MU researcher finds affection helps people build more successful relationships

Showing warmth, tenderness can bring people closer
Thursday, April 21, 2011 | 6:37 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Want to feel closer to your friends? Show them some love.

Colin Hesse, assistant professor of communications at MU, has found that affection makes relationships better.

“Affection is communicating warmth and intimacy and closeness, whether it’s saying ‘I love you’ or giving hugs or filling up your partner’s car with gas," Hesse said.

Hesse's research takes on the topic of affection as it relates to alexithymia, the trait that hinders people from understanding and communicating emotions.

His survey of 921 undergraduates shows that people who give and receive lots of affection feel better about their relationships, have more close friends and feel closer to close friends. On the flip side, people with high levels of alexithymia have fewer close relationships and feel less close and satisfied.

“We understand (the importance of affection) on a base level because we already do it,” Hesse said. “It’s one of the main tools by which we succeed in relationships around us.”

Hesse conducted the research with Kory Floyd, professor of communication at Arizona State University, and published it as "Affection Mediates the Impact of Alexithymia on Relationships" in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

While the information is not wholly new, it could prove useful as it paves the way for future studies to help people with high degrees of alexithymia, he said.

Hesse said that's about 8 percent to 10 percent of people, though everyone has the trait to some degree.

With this study complete, Hesse or others can go on to study the causes of alexithymia, which is associated with eating disorders, fibromyalgia, stress, depression and autism, or he could do an experimental design study to test whether people with alexithymia can improve the quality of their relationships by giving and receiving affection.

Hesse said he could learn a thing or two from his study. “I know that I’m not the most skilled with emotion – my wife would agree with that, I’m sure."

He and his wife, Jennifer Hesse, have a 3-month-old son, Calvin.

"I would hope that he would be raised in an environment (where) he would see affection as natural and healthy and be able to communicate that with others," Hesse said. 

Hesse had suggestions for ways people can explore affection in their own lives. They can try making "incremental" changes in the levels of affection they give and receive, he said. They shouldn't force it, and they should watch how others respond, he added.

“Affection is healthy. Affection is extremely healthy,” he said.

Hesse could not say, though, that his own behavior has changed as a result of his studies.

“We’re always better at telling other people what to do than we are at doing anything for ourselves.”

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