There are many theories as to why people have a hard time showing affection, and also cultural studies of how different groups show affection. Medical researchers can focus on specific groups who have an extraordinarily difficult time with any manifestation of affection, such as children with autism or children and adults with varying degrees of autism-based disorders.
A significant problem with most of these studies and theories is that affection itself is a difficult thing to define.
Does affection stick to a husband or wife with a big sloppy kiss, hugging your kids, or telling your parents you love them? Is affection remembering anniversaries, choosing thoughtful gifts, really listening to another person, or patting your dog on the head? Our different definitions of what constitutes affectionate behavior can make it very difficult to explain why some people find it difficult to show affection; what appears to be a problem for one person may seem like a reasonable level of affection for another person. For the purposes of this article, we consider affection as small or large physical gestures that convey emotion, a hug, a caress, a kiss, a pat on the back, etc.
Some theories suggest that such gestures of affection are often determined by our degree of education 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 can receive more affection than boys, especially when they are emotionally distressed. Alternatively, boys can be told when they seek affection, such as when they are injured, to harden. While we think we have eliminated these gender differences, evidence to the contrary is available in a variety of studies; we’re even harder on the boys.
This can be very important as boys and girls grow up, because girls expect a higher degree of affection than boys, who have been educated to give less. Women will say that their husbands have a hard time showing affection and men may actually complain that their wives show too much. Studies on lesbian and gay couples include some interesting revelations about the affectionate behaviors of same-sex couples. In general, lesbian couples tend to give and show more affection than gay male couples, which may argue 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 people may have a hard time showing affection. People who have been sexually or physically abused may find it very difficult to receive or give affection, even very simple things like a caress or a hug. For these people, touching themselves has become a violation of themselves, and they don’t want to receive contact, or give it and perhaps even be considered abusers.
More simply, some children are just less acclimatised to affection than others. Parents may love their children but have a hard time showing affection to each other or to their children. This does not mean that these parents love their children less; it simply means that physical affection is less frequently expressed in a home. Generally what you are shown as a child tends to have an influence on adult behavior; the old argument of nurturing comes into play, and certainly the difference in cultural views of affection.
With so much shown today to have a genetic basis, many people are wondering if the problems showing affection may be in the genes. Research on autism, although the 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 take the leap and say some people may just be “wired” to be less loving than others. Strong cultural precepts about the manifestations of affection and nurturing can tend to bring out what is already genetically predetermined. Even the most loving parents may not produce the most loving children if there is a genetic factor that determines a lesser degree of affection.
Can you solve such a problem? There are certainly many mental health professionals and marriage and family counselors who believe they can, when the condition is not medical. People can learn to show affection, even though it may seem unnatural or forced at first. For those who have a hard time showing affection, especially when it becomes a problem in relationships or parenting, it may be worth getting through this awkward phase to improve relationships. This can be very true when other parties in relationships are not happy with the level of affection they receive.