PDA: Sign of a healthy relationship or the beginning of the end?

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ says 21-year-old Kaela-mei. ‘I’ll occasionally hold his hand or give him a hug in public, but I don’t go around kissing him all the time or be touchy and use pet names.’ 

This is one side of the coin of the PDA (public displays of affection) argument, a topic which, while already controversial, has become even more contentious lately.

‘I’m just not a physical touch person, especially in public,’ Kaela-mei adds. ‘I know it can make people feel uncomfortable in social settings and, while I disagree with this sentiment, some people find it attention-seeking.’

Since Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker graced us with their endless stream of public displays of affection, the discussion around whether PDA is good or bad has been reignited.

Generally, according to science, proudly showcasing love is a sign of a positive relationship.

‘One study from Ohio State University revealed that couples who are more physically intimate are more likely to be satisfied and happy in their relationships than couples who refrain from showing love for each other too often,’ psychodynamic and CBT therapist Stina Sanders tells Metro.co.uk.

This is something 30-year-old Amanda has experienced firsthand. 

Her previous relationship lasted for quite a while and had very little PDA, she says, because her ex-partner ‘wasn’t keen’ on it. 

Now, Amanda is in a new relationship that involves a lot more physical interaction, such as kissing and holding hands while out and about. 

‘I’m a real PDA person and I’ve found it’s great for the relationship,’ she says.

‘I feel like being able to express our feelings in a physical way in public allows us to be authentic in our relationship.

‘I understand that not everyone is comfortable being publicly affectionate, but as someone who is it really makes me feel connected to my partner. 

‘If I restrict that I feel that I can’t express my feelings adequately.’

This authentic expression of affection and connection is something Neil Wilkie, founder of the online couples therapy programme The Relationship Paradigm, says we need.

‘We need to feel important, and PDA is one way of showing that,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.

‘It’s a way of saying that this is not just happening behind closed doors, and I want to show that I love you out in public.’

‘The person attempting to show PDA will feel rejected if their advances aren’t reciprocated, or worse, denied, while the person on the receiving end will feel like their boundaries are being completely ignored,’ he notes.

But, he says, inauthentic public gestures – especially when one person is not comfortable engaging them – can spell relationship doom.

He adds that the desire to get romantic out in public can fade over time, ‘which is quite sad,’ and should be nurtured throughout the relationship. 

‘We shouldn’t allow it to fade away,’ he says. ‘It’s important.’

But that’s not to say that a lack of outward romance displays is always a bad thing. 

‘I think our decision not to show PDA has had no negative impact whatsoever,’  Kaela-mei says of her one-year relationship. ‘We both show that we appreciate each other in public in a different manner, like getting the other person something they like, buying them a drink or making them laugh.’ 

Showing each other affection more subtly and in different ways is something Wilkie says couples who don’t enjoy PDA need to prioritise. 

‘It’s important to talk about your needs to understand each other’s needs and desires in terms of affection and connection in a relationship,’ he says.

A couple’s decision to show public displays of affection can’t always be a reliable measure of how healthy or satisfying their relationship is, especially as some people don’t have the privilege.

Government statistics show that hate crimes related to sexual orientation and gender identity have increased year on year since 2015.

Hence, people in same-sex relationships aren’t always so eager to hold hands or kiss in the supermarket – that doesn’t mean their bond is any less strong.

‘I am all for PDA in a relationship,’ says Ethan, 23. 

‘But it depends on where I am and how well I know the area, and if I get a dodgy vibe there or from the people who are around me.

‘I hate to stereotype but when it comes down to a chance of being verbally, or worst case, physically abused, I feel like I have to for mine and my partner’s safety.

‘If I was in a bar, I would feel more comfortable to kiss and hold hands because I know I’d be safer with staff and security around if someone decided to hurl abuse at me, but if I was in a public park or on a random street in England then maybe I would be more likely to hold back.’

According to Sanders, ‘studies have found that public displays of affection are more likely to elicit feelings of vigilance for individuals in same-sex relationships,’ meaning that PDA can be a little harder to navigate for LGBTQ+ couples.

Ethan tells us: ‘It’s sad that we have to examine our surroundings before displaying affection with one another, because it makes me feel like we are vulnerable animals in the wild who have to scout out an area to make sure there aren’t any predators around.

‘No one should have to feel like that when it comes to displaying affection for their partner in public.

‘But not being able to do that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with my relationship.’

Ethan’s right.

Whether it’s a peck on the lips in front of colleagues, or a full-blown tongue-down-your-throat smooch a la Kourtney and Travis, what constitutes too much or too little PDA is different for everybody.

As much as we may like to analyse every handsy pic and tongueing action, it’s impossible to discern the quality of a relationship based only on the amount of public hand-holding they do.

There’s much more to relationships than when and where you touch.

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