As newborn infants, touch is the first sense we acquire. Touch is so important to the developmental needs of children, that there is a phenomenon known as "failure to thrive" to describe the delayed development (and sometimes loss) of children who are deprived of touch. It seems our need for touch is hard-wired, yet our current society is often described as "touch phobic." There are many possible explanations for this, the three most prominent being 1) respecting other's boundaries, 2) fear of misinterpretation, and 3) vulnerabilty. For all our hesitation regarding touching others, we also seem to be hard-wired for interpreting touch.
A recent study at DePauw University demonstrated that we are innately able to interpret emotions through touch alone. Participants were able to communicate anger, disgust, fear, sadness, love, sympathy, gratitude and happiness via touch alone, with up to 78% accuracy. This is much higher than studies recording accuracy for other ways of communicating emotions, such as body language or even verbal communication. The effects of touch have been studied regarding favorable evaluations, tip size, purchasing behaviors and teamwork, all with positive results for advocating more touch. So, how does this apply to you and your relationships?
Touch is a bonding ritual between partners. It creates a feeling of connectivity and strengthens relationships. When we are provided friendly touch, oxytocin levels increase, heart rate decreases, and levels of the stress hormone, cortisol decrease. All these physiological changes signal increased well-being. Even more interest is that these changes also occur in the individual who is doing the touching, so the hugger gets just as much benefit as the person being hugged. Perhaps this is the reason why touch is so important in the early stages of the relationship. Unfortunately, over time, touch typically decreases in committed relationships. Each partners' need or desire for touch is different and in the beginning, most couples work toward a compromise. Over time, however, the individual with the higher need for touch tends to become dissatisfied in the relationship. The good news is, even if you are the partner who tends to initiate touch more frequently, as long as your touch is accepted by your partner, you can receive the same physiological benefits. Then it becomes a matter of wrapping your mind around this subconscious process, as opposed to keeping score.
Individuals who are not as comfortable with touch are frequently quite resistant when we suggest increasing phsycial touch with their partner. Physical touch doesn't have to be overwhelming. Just the brush of your hand on your partner's shoulder as you walk by, can communicate so much! Start with one small ritual and expand from there. As you become more comfortable touching your partner, you will also likely notice greater connectivity in your relationship!
by David Carter, PhD, LIMHP