How To Deal With A Lack Of Affection In Your Relationship

Photo: Getty
man and woman laying on a couch

A lack of affection can be one of the first things to happen in a relationship after you get married and have children.

Along with life's many other stressors, couples all too often withdraw into themselves and forget how important it is to gently touch their partner on a regular basis.

Hundreds of couples have shared with me how the affection they used to lavish on each other transferred to spending time with their children. And of course, couples without children experience a lack of affection in marriage too.

Physical affection is, for many people, what makes a romantic relationship or marriage different from relationships you have with anyone else.

What does it mean to lack affection?

A lack of affection is a disturbance in your relationship where physical closeness is not as strong anymore, or as desired as before.

Professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Dacher Keltner explains, “Touch is the fundamental language of connection ... The right type of friendly touch — like hugging your partner or linking arms with a dear friend — calms your stress response down. [Positive] touch activates a big bundle of nerves in your body that improves your immune system, regulates digestion, and helps you sleep well. It also activates parts of your brain that help you empathize.”

RELATED: Why Touch Matters In Relationships

Why do we lose tenderness in relationships?

When there is no affection in your relationship and you are craving it right now, you are probably feeling lonely and longing to be hugged, kissed, or touched in other ways, you are not alone.

If a relationship is built on affection and then there is a sudden loss of that, the chances of the relationship surviving long-term are slim.

Affection in a relationship is essential because it helps romantic partners bond and feel closer to each other through intimacy. Touch and affection are so important in maintaining a healthy relationship.

You may be feeling lonely, ignored, unimportant and unloved, seeing your husband or wife as distant, cold, self-centered, and/or only interested in the children.

Lack of affection in a relationship can cause serious damage, and it may be a sign you and your partner have grown apart.

Marriage counselors, or well-meaning friends, may tell you to have a serious discussion with your spouse about how the lack of affection in your relationship is bothering you.

This relationship advice presumes that your spouse did not know you like affection, or forgot all of a sudden! Or maybe they did not realize or notice they were not showing you affection.

What does it mean when your lover doesn't show affection? It could mean that your they are experiencing changes in their mental health, or there is an unresolved issue in your relationship. But, telling your lover to be more affectionate never works. Perhaps you already know from trying it in your own relationship. If anything, it can drive your lover further away.

How to Deal With a Lack of Affection in Your Marriage Before it's Too Late

1. Stop bringing it up.

Talking about it, even occasionally, will not get your lover to change. While many relationship counselors may advise you to plainly tell your spouse, "You aren't being affectionate enough," it doesn’t matter whether you beg, demand, or joke, saying it pretty much never works in the long-term (and it doesn't feel good to hear, for that matter).

Of course, your spouse may make an effort when you first ask them to, but if you've ever asked for affection and been given it on only demand, you know what I'm talking about when I say it feels horrible. It actually made me feel even more lonely when my boyfriend hugged or kissed me only because I pressured him to.

You want your spouse to be affectionate toward you and touch you because they want to. It's like when a family member insists you give them a hug or a kiss on the cheek when you really, really really don't want to. It feels forced.

If you are upset about a lack of affection from your spouse, you're really longing to be touched and desired. By ordering their affection, you may notice how reluctant your lover is to be affectionate with you. And when you notice that, it hurts — a lot.

When I was in the relationship I mentioned above, I used to ask myself dreadful questions like, "What’s wrong with me?" and "Why am I so needy?"

Begging for affection feels terrible, even if they comply, so my advice is simply this: don't do it. It harms you and pushes your partner further away.

Stop listening to the advice that tells you to complain, and instead see their lack of affection as a sign that perhaps they're not feeling loved by you either.

Even if you are being affectionate toward them, physical affection may not be big on their list of the ways they feel loved. Perhaps they need support in other areas and prefer love to be shown in a different way.

They may also be resisting feelings of being controlled. Instead of telling them what to do, or getting upset about something you cannot control (their behavior), practice doing what it is that makes them happy and showing them love in the way they prefer to receive it. Such as through words of appreciation, respect, space, acts of service, thoughtful gestures, or gifts.

RELATED: The Real Reason Your Relationship Lacks Intimacy

2. Avoid the lack of sex/affection trap.

Dan (name changed to protect privacy) told me he and his wife weren't having sex as often as he’d like to — in fact, barely at all — and he felt frustrated about it. He complained that his wife is never in the mood and, after being turned down so often, he no longer bothers making an effort to get her interested.

"I stopped trying altogether," he said. "It was hard taking the constant rejection."

When I spoke to Lisa, his wife, she said was fed up with the lack of affection she felt she received from him.

"The only time he kisses or hugs me is when he wants to have sex," she explained. "He will come up behind me when I'm washing the dishes or watching my favorite TV show and expect me to be all-loving after he's ignored me all day. By then I’m tired and fed up, so there is no way I’m getting intimate."

This example is so common it comes up almost weekly in my practice. One partner wants sex and isn’t getting it, so doesn’t feel like being affectionate. The other wants affection and intimacy and isn't getting it, so they don't feel like having sex. It becomes a vicious cycle, with neither feeling satisfied with or close to the other.

To break it, one (or ideally both) needs to give the other what they want first. When couples do that, their relationship transforms.

3. Focus on what you can control: yourself and your own happiness.

In a relationship, we can never control how someone acts, as much as we would like to. Controlling behavior leads to distance, resistance, and shutdown.

Instead, if you focus on being happy, easygoing, and fun to be around, flirting and affection are more likely to follow.

Often, when people confess that they know they have not been affectionate towards their spouse, it’s because they are stressed, dealing with a loss of some kind, concerned about the relationship, or worried about the future.

Rather than asking your spouse to change, support them and aim to inspire them by being loving, happy, and full of energy and light yourself.

By becoming more focused on your own happiness and self-care, you will become more attractive as you give them the space that they need.

The bottom line is this: Fretting about a lack of affection won’t help save your marriage or make your husband or wife be more affectionate.

Focus on what you can control, and watch the affection flow.

RELATED: How To Fix A Sexless Marriage Before It's Too Late

Nicola Beer is a world-renowned expert in relationship psychology and transformation.