One of the many great pleasures of being in a relationship is the steady flow of direct, unfiltered affection. You can be loud and unabashed about how this person makes you feel and how damn cool you think they are, and in turn, you get to enjoy that irreplaceable feeling of being openly and undeniably loved by another person.
That said, sometimes two people come together in a relationship with different ideas of what it means to be affectionate, or one person is more comfortable with affection than the other, which can create some friction. Men in many communities are also still culturally disincentivized from openly displaying affection, and it can be hard to constantly transition from the stoicism expected in your regular life to the sensitivity expected in your romantic life.
If expressing affection is an area where you’ve struggled, or just something you know you could be a little more intentional about in your relationship, the first step is just talking to your partner about what affection means to them specifically. What kind of actions do they find romantic or meaningful? What are their preferred love languages for giving vs. for receiving? Are they all about the sweet talk, or are big gestures what they crave? Not everyone needs or appreciates the same things,
Below are a few small and simple ways to be more affectionate with your partner. Pick, choose, and tailor based on what types of gestures your partner has told you they enjoy.
1. Prioritize the smaller touches.
People can sometimes underestimate the tender power of non-sexual touch. But those small physical gestures—when you squeeze their hand, put your arm around them at the theater, kiss goodbye and hello—can be immensely meaningful and tangible ways of expressing affection without saying a word. While words can sometimes fall short of capturing how you truly feel, actions can speak volumes.
Not to mention, physical touch is known to release feel-good dopamine as well as oxytocin, the so-called “bonding hormone” that drives humans to connect to each other–essentially, all those small touches set off neurochemical reactions that make you feel closer to each other.
2. Have private moments even when you’re in public.
Affectionate gestures of all sorts just hit different when done in front of others. When you’re out at a social gathering or public space, make sure your partner is still getting some special attention from you. Hold their hand on the street. Mention how hot you think they are to the group you’re chatting with at the party. Have private moments by whispering an inside joke in their ear or pulling them aside for a kiss or side conversation that’s just the two of you. Even in a crowd, make sure your partner–and those around you–know that they’re special to you.
3. Show interest in their interests.
You might not give two hoots about serums and toners and whatever, but if your partner is a skincare junkie, try to actually pay attention while she explains her various skincare tinctures to you. People love to be able to share their fascinations and guilty pleasures with those around them, and that’s one of the simplest ways you can show affection to your partner — by making space for them to indulge in and rave about the things that light them. They love a sport you don’t care for? Learn the key players’ names and watch some games with them. They’re a geek for random celebrity gossip? Ask them questions about the latest tabloid headlines when you see them, and try to match their energy and enthusiasm.
4. Do something small that makes their life better or easier.
My partner always leaves me the crispiest french fries in the pile because he knows those are my fave. Every time we get fries with a meal, he’ll just eat around the tiny crispy ones or one-by-one pick them out and drop them on my plate for me, often without me even saying anything.
Who doesn’t love being a little spoiled by their significant other? Whether it’s making their cup of coffee for them in the morning, filling up the gas tank before they need to go on a big trip, or letting them pick the movie on a Saturday night (even when it’s your turn to pick), going out of your way to make their day a little better — even in the smallest of ways — can make them feel pampered and cared for. It feels good to have someone know you well enough to anticipate your needs and deliver on them, without having to ask them to do so.
5. Respond to their bids.
Do you respond affirmatively when your partner is making a bid for your attention or affection? These bids come in all sorts of forms: they might make a random comment about something they read online while you’re hanging out in the kitchen, or they might come up and sit on the arm of your chair while you’re watching TV. They’re those small moments where your partner is trying to initiate an interaction with you, even in little ways.
Sometimes we hear those bids and respond by turning our attention toward our partner to engage with what they’ve put forth–we take their random comment about the news headline and start up a conversation about it, or we mute the TV and look up at our partner and ask what’s on their mind. But sometimes we mindlessly ignore those bids, because we’re distracted by something else.
Although these moments can seem small and innocuous, it can make a big emotional difference to feel like your partner consistently responds to your bids for attention–it makes you feel important, which is what affection is all about. So, when you notice your partner is trying to get your attention, make an effort to stop what you’re doing and turn your attention toward them even for a moment–so they know you care.
6. Ask followup questions
When your partner shares something about their day, their feelings, or themselves, make a point to ask follow-up questions. If they say they had a hard meeting at work today, ask what the meeting was about and what happened that made it so difficult. If they tell you they loved the movie you just watched together, ask about their favorite part.
When you ask more questions about what they’re sharing, you’re communicating that you care about what they have to say and that you want to learn more. It lets them know they can feel safe going “all the way into it” with you, and that you’re going to be there to listen.
7. Touch them during conversation
Resting your hand on theirs or rubbing their knee while they talk, especially if they’re talking about something personal or vulnerable, can indicate that you’re really listening and make them feel more connected to you in the conversation.
This can be an especially helpful gesture during conflicts, which is often when affection is the last thing on your mind—but also when it’s most needed. Even if you’re disagreeing with each other, these gentle forms of touch help you both stay anchored to each other and remember that you still love each other, even in this tough moment. (It’s also a lot harder to move into yelling and “fight” mode when you’re holding hands or embracing like this, making it a helpful “deescalation” tactic.)
8. Tell them when they do something you think is great
When it comes to verbal affirmations, people often lean on appearance-based compliments and “I love yous,” and that’s basically it. Those can surely be valuable, but there are so many other ways to speak your affection aloud. One of the easiest and most impactful ways to do this is in the moment. When your partner does something that you think is pretty cool, tell them right then and there. Were you impressed by how they skillfully negotiated for an ocean-view room at the hotel front desk? Were you touched by the way they so quickly moved to support you after you got off an emotional call with a family member? Was it kind of cute the way they got so excited about the package they just got in the mail? Tell them!
9. Compliment their looks.
Now, all of that said, you can never go wrong by directly telling your partner how hot you think they are. Vary it up and get specific–compliment the way their eyes sparkle in evening light, the smart outfit they picked out for a big work presentation, and (of course) how sexy this or that body part looks while you’re in bed.
10. Adopt their dreams and cheerlead loud.
One of the most big-picture ways you can show affection for your partner is by being an earnest, full-throated, hootin’-and-hollerin’ cheerleader for their dreams. What are your partner’s goals in life, and how can you more fully support them? It might look like celebrating their wins, trouble-shooting their roadblocks, or planning your lives around making space for them to chase their goals. It can feel big and powerful to have a partner say “no, you’re not making dinner tonight–Thursdays are your writing nights, and I’m not letting anything get in your way. I’ll handle it.”
11. Be present when you’re together.
Whenever you’re hanging out together, put your phone down and make an effort to be super present with them. Make eye contact with them and really engage with the conversation, so they know you really value the time you get to spend with each other.
12. Bring them small tokens.
You don’t actually have to be physically with someone to show them affection. One of the easiest ways to show affection for someone even while you’re apart is to make an effort to bring them small tokens from your time away. Stealing an extra cupcake to take home from the office because you know he loves them. Picking up a magazine you spotted in the checkout aisle of the grocery store because it featured their fave celebrity on the cover. Even just sending them photos of the things you’re seeing while you’re away on a business trip. These small gifts say “I was thinking about you even while we were apart.”
13. Talk sweet
Even if you are two of the most sarcastic little shits out there, don’t completely forsake the sweet talk. While playful teasing and joking around about how much you hate each other can be fun, those things only work when there’s a solid foundation of big love and affection for you to fall back on. Never leave your partner guessing about how you feel about them. For every moment you poke fun at them, make sure there are twice as many moments when you’re just openly telling them how head over heels you are for them. Be loud with your love.
14. Say thank you for the little things
If you struggle with sweet talk, aim for gratitude. A well-timed “thank you” can speak volumes. Notice the little things your partner does to make you feel loved and cared for–the small touches they give you, the compliments, the questions and attention–and thank them for those gestures.
15. Savor the special moments
Whether you’re on vacation enjoying a sunset on the beach or on the couch belly-laughing over some ridiculous inside joke only the two of you would get, notice when you’re having one of those moments–the moments that make you remember why you fell for this person in the first place, and why you’re so happy to be with them and able to share life with them. When you realize you’re having one of those moments, say it out loud so they know how much you’re savoring it and how much you appreciate them. A simple “I love waking up with you” as you’re lying in bed on a quiet Sunday morning can melt the heart.
The Bottom Line
Affection not only sustains relationships through their trials and tribulations; it’s also what makes relationships so sweet to be in overall.
Just remember: People are different in terms of what they need, want, expect, and value. One person may think the words “I love you” are the most meaningful three words someone can utter, while another may think it’s just a boilerplate phrase that doesn’t communicate much at all. One person may think running errands together is just what couples do, while another might be really touched by the fact that their partner wants to do such mundane tasks together when they could have just as easily been done alone. Some couples don’t care much for kissing, while another person might feel like there’s something wrong if they go more than 24 hours without a peck on the cheek.
Figure out the gestures that mean a lot to your partner — and to you — and focus your attention on doing more of those.