Why Physical Touch Is So Important in Relationships
One of the many issues that my clients – and couples in particular – present with are related to the experience of touching and being touched. For a variety of reasons, it seems that we are losing touch (pardon the horrible pun!) with our desire for physical contact.
What I am seeing is that electronic “connection” is actually replacing face-to-face connection, and in the process, we are neglecting our ability and desire to experience physical connection.
Reach out and touch someone wasn’t just a schmaltzy ad campaign in the 80s for AT&T. It’s vital for many of your closer relationships – both romantic and platonic.
Touch is a fundamental human need
Touch is essential for babies’ development for their physical, emotional, and eventually social health. In fact, touch is the first of the five senses to develop. The need for positive touch, the connection, and the reassurance it can bring is literally in our DNA.
“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language, and the last, and it always tells the truth.”
– Margaret Atwood
We are wired for touch. Want proof? Easy. Take a close look at this picture.
This baby has not been taught that she or he needs touch. In particular, note that this baby has not been taught to touch or hold their mother’s finger…and yet the baby is naturally grasping their parent’s finger. Wasn’t taught. Just naturally wanted the connection through physical touch.
What else have we learned?
We have learned so much about ourselves by studying our closest animal cousins – primates.
Early research on rhesus monkeys that were deprived of actual physical comfort from their mothers gave us a tremendous amount of insight into why touch is so important.
Infant monkeys that had direct contact with their mothers grew up to be friendly, patient, social, happy, and physically healthier than baby monkeys who were provided with indirect sustenance such as bottled milk but no direct physical affection and comfort from their mothers. The second set of babies who were denied physical touch and affection grew up to be isolated, lonely, depressed, withdrawn, unhappy, and in many cases, highly aggressive.
But what about as a functioning adult? Is touch really that important?
You bet! Scientific studies have shown that touch can be decoded as a form of nonverbal communication across a diversity of developed countries. Touch can communicate tenderness, compassion, anger, love, gratitude, happiness, and fear within mere seconds.
It’s true that the need for touch can vary among individuals, couples, families, nations, and cultures. For example, those who live in warmer climates tend to wear less clothing due to the heat. More skin is exposed, and the opportunities for skin-to-skin contact are greater.
This is particularly true for many cultures that are closer to the equator. The opposite is often true for the extreme northern and southern climates that are subject to cooler temperatures. Having said that, the desire for physical connection, in general, is seen as a “universal need.”
Touch can also be influential. Studies have also shown that individuals who have been touched are more likely to agree to participate in mall interviews, slight touches yield bigger tips for waitresses, and bus drivers are more likely to give a passenger a free ride if they touch them while making the request. And what about that unexplained urge to touch a pregnant woman’s belly?! It’s instinctual. We literally want to connect with others, even the unborn!
Researchers have also found that even an abbreviated touch from another person can evoke strong emotional experiences. Think about that slight nudge when being too close to someone on public transportation or the warm hug and kiss on the cheek or forehead as a greeting from someone close to you. Those moments can create positive emotions, memories, or unwanted illicit actions. Our focus here is on the positive benefits, which leads us to the next topic.
Benefits of Positive Touching
For most of us, our primary caregiver at birth was our mother. It’s here that we learn our comfort level for physical contact. There are also cultural explanations. People that grew up in warmer climates (consider the South and Latin countries) tend to be more comfortable with touching than those from colder climates (New England, the UK, and Eastern Europe).
But what about in our more intimate relationships? According to Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, who researches nonverbal and emotional communication at Arizona State University, “We feel more connected to someone if they touch us.”
Just the physical act of a kind and warm touch lowers one’s blood pressure and releases the “love hormone,” oxytocin. And it goes both ways. Those that give hugs for example, also have a similar physiological reaction.
Touching is also a key factor to a lasting relationship. According to married researchers and authors, Dr. Charles & Dr. Elizabeth Schmitz, “To touch someone you love is to acknowledge their presence and to communicate your desire for them.
That’s why the most successfully married couples amongst us do it so often.” They even noted that touch outranks sex in characteristics of a successful marriage. The Schmitz’s believe it’s the “the accumulation of touching” or, as Guerrero asserts, it’s the reciprocity of touch that increases intimacy and relationship satisfaction.
Touch comes in many forms
Affectionate physical touch in relationships includes:
Tips to use physical touch to increase relational intimacy
Note: Only use these tips if this is something that the other person is comfortable with. If you are in doubt about their preferences, simply ask them!
- Hug when your partner comes home.
- When in a low-level disagreement, simply sit facing each other and add some kind of physical contact. (Touch the arm or hold hands) to help connect and potentially diffuse the situation. Note: If this is has become a full-blown argument, attempting to touch during the heat of battle may not work out so well. Wait until emotions are calmer.
- Bury your head on their shoulder. Invite them to do the same if they would like.
- Flirt! – Extended caresses, slight spanking on the backside, tousling your partner’s hair, and caressing their shoulders are fun and easy ways to create more intimacy.
Here’s a simple exercise to help you learn more about touch in your relationship
Practice something called “sensate focus.” It’s simple. Find some time with your partner and experiment with touching them. Ask them to tell you what feels good in terms of where you touch them, as well as how much pressure they like or do not like.
Spend about 5 to 10 minutes doing this exercise. Then switch roles. Now you take the turn of the receiver and give feedback to your partner.
I hope that this brief article has helped you and your partner explore new possibilities to connect both physically and emotionally. Not everyone has the same need for touch. It’s understandable that you may have some questions. I invite you to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation. I am more than happy to help you gain some additional perspectives about how to enhance your abilities to enjoy touch and to help you with any blocks you may have about touch. You deserve to feel good!