- The physical and emotional connection that comes with kissing may be particularly beneficial for committed couples during these uncertain times. Tweet This
- Research tells us kissing is a one-stop-shop for things most people are already working on: fighting off disease, losing weight, being less stressed, and, perhaps most importantly, building better long-term relationships. Tweet This
As we enter month 10 of the COVID-19 pandemic with infection rates rising in many states across the country, it is important to weigh the risks and benefits of intimate activities that keep couples connected and healthy. Navigating a romantic relationship in the middle of COVID-19 can be challenging, especially for those who have underlying health conditions or whose work requires them to be around others. Is it safe to hug or kiss or snuggle a romantic partner? Kissing, of course, is of particular concern because it can easily spread the virus. New York public health experts, for example, have even discouraged non-household romantic couples from kissing, even during sex.
Limiting viral spread is important, even among families who live in the same house, but what are the benefits of kissing and what precautions should couples be taking, given those benefits? Here are a few things to consider.
Kissing is important for healthy relationships.
On a physiological level, research shows that kissing produces oxytocin (a hormone that enhances emotional connection, facilitates weight loss, and strengthens immune response, along with other benefits) and that it lowers cortisol (the “stress” hormone that essentially has the opposite effect).
Culturally, kissing in the U.S. is an important marker of affection in romantic relationships across the lifespan.1 In fact, a recent study shows that kissing can be an indication of the health of a romantic relationship—people who kiss more tend to have happier relationships that last longer.2 Researchers suspect kissing also increases couples’ sexual responsiveness to their partner and quality of communication. In cultures where kissing is encouraged, it can be difficult to distinguish between the psychological and physiological effects.3 Psychologically, nonverbal affection is desirable and socially beneficial. The observed outcomes (better physical and relational health) are likely due to a combination of social and physical factors.4
The physical and emotional connection that comes with kissing may be particularly beneficial during these uncertain times. In fact, research this year has linked kissing with attachment styles5 and shown that it can lead to more secure attachment and higher relationship and sexual satisfaction among couples.6 It may also result in more positive emotion and improved communication for people who tend to avoid close connections.7 For these couples, this may turn more time at home into an opportunity to grow closer, communicate more effectively, and develop a more satisfying relationship.
Be informed and weigh the risks
The CDC is clear that “there is no way to ensure you have zero risk of infection.” As with any intimate activity, understanding and talking about the associated risks will make it a better experience for everyone. It’s always helpful to know if your partner has been in situations where COVID-19 exposure was possible (social gatherings, bars, physical contact with others, etc.).
If one spouse is exposed to COVID-19, the couple must weigh the risks and rewards of maintaining close proximity. The CDC guideline is that anyone who leaves the house shouldn’t kiss any household member; so, if a partner plans on interacting with others outside the household (through essential work, school, etc.), emotional connection without kissing may be the best option until the exposed/sick partner has recovered or reached the end of the quarantine period. Added health risks based on a partner’s medical history (i.e., vulnerable to adverse effects of infection) should also be considered, which can require more precautions in order to maintain the family’s health.
Communicating expectations and commitment (especially for unmarried couples) is key.
Some couples may find it awkward to ask each other what kissing means to them, but this kind of openness can really avoid problems down the road. Openly voicing thoughts and encouraging a running dialogue about individual needs and expectations can prevent conflict. An added bonus of this kind of intimate discussion is that couples will feel greater connection. This type of vulnerability demonstrates empathy and mutual respect, which are building blocks of a trusting and committed relationship.
What about unmarried couples? Because greater commitment often means greater fidelity, communication about expectations and commitment can prevent the hurt that can stem from engaging in any intimate activity without a clear understanding of the relationship. Especially during this pandemic, unmarried couples, particularly those who do not live together, should take extra care to communicate their level of comfort with physical affection during the next few months as the pandemic worsens. This allows both partners to make appropriate decisions and ultimately build a healthier and more open and trusting relationship.
Kissing has long been part of American culture, but we’re just beginning to understand its complex underpinnings.8 Research tells us that it’s a one-stop-shop for a lot of things most people are already working on:9 fighting off disease, losing weight, being less stressed, and, perhaps most importantly, building better long-term relationships.10
Despite the difficulty imposed by COVID-19 on couples, actively talking about the importance and benefits of kissing and setting any needed and temporary boundaries around physical activity are vital for relationships to stay healthy through the pandemic. After all, research confirms that kissing is a positive gateway to healthy relationships, which may be particularly needed in these times of heightened stress.11
J. B. Eyring is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University preparing to apply to MD/PhD programs in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Chelom E. Leavitt, JD, PhD, teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and researches how mindfulness improves the sexual experience, functioning, and relationship quality.
1. Wlodarski, R., & Dunbar, R. I. (2013). Examining the possible functions of kissing in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(8), 1415–1423.
2. Floyd, K., Boren, J. P., Hannawa, A. F., Hesse, C., McEwan, B., & Veksler, A. E. (2009). Kissing in
marital and cohabiting relationships: Effects on blood lipids, stress, and relationship satisfaction. Western Journal of Communication, 73(2), 113–133.
3. Jankowiak, W. R., Volsche, S. L., & Garcia, J. R. (2015). Is the romantic–sexual kiss a near human universal?. American Anthropologist, 117(3), 535-539.
4. Wlodarski, R., & Dunbar, R. I. (2013). Examining the possible functions of kissing in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(8), 1415–1423.
5. Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759-775.
6. Busby, D. M., Hanna-Walker, V., & Leavitt, C. E. (2020). A kiss is not just a kiss: Kissing frequency, sexual quality, attachment, and sexual and relationship satisfaction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, (online version).1-17.
7. Schrage, K. M., Maxwell, J. A., Impett, E. A., Keltner, D., & MacDonald, G. (2020). Effects of verbal and nonverbal communication of affection on avoidantly attached partners’ emotions and message receptiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, (online version), 1-14.
8. Wlodarski, R., & Dunbar, R. I. (2013). Examining the possible functions of kissing in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(8), 1415–1423.
9. Floyd, K., Boren, J. P., Hannawa, A. F., Hesse, C., McEwan, B., & Veksler, A. E. (2009). Kissing in marital and cohabiting relationships: Effects on blood lipids, stress, and relationship satisfaction. Western Journal of Communication, 73(2), 113–133.
10. Schrage, K. M., Maxwell, J. A., Impett, E. A., Keltner, D., & MacDonald, G. (2020). Effects of verbal and nonverbal communication of affection on avoidantly attached partners’ emotions and message receptiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, (online version), 1-14.
11. Welsh, D. P., Haugen, P. T., Widman, L., Darling, N., & Grello, C. M. (2005). Kissing is good: A developmental investigation of sexuality in adolescent romantic couples. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 2(4), 32-41.