The Power of Touch: A Happy Couple’s Secret Weapon
Skin is our largest organ for a very good reason—it is the pathway for touch. Touch is the most primitive of the five senses to develop but it is also the secret key to many healthy, intimate relationships. And I’m not just talking about sex here. Non-sexual physical intimacy can be just as important to maintaining a long-term relationship.
In a previous post, I talked about achieving greater closeness with your partner through intimate conversations and self-disclosure. But touch is also a powerful communicator. Social scientists have studied the ways in which touch can reveal everything from your partner’s current mood to their hidden stress level. Touch stimulates the release of oxytocin, the hormone linked to the feeling of connectedness with our partner. So, touch alone can bond people together both physically and psychologically.
Let’s look at some of the scientific findings on the importance of touch. American psychologist Harry Harlow is widely known for his maternal separation experiments with rhesus monkeys. In his experiment, he presented infant monkeys with the choice of two surrogate mothers—a wire mother containing a food bottle and a wire mother covered in terry cloth that did not hold food.
Overwhelmingly, the infant monkeys preferred spending time clinging to the cloth mother. Even when only the wire mother could provide nourishment, the monkeys visited her only to feed. This study led Harlow to conclude that there was much more to the mother-infant bond than milk. He coined the term “contact comfort” as an essential element to the development and health of infant monkeys and children.
One of Harlow’s doctoral students, Abraham Maslow, went one step further. In his famous hierarchy of needs, he hypothesized that the need for touch is the most basic of all needs, at the very foundation of the pyramid along with food and shelter.
In another post about intimate relationships, I cited the groundbreaking work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and their development of attachment theory. Bowlby claimed that the mother provides much more than food to the infant. He believed that as long as the earliest caregiver provides the infant with attuned care, including physical touch as well as communication, this bond will positively influences the child’s development and mental health. In fact, this unique bond provides a template for future relationship styles as an adult.
All of the evidence presented here goes to prove that the strength of a long-term intimate relationship depends on both communication and physical touch. So, how does it happen that many long-term relationships slowly unravel to the point where daily touch never happens and sex becomes a rarity? The problem usually begins with basic differences in the couple’s libido.
Two people rarely have the exact same sex drive. Differences in libido can be due to biological factors, like illness or menopause, or life events, like job stress or childcare. Whatever the reasons, a large desire discrepancy will eventually cause the relationship to erode.
Often, the partner with the lower sex drive will end up avoiding any touch for fear that it will be interpreted as an invitation for sex. Sometimes partners are exhausted or too sleepy or just want to enjoy going to bed with a good book. They might enjoy physical closeness but sex is the last thing on their minds.
The lower-drive partner may even create additional distance by making critical comments toward the other. Over time, the higher drive partner will take the initiative less and less often out of feelings of frustration and rejection. If the partner with the higher sex drive starts feeling unappreciated, they may drift away and start getting their sexual needs met outside of the relationship.
Touch is so important for the success of long-term relationships that it has become the cornerstone of most sex therapy programs. Masters and Johnson recognized this nearly half a century ago when they introduced the notion of sensate focus as a therapeutic technique.
Sensate focus involves a couple using nonsexual touch as a means of promoting relaxation and closeness. Touch has proven to be highly effective in solving many kinds of sexual problems involving stress, anxiety, or lack of communication. In fact, the effective use of touch can make it less likely that such problems will emerge or become serious in the first place.
Here are some easy ways to incorporate non-sexual touch into your relationship:
- While you are having a conversation, caress your partner’s cheek
- Cuddle with one another on the sofa or spoon in bed
- Walk with your arms around each other’s waist
- Sit close enough to touch your arms and legs
- Hold hands in the car
- Rub your partner’s back while they are standing in the kitchen
- Reach under the table and play footsie with one another
- Run your hands through your partner’s hair
- Agree to snuggle without it leading to sex
- Make arrangements to kiss your partner 100 times
- Give your partner a massage with your own hands
On this last point, I’ve discovered that lot of people don’t know how to give a massage particularly well. If you need a little help, there is a video series on massage technique that I personally recommend. It builds on the fundamentals of sensate focus: make an appointment with your partner for some quality time to focus only on each other, replace feelings of stress and anxiety with relaxation through mutual touch, and be sure to communicate with your partner about what feels good.
Although this is not an erotic massage video, rest assured that the resulting physical intimacy will have the potential to spark sexual desire! If this sounds interesting to you, just send me your email below and I’ll send you the link.
Humans are social beings. Humans need other humans. Be careful not to rob yourself of the nurturing, healing, and connectedness that comes from basic human touch. It can nourish your health, your relationships, and your spirit.
Does your relationship need extra help? Find a safe space to explore the dynamics at work in your relationship with empathy and put aside grudges long enough to see your partner in a different light. Counseling can provide an opportunity to see patterns on many different levels: communication with your partner, your relationship with your parents, and how those layers interact to create difficulties in your intimate relationship.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 914-510-2882 and we can get started working on your relationship today.