Affection is a psychological phenomenon that, in one way or another, we sense is important for our lives. It always appears in conversations when we talk about personal relationships, or when we are reflecting on love.
However, what exactly is affection? Since it is a concept that we use intuitively, without stopping to think about its meaning, sometimes we make mistakes and consider it an element that is simply there when we relate to someone. But the truth is that it is something that does not appear and disappear spontaneously as we socialize with different people; it is always there, and its effects leave a mark on us. Let’s look at it.
What is affection?
All you need is love"; as this well-known Beattles song reminds us, love is something that moves us and gives us strength to discover and see the world. But although when we talk about love we usually think of romantic love or love for a partner, there are also many others. A mother who cradles her child, a friend who is by your side in bad times, a couple that makes you feel more alive than ever. All of them are united by deep emotional ties.
Although we all know what it is and have experienced it on occasion, it is not as simple as it seems to give a definition of what affection is that is general and takes into account the various situations or circumstances in which it may appear. However, on a general level, affection can be considered as that disposition that a person or animal has towards another being or situation .
Frequently, affect is identified with emotion, but although related, the truth is that there is a difference: affect is directed towards another person, being or thing and its levels can oscillate but are usually more permanent, while emotions are experienced by oneself and are temporary. Generally affection is identified and associated with feelings of love and affection for someone, a feeling of togetherness towards the other.
It is therefore an element of relational character , an interaction between several people or beings (let’s not forget that we can also feel affection for pets or animals, and these also feel affection for us and among them). So it is not something that depends only on oneself, but it is linked to the relationship we have with the person or being in question.
Characteristics of bonds of affection
Affection is an indispensable element for human beings, its absence being linked to various psychopathologies such as depression, sociopathy or even being a factor of great importance in the emergence of personality disorders . It also predisposes to medical illnesses or to their worsening as well as to a lower survival rate, as in cases of cancer or heart disease.
Affection is fluid and variable, since it can change depending on how the interaction is. It expresses itself in many different ways, generally by investing energy in order to make the other person feel good (whether it is visible or imperceptible to others). Such displays of affection may in turn receive different types of response from the other.
The fact is that on many occasions the affection is not reciprocated or does not occur on the same level (we can feel affection for someone but not romantic love, for example), or it can even be unpleasant and undesirable for the other subject.
Although in this article we focus on affection as it is popularly understood (the previously mentioned feeling of attachment to another), the truth is that we can also talk about positive and negative affection, depending on the general emotional tone we have.
Affection as a necessity throughout the life cycle
The ability to feel, give and receive affection is largely biological , mediated by different neurotransmitters such as oxytocin. However, to a large extent it will be the life experiences that mark whether we feel affection for someone, for whom and in what way we express it.
It arises during the early stages of our lives, especially when we begin to receive rewards in the form of attention and the first people we feel it towards are usually our parents or usual caregivers, being some of the first beings we are able to recognize as our brain develops and allowing us to recognize others as elements other than ourselves. And not only after birth, but also the relationship with the mother during fetal development and during pregnancy.
Feeling and receiving affection is something fundamental to our correct emotional and cognitive development as human beings. As gregarious beings that we are and that form part of a society, we need to feel part of the group, to feel attached to other people.
1. Early years and childhood
And this need is visible from birth: the baby needs a safe environment and the existence of an answer to its needs. The physical contact and affection we receive in childhood will to a great extent mark our attitude towards life: a baby who has been loved will be able to face the world with confidence (since his expressions and needs have been covered), while one who has been neglected will tend to see the world as something that does not respond to his needs, that ignores him and that he distrusts.
Receiving affection will influence the way we see ourselves and the world, while making us feel safe, calm, secure and able to see things with joy, enthusiasm and curiosity. The mix between the baby’s temperament and his interaction with his caregivers will largely determine the type of attachment he will manifest with them and with the rest of the world.
As we grow, our emotional needs expand, and we begin to relate to other people and beings beyond our caregivers . The first friendships and links with other similar people are made. In the family, the expression of affection and support continues to be fundamental, being a stage in which the child absorbs not only the affection he or she receives but also the values and the most appropriate ways of acting.
As for the affection itself, it is important that you receive it but also that you are able to give it, the reactions of others to such expressions of affection being important. That we can give and receive affection in these childish relationships will also mark us to a great extent. And we must bear in mind that affection is not only given to living beings: toys and objects that are important to us also awaken it in us.
In general, people who have received affection throughout childhood tend to be more empathetic , while those who have not tend to be more rigid, distant and more prone to anxiety and depressive disorders.
2. Adolescence and adulthood
But not only in childhood: adolescence is a stage in which we need a lot of affection, in which we learn to relate and experience different changes that make us more interested in others.
Our interest moves away from the family and focuses on the peer group (in which we are going to invest a lot of effort), discovering ourselves and trying to form our own identity. The experiences that we live and have lived, as well as the affection received along the way, will be important in order to achieve an integrated identity and with good self-esteem. Another type of affection also begins to appear, the romantic, with the first love experiences.
Once we reach adulthood, the need for affection continues and will continue throughout life. While there are individuals who do not enjoy company, generally we all want to share our lives with others. Relationships become more complex and we are much more aware of what we feel, what we do and what we cause. Romantic relationships become more important, although in a more serene way than in adolescence. Family, friends, partner, children … all of them are more or less important to us and are going to awaken different degrees of affection.
3. Old age
Although it is an aspect that is not well cared for by today’s society, old age is a difficult stage in which we are gradually losing physical and mental faculties. In addition, many of the people for whom we have felt affection have already died or are in the final stages of their lives, and the fear of losing them has appeared. It is easier to lose autonomy and feel more fragile .
It is a vital time when affection is very necessary, but in many cases it is not given enough, which makes it easier to get sick and disorders such as depression appear. A large number of elderly people feel lonely.
- González, M.P.; Barrull, E.; Pons, C. and Marteles, P. (1998). What is affection? Biopsychology [Online] Available at http://www.biopsychology.org/biopsicologia/articulos/que_es_el_afecto.html.