What you need to know about affect


Affect is an immediate emotional response to an event, behavior or situation. Often, your responses are automatic and happen before you can even think about them. You simply start feeling emotions and respond.

In many cases, your responses are rooted in your biology. Sometimes it’s your personality type and sometimes it’s your learned behaviors. No matter how you acquired them, they are there to help you deal with what is happening. This is especially true when you feel that there is some kind of danger. Danger can be psychological or physical. It can be dealing with a frustrated boss at work or trying to avoid a car accident. Your body can’t often distinguish between different kinds of danger and responds to them in a similar way. Your reactions are automatic and immediate. This is how affect works in your life.

The role of affect

The most obvious role of affect in life is that it is there to protect you. However, your automatic responses also serve other purposes. One of them is to care for others. For example, when a baby starts crying, the parents respond instantaneously. They may choose to give attention and care to the baby right away or wait to respond depending on the situation, but their immediate reactions are the same in both scenarios.

In your marriage, you respond in a similar way to your spouse. It may be that a wife receives bad news on the phone and starts crying. The husband notices that and his first reaction is to console his wife. There may be just a few words, but they are not even needed. The husband’s immediate reaction to his wife’s signals of vulnerability and pain is to show affection.

When you are arguing with your spouse, your automatic responses also often make you react very quickly, but in a very different way. For example, your partner may say something and you will immediately try to verbally defend yourself and your behavior.

Affect leads to quick action and is about basic survival response, which is why it doesn’t provide a lot of meaning. You act in the moment and think later. You don’t think about your responses. You simply engage in them. Biologically, this system works well when it comes to securing survival and protecting others.

An example of affect at work

The fight-or-flight response is an excellent example of the affect response. When it happens, you systems fire quickly and choose between freezing, getting away, fighting or pretending to be dead. The last one is a surrender response. You think you can’t win and so you give in hoping that you will still be able to survive and escape later.

In reality, these same responses show up in marriage conflicts all the time. When you feel threatened in your relationship with your spouse, it’s very likely that you start doing one of these four things.