underlying reasons for any differences that might emerge. We also
add to the literature base by investigating the connection between private and public
affection, separately. This would be an especially important distinction if same-sex
couples show less affection in public settings only, which is the pattern we expect.
Kent & El-Alayli
Public and Private Affection among Same-Sex and Different-Sex Couples
We have begun to see an increase in the U.S. media of images of happy and
healthy, gay and lesbian couples showing physical affection in both public and private
settings. But are these images reflective of the actual behaviors of individuals in same-
sex relationships? Although the literature, scant as it is, has investigated the physical
affection of both different-sex and same-sex couples, it has not compared them on
physical affection. This is important because social disapproval of same-sex
relationships may keep same-sex couples from displaying physical affection towards
one another in public, which they may not necessarily make up for in private. We
propose that same-sex couples refrain from displaying much public affection due to
feelings of societal marginalization.
Lehmiller and Agnew (2006) define marginalized relationships as
“nontraditional, romantic involvements in which couple members experience social
disapproval as a result of their union.” Using a marginalization questionnaire assessing
acceptance of their relationship by society in general and by friends and family,
Lehmiller and Agnew found that individuals in same-sex relationships perceived higher
marginalization of their romantic relationships than those in different-sex pairings.
Research has not yet examined whether these feelings of marginalization may
result in fewer public displays of affection among same-sex couples. However,
Vaquera and Kao (2005) found that individuals in different-race relationships, one type
of marginalized relationship, were less likely to hold hands in public than those in same-
race relationships, but equally likely to exhibit private displays of affection, such as
kissing and sexual touching. Vaquera and Kao attributed the difference to feelings of
marginalization decreasing public affection, though their work was limited in examining
only hand-holding, using only adolescents and heterosexual couples in their sample, and
not specifically measuring feelings of marginalization.
Nevertheless, these findings suggest that although marginalized couples may
show fewer public displays of physical affection, their intimate displays of affection
may be no different from those in non-marginalized relationships. Similarly, we
predicted that being involved in a same-sex relationship would be associated with less
public (but not less private) physical affection. We also speculated that feelings of
marginalization would predict less frequent displays of public affection.
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153
Social Disapproval and Relationship Quality
Not only may feelings of marginalization minimize public displays of affection,
but they may also impact relationship satisfaction. Over the last 35 years, mixed
findings have emerged regarding the issue. Initially, research suggested that a lack of
social support could be beneficial to relationships. In 1972, evidence for a “Romeo and
Juliet effect” emerged (Driscoll, Davis & Lipitz, 1972). Specifically, Driscoll et al.
found that parental disapproval of romantic relationships predicted increased
commitment between romantic partners. Some years later, Parks, Stan, and Eggert
(1983) gathered data that partially supported Driscoll et al.’s findings. In their sample
of heterosexual dating couples, Parks et al. found that although minimal disapproval
was associated with stronger relationship commitment, stronger disapproval was
associated with lower commitment. Furthermore, minimal disapproval only predicted
an increase in how long the individuals thought the relationship would last, and not in
how “in love” they felt. In fact, the majority of Parks et al.’s research contradicted “the
Romeo and Juliet effect,” showing that support from a couple’s social network of family
and friends was generally positively correlated with romantic involvement.
Social disapproval has also predicted poorer relationship quality among same-
sex and other marginalized couples. Lehmiller and Agnew (2006; 2007) investigated
feelings of marginalization among nonmarginalized couples and marginalized couples
(same-sex couples, different-race couples, and couples with a 10 or more year age gap).
They found that the more individuals perceived their relationship as marginalized by
others, the less committed they were to their relationship and the less personally
invested they were in it (Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006). Moreover, perceived
marginalization from friends and family predicted lower relationship satisfaction, a
decline in commitment over time, and a greater likelihood of a break-up seven months
later (Lehmiller & Agnew, 2007). Perceived marginalization by the larger society had
less consistent results, and was thus interpreted as having less of a detrimental effect on
relationships, though it still predicted lower relationship satisfaction (Lehmiller &
Agnew, 2007).
A study using different measures of marginalization and relationship quality
yielded similar results in a sample of 124 lesbians (Caron & Ulin, 1997). The authors
found that the women’s relationship quality was positively correlated with a number of
social support indices, such as their family knowing and approving of the women’s
Kent & El-Alayli
sexual orientation, the women’s level of comfort in expressing partner affection in front
of their family, and their family inviting the couple to social gatherings. Openness
about one’s sexual orientation to one’s family, extended family, and friends was also
positively correlated with relationship quality, though openness with coworkers was not.
It is likely that individuals have less need for support from coworkers and other less
significant societal members in comparison to close others, a notion consistent with
Lehmiller and Agnew’s (2007) conclusions about societal versus friend/family
marginalization. Thus, although same-sex couples are likely to experience greater
marginalization from both the larger society and from close others, it is possible that the
latter may be more involved in lowering relationship satisfaction.
The Current Study
The current study gathered data via an internet survey completed by women in
different-sex and same-sex committed relationships. We targeted female participants
because women in same-sex relationships are so vastly understudied. Participants who
chose to participate in the present study completed measures assessing the amount of
physical affection they showed towards their partner in public (settings open to the
general community, but in absence of family/friends) and private settings (where
nobody but one’s partner is present). They also completed measures of relationship
quality (satisfaction and commitment) and perceived relationship marginalization by
both society and friends/family. It was hypothesized that (1) women in same-sex
relationships would report less public, but not private, physical affection than women in
different-sex relationships, (2) women in same-sex relationships would report greater
relationship marginalization, (3) stronger societal marginalization would predict less
public affection and would mediate the effect of relationship type on public affection,
(4) higher perceptions of marginalization, at least by close others, would predict lower
relationship quality in the overall sample. With regard to the third hypothesis, we did
not predict friend/family marginalization to be related to physical affection because we
did not measure physical displays of affection in front of friends/family. Note that we
did not expect participants in same-sex relationships to differ in relationship quality
(i.e., satisfaction or commitment) from those in different sex-relationships, given that
past work has not uncovered such a difference (e.g., Kurdek, 1998; Kurdek & Schmitt,
1986). Instead, we believe marginalization to be a more important predictor of
Public and Private Affection
155
relationship quality. We also predicted that (5) physical affection would predict higher
relationship satisfaction. Past work linking physical affection and relationship
satisfaction has not measured private and public displays separately, so we did not have
specific predictions regarding private versus public affection, but examined both on an
exploratory basis.
Method
Participants
To acquire participants, links to a “relationships survey were provided on
internet discussion boards associated with multiple websites, such as Yahoo.com and
AOL.com. We chose primarily discussion boards that would be especially pertinent to
women in same-sex relationships. When participants arrived at the website, they were
asked to read a disclosure statement and either agree or disagree to continue
participation in the study. All data were collected in accordance with APA ethical
guidelines and the relevant Institutional Review Board.
Seventy-six female participants (M
age
= 34) completed the study, 51 involved in
different-sex relationships and 25 involved in same-sex relationships. Respondents
reports of the length of their relationship averaged 6.49 years (SD = 6.75). They
expressed a high level of commitment when asked “How committed are you and your
partner to one another” on a scale from 1, Not at All, to 6, Completely (M = 5.44, SD =
0.95). Approximately 89% of the sample was Caucasian and about 93% reported
residing in the U.S.
Materials and Procedure
Participants were presented with the Assessment of Public and Private Physical
Affection (APPPA), which was designed specifically for this study. The participants
indicated the frequency with which they and their partners engaged in several types of
physical affection. Though slightly modified, the categories of affection identified by
Gulledge et al. (2003; 2004) were used to develop seven physical affection items, all of
which are presented in Appendix A. Participants responded to the items by indicating
how frequently they engage in each behavior on a 7-point scale from never (coded as 1)
to always (coded as 7). Participants were asked to respond to the statements based on
how much affection they display in public settings (M = 3.54, SD = 1.54, Cronbach’s α
Kent & El-Alayli
= .95) and then in private settings (M = 5.18, SD = 1.42, Cronbach’s α = .92). Public
was defined to the participants as any location that is open to anyone in a general
community (e.g., a shopping mall, grocery store, restaurant, etc.) and in which no other
support group members are immediately present (e.g., friends or family). Private was
defined as “any location in which no one is present, or is expected to be present, other
than oneself and one’s partner (e.g., one’s home). Refer to Table 1 for descriptive
statistics computed separately for participants in same-sex and different-sex
relationships.
Second, participants were asked to complete Hendrick’s (1988) Relationship
Assessment Scale (RAS), a measure of relationship satisfaction. This seven-item
measure asked participants to respond to questions such as “how well does your partner
meet your needs” and “how good is your relationship compared to most?” Participants
completed each item on scale from 1 (reflecting low satisfaction responses) to 5
(reflecting high satisfaction responses), and all items were averaged (M = 3.84, SD =
0.96, Cronbach’s α = .92).
Third, participants completed Lehmiller and Agnew’s (2006; 2007) measure of
marginalization, which consisted of four statements designed to measure the perceived
social disapproval of one’s relationship. Two of the items assess societal
marginalization (“My relationship has general societal acceptance” (reversed) and I
believe that most other persons (whom I do not know) would generally disapprove of
my relationship”) and two assess friend/family marginalization (“My family and friends
approve of my relationship” (reversed) and “My family and/or friends are not accepting
of this relationship”). The responses were made on a 9-point scale from 0, Not true of
my relationship at all, to 8, Very true of my relationship. The two reversed items were
rescored, such that higher scores always meant greater marginalization, and all four
were averaged (M = 3.05, SD = 1.98, Cronbach’s α = .78). Although the two
friend/family marginalization items had high internal consistency reliability = .81),
the two societal marginalization items did not (α = .64), and thus were treated separately
in the analyses when investigating specific types of marginalization. Thus, we had four
assessments of marginalization: overall marginalization, friends/family marginalization,
general societal marginalization, and marginalization by unknown others (strangers).
The important demographic items (own gender and partner gender) appeared at
the very beginning of the study because the data would be rendered useless if this
information was not obtained. However, some additional demographic items were
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157
added at the end of the study (e.g., race/ethnicity, age, relationship commitment). At
this time, participants were also asked to report how much they approved of other
people displaying public affection on a scale from 1, Not at all, to 6, Extremely. This
was assessed because general acceptance of public affection, perhaps due to one’s
cultural background (Regan et al., 1999), is likely to be a big contributor to whether
people exhibit public affection themselves. As such, accounting for its variance could
provide a clearer picture of the results at hand. Because participants’ general
acceptance was, in fact, correlated with their actual displays of public affection, r(61) =
.37, p < .01, but some participants left the acceptance item blank (along with some or all
of the other supplemental items), we performed most analyses involving public
affection both with and without controlling for general acceptance. However, aside
from one correlation going from nonsignificant to marginally significant, accounting for
approval of affection made no notable difference in the tests of the hypotheses, and so
was not discussed in the results except in that one case.
Results
Hypothesis 1: Relationship Type and Physical Affection
As predicted, participants in same-sex relationships reported significantly less
public affection than participants in different-sex relationships, t(74) = 2.16, p = .03
(Refer to Table 1 for all means and standard deviations). The frequency of private
displays of affection did not differ significantly between same-sex and different-sex
relationship participants, t(74) = -0.47, p = .64. Thus, same-sex participants have lower
levels of physical affection for one another only when they are in public settings.
Hypothesis 2: Relationship Type and Marginalization
For the second hypothesis, t-tests were performed to compare mean
marginalization scores of participants in same-sex versus different-sex relationships. As
predicted and replicating Lehmiller and Agnew (2006), participants in same-sex
romantic relationships reported higher levels of overall marginalization than did
participants in different-sex relationships, t(74) = 6.03, p < .001. As seen in table 1,
same-sex participants experienced higher marginalization of all types (ps .001). In
Kent & El-Alayli
comparing the three specific types of marginalization, women in same-sex relationships
experienced significantly more marginalization by general society than by
friends/family, t(24) = 2.31, p = .03. No other differences reached significance, nor
were there any differences among the women in different-sex relationships.
Hypothesis 3: Marginalization and Physical Affection
We predicted that stronger societal marginalization would be associated with
fewer displays of public affection. Because we made this prediction regarding the entire
sample, and there were no interactions between relationship type and marginalization on
public affection when examined in a general linear model analysis, we present the
overall results for the entire sample.
Consistent with predictions, higher societal marginalization was associated with
less public affection, r(71) = -.30, p = .01. None of the other measures of
marginalization were significantly correlated with public affection, but when partialing
out participants’ general approval of public affection, a marginally significant negative
correlation appeared between overall marginalization and public affection (see Table 1
for a complete correlation matrix).
Thus far, the results indicate that relationship type predicts general societal
marginalization and that general societal marginalization predicts lower quantities of
physical affection. It is possible, then, that the general societal acceptance item
specifically taps at the feelings of social disapproval that may be causing same-sex
couples to limit their public affection. Using Baron and Kenny’s (1986) steps for
testing for mediation, we tested whether general societal marginalization mediated the
effect of relationship type on public affection. We performed a regression analysis
examining the effects of relationship type on public affection, both with and without
including the societal marginalization item. Societal marginalization was a significant
covariate in the model, F(1, 70) = 3.79, p = .05 (β = -.26). Moreover, the effect of
relationship type on public affection dropped from a statistically significant one, F(1,
74) = 4.66, p = .03 (β = -.24), to a nonsignificant one (β = -.06), F(1, 70) = 0.19, p = .66,
after adding societal marginalization into the model. Thus, general societal
marginalization appeared to serve a role in accounting for the difference between
individuals in same-sex and different-sex relationships in shows of public affection.
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159
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics and Correlation Matrix
(Same-Sex) (Different-Sex) Variable
Variable M (SD) M (SD) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1. Public Affection (Partial r) ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
2. Public Affection 3.01 (1.51) 3.80 (1.50) -----
-----
3. Private Affection 5.29 (1.27) 5.12 (1.49) .61
**
.69
**
-----
4. Marginalization (Overall) 4.66 (1.94) 2.26 (1.46) -.23
ms
-.14 .07 -----
5. Marginalization (Fnd/Fam) 4.30 (2.67) 2.10 (1.72) -.13 -.04 .12 .88** -----
6. Marginalization (Societal) 5.60 (2.69) 2.52 (2.00) -.34** -.30** .00 .81** .55** -----
7. Marginalization (Strangers) 4.44 (2.40) 2.29 (2.18) -.15 -.06 .02 .67** .34** .48** -----
8. Relationship Satisfaction 3.70 (0.99) 3.91 (0.94) .42** .53** .60** -.22
*
-.23* -.18 -.07 -----
9. Commitment to Partner 5.22 (1.04) 5.56 (0.88) .31* .38** .42** -.25* -.30* -.20 -.02 .65** -----
10. Approval of Affection 4.33 (1.31) 3.64 (1.31) ---- .37** .35** .13 .07 .03 .23
m.s.
.52** .28* -----
Note. *p .05, **p ≤ .01.
ms
p = .07. The partial correlations involving partialing out participants’ general approval of people displaying physical affect
ion in public.
Kent & El-Alayli
Hypothesis 4: Marginalization and Relationship Quality (Satisfaction and
Commitment).
The relationships between marginalization and relationship quality did not differ
based on relationship type (i.e., there were no significant interactions), so we computed
the correlations between marginalization and relationship quality across the entire
sample. As seen in Table 1, higher overall marginalization was associated with lower
relationship satisfaction and commitment. The same was true for friend/family
marginalization, but marginalization by general society or unknown others were
unrelated to the relationship quality indices. Despite these patterns, but consistent with
past work, participants involved in same-sex relationships did not differ significantly
from those involved in different-sex relationships in either relationship satisfaction (p =
.36) or commitment (p = .17).
Hypothesis 5: Physical Affection and Relationship Quality
There were no interactions between relationship type and physical affection on
either of the relationship quality measures, so the data were again combined across
relationship type. As predicted, more frequent private physical affection was associated
with higher relationship satisfaction in the overall sample, r(74) = .60, p < .001. Public
affection was also significantly correlated with relationship satisfaction, r(74) = .53, p <
.001. In addition, both private and public affection were positively associated with
relationship commitment, rs(60) = .42 and .38, respectively, ps ≤ .002.
To examine whether private and public affection may contribute independently
to relationship satisfaction, correlations between each physical affection type and
relationship quality were performed while partialing out the other physical affection
type. The partial correlation between private affection and relationship satisfaction was
significant, r(73) = .39, p = .001 when controlling for public affection, and the partial
correlation between public affection and relationship satisfaction was marginally
significant r(73) = .20, p = .09 when controlling for private affection. The partial
correlation between private affection and relationship commitment was marginally
significant, r(59) = .23, p = .08, while the partial correlation between public affection
and relationship commitment was nonsignificant, r(59) = .15, p = .26. Thus, it is
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161
possible that private affection may be a more important contributor than public affection
when it comes to relationship quality.
Discussion
Physical affection in romantic relationships has been rarely been studied, despite
its potential contribution to relationship quality. The present study extended prior work
by examining how private and public affection individually relate to relationship
quality, whether perceptions of relationship marginalization are associated with less
frequent public affection, and whether women in same-sex relationships display less
public (but not private) affection than those in different-sex relationships due to stronger
feelings of marginalization.
The present research hypothesized that participants in same-sex relationships
would feel more marginalization and consequently display less physical affection in
public. As Lehmiller and Agnew (2006) found, participants in same-sex relationships
reported a higher level of all types of marginalization than those in different-sex
relationships. This is not surprising given society’s continual disapproval of same-sex
relationships and that disapproval’s prevalence in media reports.
The prediction that same-sex relationship participants would report less frequent
public affection was also supported. In addition, greater societal marginalization was
associated with less public affection, and seemed to be responsible for the public
affection differences between the relationship types. Interestingly, one of the two
societal marginalization items was specifically responsible. Perhaps that item was more
revealing of participants overall view of how their relationship is perceived in public
because it asked about general societal acceptance” as opposed to the disapproval of
“most other persons.” It is possible that participants had a broader focus when thinking
about the former and it is the lack of large-scale acceptance that may limit same-sex
couples’ displays of affection in public.
It is possible that mediators other than societal marginalization are involved in
causing same-sex couples to be less affectionate publicly. One such variable could be
the desire to avoid possible negative repercussions by others. Individuals in same-sex
relationships may worry that if they display physical affection, they may experience
discrimination, such as staring, negative comments or perhaps even hate crimes. Finding
extra attention uncomfortable or threatening may result in less public affection, whether
Kent & El-Alayli
those feelings are one’s own or known to exist in one’s partner. Thus it would be
interesting to assess the real or perceived feelings of marginalization held by one’s
partner as well. Only one partner may need to feel society’s disapproval (or believe it to
exist in one’s partner) in order for physical affection to remain hidden.
In addition, some feelings of marginalization may be beyond our level of
consciousness. If poor past experiences or media influences cause members of same-
sex couples to experience marginalization and then bury those feelings as a method of
coping, then repressed unconscious feelings of marginalization may still be present and
affect their willingness to be affectionate with their partner in public. Future research in
this area may benefit from developing an implicit/unconscious measure of
marginalization, given that it is an anxiety-provoking feeling that individuals may not
want to recognize fully.
Aside from predicting less physical affection, the experience of marginalization
is also important in that it may impact relationship quality. Supporting some findings
from past research (Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006; 2007), the present study found that more
marginalization from family and friends predicted lower relationship satisfaction and
weaker commitment to one’s partner. This contradicts past work on the Romeo and
Juliet effect, and instead is consistent with the idea that social approval may be an
important component to a relationship. Marginalization from society and strangers were
unrelated to relationship satisfaction and commitment. Lehmiller and Agnew (2007)
suggest that societal marginalization may have important effects on a relationship, but
also be less implicated in relationship quality and duration than marginalization by
family and friends. People likely care more about what their close others think of them
than about society’s opinion of them. However, as evidenced in this study, society’s
opinion is likely to carry more weight when it comes to how one behaves in public with
his/her partner.
Past research has shown that physical affection is related to relationship quality,
but has not disentangled public and private affection. Because marginalization is
associated with reduced public affection, it is important to know whether public
affection may also be a contributor to relationship satisfaction. In the present study,
private and public affection were both strongly correlated with relationship satisfaction,
as well as relationship commitment. Although private affection seemed to be a more
important contributor to relationship quality, there was still a marginally significant
connection between public affection and relationship satisfaction when controlling for
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private affection. Although we cannot know causation in this or any of the other
previous studies examining the link between physical affection in romantic relationships
and relationship satisfaction, it is possible that both private and public affection are
contributors. If so, then perhaps same-sex couples do not reap all of the relationship
benefits from public affection that different-sex couples enjoy.
It is noteworthy, however, that women in same-sex relationships did not have
lower relationship satisfaction or commitment than those in different-sex relationships,
which is consistent with past work (e.g., Kurdek, 1998; Kurdek & Schmitt 1986). Thus,
perhaps individuals in same-sex couples have alternative means of showing affection
and support in public than the traditional shows of affection. Haas and Stafford (1998)
believe that same-sex couples develop unique relationship maintenance behaviors as a
way of compensating for the lack of widespread social acceptance. One might expect
same-sex couples to add more private affection to suit that need, though we found no
evidence of that in the present study. Same-sex couples may instead focus on other
more subtle ways of expressing their love and support for one another in public, such as
a loving glance. Supporting the notion of compensation, Haas and Stafford’s
participants reported some relationship maintenance behaviors that have not been
reported in heterosexual samples, such as choosing gay/lesbian friendly supportive
environments and viewing their relationship as similar to that of a heterosexual couple,
such as their parents. Future research could be specific in asking members of same-sex
couples what behaviors they use in public to express their affection for one another non-
physically.
Because, like in all similar studies, the findings in the present study are
correlational, it is unknown whether physical affection actually increases relationship
quality. However, people report using physical affection as a means of maintaining
their relationship (Bell et al., 1987; Dainton & Stafford, 1993; Gulledge et al., 2003;
Haas & Stafford, 1998); physical affection may enhance pair bonding by increasing
levels of oxytocin (Gulledge et al., 2007); and it certainly makes sense that physical
affection could bring couples closer together. It is also likely that physical affection
increases in romantic relationships as a result of experiencing relationship satisfaction
and partner commitment. In addition, a third variable, such as feelings of love, may
lead to both more physical affection and higher relationship quality, causing them to be
related. Although these explanations are not mutually exclusive, and all are likely to
have some merit, it would be beneficial to examine whether physical affection
Kent & El-Alayli
specifically impacts relationship quality given that the former would be easier to
regulate. Future work could consider randomly assigning some couples to exhibit more
than their typical level of physical affection in public and other couples to exhibit more
than their typical level of physical affection in private and compare their relationship
quality to that of a control group at some later point in time. The connection between
marginalization and public affection was also correlational, though would be hard to test
ethically using an experimental design. Future research could, however, take a
qualitative approach and ask individuals in same-sex relationships what factors may
limit their public shows of affection.
Future research in this area should also investigate whether males in same-sex
relationships show the same increase in marginalization and decrease in public affection
that we observed among females in the present study. Aside from the fact that society
seems generally less accepting of male-male romantic relationships, we have no reasons
to suspect any gender differences from past research. In fact, males in same-sex
relationships report similar levels of marginalization (Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006) and
social support (Kurdek, 2003) as do women. Moreover, Gulledge et al. (2003) found
that males (of unknown sexual orientation) reported similar levels of physical affection
as did women. In studies investigating relationship satisfaction/quality among same-sex
couples, one found women to score higher (Kurdek, 2003) and one yielded identical
means for men and women (Todosijevic, Rothblum, & Solomon, 2005). We sought to
gather data regarding the vastly understudied female-female relationships, but future
research is needed to make any conclusions about public affection the role of
marginalization in male-male romantic relationships.
Professionals in the mental health field are continually looking for new
information to help guide their work in assisting couples with relationship issues. Over
the past two decades, relationship education programs have been limited in their
inclusion of a physical intimacy component, as well as their inclusion of same-sex
couples (Lieser, Tambling, Bischof, & Murray, 2007). The present research suggests
that programs be developed to help same-sex couples address issues pertaining to
marginalization and public physical affection. If increasing the amount of private or
public physical affection increases relationship quality, then physical affection could be
used as a therapeutic intervention. If relationship quality, in turn, increases physical
affection, then a cycle of relationship-enhancing change could result, possibly reducing
Public and Private Affection
165
the more frequent relationship dissolutions observed in same-sex couples (Kurdek,
1998).
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Appendix A
1. My partner and I hug or embrace each other:
○ Never ○ Almost Never ○ Occasionally ○ Sometimes ○ Often ○ Almost Always ○ Always
2. My partner and I hold hands with each other:
○ Never ○ Almost Never ○ Occasionally Sometimes ○ Often ○ Almost Always ○ Always
3. My partner and I kiss each other on the lips:
○ Never ○ Almost Never ○ Occasionally ○ Sometimes ○ Often ○ Almost Always ○ Always
4. My partner and I kiss each other’s faces (e.g., cheek or forehead):
○ Never ○ Almost Never ○ Occasionally ○ Sometimes ○ Often ○ Almost Always ○ Always
5. My partner and I sit very close to each other:
○ Never ○ Almost Never ○ Occasionally ○ Sometimes ○ Often ○ Almost Always ○ Always
6. My partner and I sit on each other’s laps:
○ Never ○ Almost Never ○ Occasionally ○ Sometimes ○ Often ○ Almost Always ○ Always
7. My partner and I cuddle/hold each other:
○ Never ○ Almost Never ○ Occasionally ○ Sometimes ○ Often ○ Almost Always ○ Always
Received: March 4th, 2011
Accepted: December 30th, 2011
... Humans deprived of touch fail to develop into healthy adults with loving, secure attachments (Floyd, 2018). Unfortunately, affection research within adult romantic relationships has predominantly focused on associations with sexual satisfaction (e.g., Debrot et al., 2017) or has not distinguished between public and private forms of affection (e.g., Debrot et al., 2013; for exceptions, see Hocker et al., 2021;Kent & El-Alayli, 2011). Indeed, when one's affection-sharing is simply unnoticed in public, the thought of context may seem irrelevant. ...
... However, context is critical for individuals in potentially marginalized relationships (e.g., same-sex, interracial). From the little research that does exist, we know that individuals in many types of marginalized relationships avoid public displays of affection (Hocker et al., 2021;Kent & El-Alayli, 2011;Vaquera & Kao, 2005). When marginalized couples do share affection in public, they report being cognizant of the potential to encounter disapproval or even violence (De Oliveira et al., 2013). ...
... LGBTQ individuals are not oblivious to these negative sentiments, and perceptions of adverse reactions can affect their affection-sharing behavior. A study of 67 women in same-sex relationships found that believing one's relationship to be perceived negatively by others was associated with a reduced likelihood of sharing affection in public (Kent & El-Alayli, 2011). If individuals in same-sex relationships are hesitant about sharing public affection, they are also likely to be deprived of the benefits of affectionate touch. ...
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