Celeb couples in PDA moments
Relationships

Psychology of love: the cold hard truth about PDAs, according to psychologists

It feels as if we’re witnessing *very* public displays of affection at every turn, but what do they really tell us about the couples involved? And why are they so divisive? 

I hate the phrase “sucking face,” but it’s certainly been bandied around a lot of late. Indeed, it feels like every other day a PDA makes headlines – accompanied, of course, by big bold grainy paparazzi photos.

From Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, to Harry Styles and Olivia Wilde, to Phoebe Dynevor and Pete Davidson, these PDAs are quickly transformed into VVPDAs (very, very public displays of affection, obviously) as celebrity gossip addicts pore over every single detail. But it’s not just the rich and famous who are at it; I went for a walk around town recently and counted no fewer than seven (seven!) couples snogging like mad as they leaned against walls, wandered round shops, and queued for coffees. 

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Now, a lot of people I’ve spoken to are firmly opposed to the PDA – not just to partaking in one of their own, but stumbling across one ‘in the wild’, as it were. These individuals have confessed that seeing a couple locking lips in public fills them with either annoyance, despair, or extreme jealousy. Sometimes, it’s a potent mix of all three.

Personally, I don’t mind it; love is love, and my inner romantic takes great delight in seeing people throwing caution to the wind and kissing whenever and wherever they want. Still, though, it does make me reflect on my own PDA-less existence; does holding hands with my partner count? And, if it doesn’t, should I be worried our relationship isn’t… well, quite as relationshippy (sorry) as everyone else’s?

Actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt backstage at the TNT/TBS broadcast of the 14th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium on January 27, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. 1531_DK_0198.JPG
Why are some people more comfortable with PDAs than others?

In a bid to learn more about the oh-so-divisive PDA, I reached out to Beingwell’s life coach, Grace McMahon, and fired a series of questions at her.

Here’s what she had to say on the matter.

PDAs are like Marmite; why do some people love them, why do others hate them, and why is there no in between?

McMahon explains: “A lot of our reaction to a PDA comes down to the way we were raised; if our parents displayed affection in the home while we were growing up, it becomes quite normal to us, and the way they viewed PDA depicts the way we view and judge it as we get older. 

“So, if your parents were those loved-up gushing folks who loved to embarrass you with a snog (gross), then you’re more likely to be open to PDA as it feels quite normal to you. If your parents were slightly more private, it might feel stranger, and possibly even disgusting to you.”

McMahon continues: “It’s not all cultural, though; some of it’s psychological, as many people who engage in elaborate PDAs are well aware of what they’re doing, and they are doing it to turn heads.

“And it can be down to our physiology, too; a PDA can actually make our hearts race and our bodies feel hotter, creating an enjoyable rush of excitement. In fact, just the simplest touch, like holding hands (which can lower cortisol levels) can see us get physically addicted to mild levels of PDA; they get the oxytocin flowing which helps us feel more secure in our relationships, so it’s not all bad… even if it is soppy.”

Is there a type of person that’s more likely to engage in a PDA?

“It’s likely that extroverted and open people are more likely to engage in PDA, but that doesn’t mean introverts won’t or don’t,” says McMahon. 

“As a rule, though, extroverted people are more likely to seek adventure, experience new things and be quite outgoing, so PDA is less phasing to them. Introverts, on the other hand, prefer to keep to themselves a bit more, and tend not to get excited by external stimuli like people reacting to their public love.”

Ben Affleck (L) and his fiance actress/singer Jennifer Lopez attend the Los Angeles Lakers v. San Antonio Spurs playoff game at the Staples Center May 11, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
Extroverted people are more likely to engage in PDA, but that doesn't mean introverts won't.

“It’s very dependent on the people involved, however, and how they like to communicate together,” adds McMahon. “Some of us are more affectionate, physically, as a way to say that we love each other. Others prefer talking, gifts or quality time; read up on the love languages if you want to learn more.

“Generally, we might be more likely to engage in PDA when we’re feeling confident and secure in ourselves. And the early flush of excitement that comes from a new relationship can boost these feelings of security, leading to lots of public displays of affection.”

Do PDAs tell us anything about a couple’s relationship? Are they, say, happier and more secure in themselves than people who don’t?

“Generally, no,” says McMahon simply. “All it tells us is that they prefer to show affection physically.

“Of course, it is pretty well established that couples who display extreme affection online via social media tend to be more insecure; they are seeking external validation, whereas couples who feel more secure in their relationship are not – they are too busy living ‘in the moment’ to update their status.

“An IRL PDA, though, doesn’t really mean anything about a relationship nor the couple’s security. While we might be more likely to engage in very public displays of affection when we’re feeling confident and secure in ourselves and our relationships, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationship is any stronger than those who don’t. It’s less about the relationship, more about how we feel about ourselves.”

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It feels like we’re seeing more PDAs than ever before, but is this really the case?

“With limited socialising over the last year, and many couples only having the company of each other, we probably are engaging in more PDA without even realising,” says McMahon.

The life coach goes on to note that couples who lived together during lockdown have probably been more physically affectionate with one another on a daily basis due to spending so much time within the privacy of their own homes. New couples, too, have been denied the chance to be physically intimate with one another, and so are making up for lost time.

“Those of us who haven’t been with a partner are probably noticing other people’s PDAs far more, possibly even feeling repulsed by the act, possibly because we desire the physical touch of another or are even just quite aware of our solitude… even if that’s exactly where we want to be.”

Are there periods in our lives when we’re more likely to be positive about PDAs, and times when we’re likely to feel more negative?

“There’s no doubt that going through a break-up, desiring to find ‘the one’ or feeling lonely is likely to make us feel less than enthused seeing loved-up people,” says McMahon. “And when we find that person we want to be romantic with, we are more likely to be publicly affectionate. It relates to our mindset; if we’re in a content moment in life, we tend to be more open and accepting.”

Is there anything we should keep in mind when we witness a PDA? And, on the flipside, when we engage in one ourselves?

“PDA isn’t for everyone, and we don’t need to enjoy watching or doing it,” says McMahon. “But it’s always worth considering why people do it – maybe they’re madly in love and we feel happy for them even if it’s gross, or maybe they don’t care what anyone else thinks and that’s pretty admirable, too.”

Nicole Kidman arrives with her husband Keith Urban on the red carpet for the 89th Oscars on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
We are more likely to engage in very public displays of affection when we’re feeling confident and secure in ourselves and relationships.

“When we inevitably engage in PDA (even if it’s just once or twice), try to pay attention to how you’re feeling if you can pull your focus away from the love-fuelled embraces,” she adds.

“Hold onto that feeling when you witness others doing it. Because, while PDA might be kind of repulsive to witness, it is quite nice to know that people are so happy in those moments.”

Should we make an effort to get comfortable with PDAs? And, if so, how do we go about doing this?

“If PDA isn’t for you, you don’t need to get comfortable with engaging in it,” says McMahon. “Although, if you’re in a relationship and one of you is all over it, and the other is less than approving, then you may need a conversation to understand each other’s views on PDA.”

Will Smith (L) kisses actress Jada Pinkett Smith as they arrive for the premiere of "Gemini Man" at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California on October 6, 2019. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)
PDAs get the oxytocin flowing which helps us feel more secure in our relationships.

She adds: “If you really do want to get more comfortable, though, start small. Have a smooch in the supermarket, go for a candlelit dinner, or even just hold hands more often. We don’t need to be elaborate with PDA, but we can be – think getting swept up in a moment, love drunk on oxytocin, and the heavens open for a rain-soaked dance in the park.

“When it comes to dealing with the PDAs of other people, though… well, while it isn’t for everyone and that’s totally fine, I urge you not to hate on others for loving it. Your reaction says more about you than it does them, so just let people be and you do you.”

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