New Study Shows Affectionate Touch May Improve Conflict Resolution Processes

Summary of:

Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. C. (2019). Hand-in-hand combat: Affectionate touch promotes relational well-being and buffers stress during conflict. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(3), 431-446.

Background & Theory:

Relational conflict can seriously affect the health and wellness of both the individual and the shared relationship depending on how the conflict is handled. Knowing what behaviors contribute to having constructive relational conflicts that simultaneously limit stress are important for couples looking to maintain healthy relationships. Prior research has determined that affectionate touch is beneficial for people in relationship, but ambiguity still exists for whether this applies to couples in conflict with one another or not.

Research Question(s):

Research conducted by Brittany K. Jakubiak and Brooke C. Feeney was published in 2019 as part of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s “Personality and Psychology Bulletin” to answer the following questions:

1. Does the intervention of affectionate touch before and during a conflict promote relational well-being and buffer stress?
2. If affectionate touch does promote well-being and buffer stress, are these benefits caused in part by increased state security and cognitive interdependence?

Methods:

The research consisted of three experiments. The first experiment measured a level of state security and cognitive interdependence before the conflict and assessed the objective and subjective stress level and emotional well-being during the conflict. This experiment randomly assigned couples to either a touch condition, where affectionate touch was involved, or a controlled condition, where neutral objects were involved. Most individual data was collected via surveys in which respondents would rate themselves and their relationships. Observational data was collected by trained observational coders who coded constructive behaviors, destructive behaviors, and stress from the participants. The second and third experiments primarily focused on the relationship of touch intervention to state security and cognitive interdependence. It had participants engage in touch and control visualization exercises and complete varying scaled surveys. These two experiments served a similar purpose as the first, with the exception that the variables were imagined in these two experiments.

Results:

The experiment found that couples who had the affectionate touch intervention acted more constructively in their conflict and experienced less destructive behavior than couples who did not have the intervention. The affectionate touch intervention prior to and during the conflict also successfully buffered both objective and subjective stress for the individuals. The second and third experiments found that people who imagined they received affectionate touch from a partner reported higher state security and cognitive interdependence than those who did not imagine receiving touch. This suggests that affectionate touch could stimulate feelings of security and interdependence which then lead to more constructive conflict behavior.

What We Can Learn:

With this research in mind, we can learn and apply a number of things to our own personal conflicts and practice of dispute resolution:

  • In the midst of heated conflict, it can seem impossible to keep behavior constructive, limit destructive behavior, and avoid stress. However, affectionate touch may be a helpful habit to adopt both before and during conflict, as it has been proven to help promote constructive behavior, limit destructive behavior, and buffer stress.
  • The application of affectionate touch in relational conflict could have beneficial long-term health implications due to its effect on stress
  • Applying touch intervention to relationship conflict could improve both the personal and relational well-being of the individuals involved.

Final Takeaways:

For Consultants: In mediating relational conflict, adding in an element of affectionate touch may prove to resolve the conflict in a more constructive way. Likewise, in teaching couples how to have constructive conflict, including the element of affectionate touch may prove to be relationally beneficial.

For Everyone: Even the small intentional action of touching someone you’re in a relationship with can help improve conflict situations and the overall health of the relationship.

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