Are you touching each other enough? No, not during sex. I’m talking about touching when we feel lonely, long to connect, and want to open. Yet, afraid of rejection, we hold back.
Over 30 years, and hundreds of couples, I see that words are never good enough. Communication and problem-solving are not good enough. The happiest are those who touch each other frequently. Those couples who sit on my couch and tilt their knees toward each other, lean in with their torso, look each other in the eyes, reach out and graze the other’s knee, touch the other’s arm, tuck an errant lock of hair behind the ear, groom the other, e.g. pick lint out of the other’s hair — their attention is to each other. It may be subtle, but at some base level, they are physical with each other.
During the session, happier couples almost seek out reasons to grope each other. Their love is palpable, their touch-filled energy electric. This is the stuff that builds intimate trust and loudly declares, “I care about you, you’re important to me, I want to give to you, I want to be close to you.” Touch says, “I’m willing to risk being vulnerable.”
When couples are distressed, tense, tempers high, there is only one goal: to soothe each other. What’s the single fastest, most effective way to do this? Drop the ego, reach out physically, and let your partner know you’re there. Skin to skin contact. Forget about rationally talking it through. If you’re open and allow yourself to be physically soothed or be soothing, this helps avoid the endless conversational looping around. Talking is good, but it will be more effective after you have both reached a point of being physically comforted.
In a famed study, a researcher studied how many times friends touched each other while sitting at a cafe. He collected data around the world. In Mexico City, couples touched each other 185 times. In Paris, 115 times. In London, 0 times. In Gainesville, Fla., twice. We are not a touch-oriented culture. For all our obsession with sex, in contrast to other cultures, Americans are sadly physically starved.
What is touch? Bare skin contact — it’s our first “language.” How do we first get emotional comfort? Our mother touches us — it’s our ultimate nourishment. Without it, we cannot thrive. This is our template forever. We carry it with us until death. By learning it’s possible to connect with someone outside ourselves, touch teaches us the difference between “I” and “other,” supplying our platform for secure attachments.
What’s the best way to connect with a baby? Lavishing touch: cradling and cuddling, stroking, caressing, tickling, nuzzling and kissing, rocking — we literally carry them because we know their lives depend on it. As infants, we clasp with our fingers and suckle with our lips. As children, we build on this: hugging with open arms, climbing on laps, snuggling during sleep. We’re comforted by someone holding us close, not by them holding us at arm’s length. Can you imagine a child crying, and our pushing her away? No! But as we get older, we back away from each other. Why? Afraid to put ourselves out there, scared we’ll be rejected, and nervous we’ll be judged, we’re cautious.
As adults we learn to suppress the ache within. We ache to be loved with physicality, to be hugged and cuddled. Primal and primitive, we never ‘outgrow’ touch. Why? Because we each carry an infant inside of us. This is the baby we once were, when we depended on touch to thrive. Without it, we would’ve withered and shrank. Our need to be touched does not die. We long for it, at times desperately.
Sociology studies have shown that touch has positive outcomes in many ways. If teachers place a supportive hand on their shoulders, students tend to participate more in class. Waitresses get higher tips if they touch customers. If doctors touch their patients during a routine office visit, they get higher ratings. We see athletes increasing team morale and winning more games with high-fives, bear-hugs, and butt-slaps. For mothers suffering from postpartum depression, if they got a daily 15-minute massage from their partner, this was as effective as an antidepressant. Despite the stress of a newborn, this physical connectedness helped them feel close.
Babies born prematurely and kept isolated in incubators without touch from parents or hospital staff fail to thrive. In a recent study, if nurses massaged and touched premature babies through an incubator, they gained 47 percent of their body weight in 10 days, and were able to leave the hospital much sooner.
Touch doesn’t necessarily have to be from a person. In a Cambridge study, if heating was kept a constant, premature babies were placed on a lambswool blanket for a day. They gained approximately half an ounce more than usual.
As fetuses, touch is the first sense to develop. As an hour-old infant, we instinctively touch by mewling, engaging touch cells in the lips for nursing, and making clutching motions with the hands for warmth.
All life forms — humans, animals, plants — respond to being touched. Giving physical affection to your dog is tantamount to injecting love. For many dogs, second only to food, touch is the greatest positive reinforcer you can give them. In fact, research shows that for many dogs, they respond more readily to petting than to food or toys. Plants have been shown to grow optimally when stroked. This is called the “touch response” or thigmotropism, where we see structural changes in the roots.
The parallels are astonishing: plants, us as babies, and nonhuman primates, who spend 10 to 20 percent of their day grooming each other. So primal is our need, family members touch each other to care for them, even when faced with the risk of contracting Ebola. Helene Cooper, the Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, flew into Liberia with U.S. military troops. She reported seeing people trying hard not to touch another infected with the disease, but a woman reached out to pick up her toddler. A man fed and hydrated his mother, saying “she birthed me.”
Here is our ultimate risk: death. And still, our own lives tucked into the background, we reach out and touch. Our largest organ, skin, is 15 percent of our body weight and 20 square feet. With more than 3,000 sensitive pressure receptors per fingertip, we are rich. For sheer concentration of touch receptors, our fingertips are second only to our lips. These receptors transmit stimuli through the medium of our network of hundreds of billions of neurons in our brain. When we kiss or touch each other, we release oxytocin, a hormone acting as a neuromodulator in the brain. It decreases inflammation, improves wound healing, distends cervix and vagina during labor, breastfeeding, sexual arousal and orgasm. It’s also associated with a decrease in blood pressure and cortisol, the stress hormone.
Oxytocin kicks in for the subtler social stuff as well, such as social recognition, reducing fear and forming trust, being generous. It’s no wonder we have a cascade of oxytocin during touching, kissing, and hugging. Biologically, we’re born with the drive to touch. Psychologically, we thrive when touched, and spiritually, we grow with it. Even at a cellular level, chemicals must bond for reactions to occur. Without touch, we would have no life on this planet, and without it, we would die as a species. Deep in our heart, we’re hungry for it, and when we get it, we’re jolted into pure sensate feeling. One beautiful soul reaching out to another, let’s own our need, and celebrate our common humanity.