I’m going to be straight with you: I’ve never been a fan of PDA. Holding hands and the occasional kiss are fine, but in my book, anything more than that is vom-worthy. My friend recently sent me a (40-second long) Snapchat video of her friends eye-gazing and giving each other Eskimo kisses at a local cafe, and I immediately wanted to throw my phone against the wall. It’s not just that I’m salty because I’m single. I find it disrespectful to basically rub your relationship in people’s faces.
And I have to wonder why someone might be overly affectionate with their partner in public. While some people find it difficult to keep their hands off each other in the beginning phase of a relationship, others participate in PDA as a result of how comfortable they feel with one another, says sociologist Alicia Walker, Ph.D. “However, sometimes one partner engages in PDA because of insecurity in the relationship,” she explains. “They may also be signaling (consciously or subconsciously) to others that the person is ‘taken.’”
Josh, 29, believes public affection makes people come across as lacking confidence more than anything else. “When I see people all over each other, I actually question their relationship,” he says. “Why do you need to convince others of how you feel about each other? When my wife and I are out with friends, we go our separate ways and don’t sit on each other’s laps. We have nothing to prove.”
Of course, there’s no universal agreement on what is and isn’t appropriate, but there are a handful of guidelines you can follow to respectfully navigate PDA with your S.O.
1. Figure out where you both stand.
Keeping in mind that your partner may be far more or less inclined toward PDA than you, have an honest conversation with them about how comfortable you are being physical with each other in public. “Willingness to participate in PDA is highly personal,” says Walker. “The reality is that someone’s comfort with it isn’t likely to change very much, but it’s important to understand where your partner stands.” So try not to take it personally or assume they’re ashamed of dating you if they’d prefer not to kiss in front of their friends. “While it can be frustrating to have a partner who refuses to even hold your hand in public, forcing or demanding that your partner participate in PDA will create friction,” Walker adds.
Jake, 28, experienced incompatibility with his ex in this area. “She thought I wasn’t into her because I didn’t parade her around. She made me feel like my affection didn’t count because others weren’t witnessing it, which was annoying,” he says. “I didn’t want to have to put my arm around her or hold her hand [in public] just to validate ourselves — especially when I’d go out of my way to tell her how into her I was.”
If your and your partner’s preferences are misaligned, consider how important PDA is to you and whether or not it’s an area in which you’re willing to compromise. “If you’re someone who highly values PDA and your partner is completely opposed, the relationship isn’t necessarily doomed,” says Walker. Only you can decide if a mismatch matters enough to call it quits, but she warns it’s a red flag if someone pushes you to engage in public acts of affection that make you uncomfortable. “That tells you this person lacks respect for your boundaries and feelings. It’s really a matter of consent.”
“If you’re someone who highly values PDA and your partner is completely opposed, the relationship isn’t necessarily doomed,” says Walker.
2. Consider the context.
Veronica, 25, believes the appropriate level of PDA depends on the setting. “I think hand-holding, hugging, and kissing are fine, but no making out unless it’s a late night at a bar or club and everyone’s drunk,” she says. “That’s what I’m comfortable with in my own relationship.” John, 26, agrees that it’s important to consider your surroundings but feels most PDA is OK as long as your partner is on board. “I wouldn’t go shoving my tongue down my girl’s throat in front of small children, but at the bar, if she’s into it, why not?”
There’s a time and place for everything, including intimacy. “Being aware of the context and expectations of the space you’re in matters,” says Walker. For example, it’s far more acceptable to sit on your partner’s lap at a bar than in a church. Still, I personally find it annoying to squeeze past a couple who can’t pull away from each other for 30 seconds when I want to order a margarita. Kevin, a 30-year-old bartender, confirms I’m not alone. “Nothing is worse than two people hooking up at a full bar,” he says. “They usually make everyone around them uncomfortable and ruin the vibe.” A quick check is often all it takes to avoid coming across as impolite or inconsiderate to a room full of people.
3. Respect others’ feelings about your behavior.
“In North American culture, holding hands and small pecks are generally acceptable in public spaces,” says Walker. “Making out, groping, and the like fall under behaviors that tend to make others uncomfortable.” It’s not a tried-and-true rule, but no matter where you are, you want to be mindful of how your behavior might affect those around you and respect the fact that it could be offensive to some people.
“My college boyfriend and I made my roommate extremely uncomfortable when he put his hand in my back jean pocket at the mall,” says Jen, 28. “Once we got home, she sat us down like she was our parent and told us that how we acted in public was disrespectful.” Although Jen didn’t agree, she learned an important lesson. “Looking back now, I think the biggest thing to remember with PDA is it’s not so much what you accept but how you may be offending others around you.”
Short of completely keeping your hands to yourself, there’s no guarantee that any form of PDA won’t make someone uncomfortable. All you can do is scan the environment to make your best guess as to what’s appropriate then attempt to respect everyone’s feelings and boundaries. After all, it’ll probably only be a few hours until you’re home and free to do as you please.