“I wish my husband would touch me more…it makes me feel so close to him.” ~Lindsey, age 38
Touch is one of the most powerful (and often under-utilized) forms of communication and expression of affection in adult relationships. The old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” definitely applies to touch. Loving touch has the potential to say so much.
For many people, touch (intimate touch, affectionate touch, playful touch) can be a direct conduit to emotional closeness—a means to bridging emotional divides, as well as a means to reinforcing the connections that already exist, connections that are so vital to the foundation of an intimate relationship.
Why is touch such a compelling way to express and receive love?
The First Form of Communication
As infants, our primary way of communicating with our caregivers was through touch (they held, rubbed, tickled, squeezed, and pat us)–because of an infant’s and young child’s undeveloped command of language, caregivers rely heavily on the power of touch to soothe, excite, comfort, and connect with infants. Without touch during this developmental phase, our mental and physical wellbeing would be severely compromised—touch lays the groundwork for healthy development.
At one point in our early existence, communication through touch was the centerpiece of our lives.
As we continued to develop, touch slowly took a back seat (though not totally) to the use of language—at some point words became the primary way to communicate and share our inner lives with others. As adults, words of support, such as, “You’ll be fine…hang in there, I know you can get through this,” can make physical gestures of support seem unnecessary. Yet for many couples, words are simply not enough, and touch remains a central form of expression that exists alongside the use of language as a pathway to effective communication.
Touch Lost and Found
At some point in development, many children start to receive the message (either directly or indirectly) that they have become “too big” or “mature” for certain kinds of touch (e.g., handshakes replace hugs). What was once revered as the expressive vehicle of love and connection early in life is later viewed as inappropriate—when this occurs, our natural need/desire for touch can become atrophied and shrouded in shame.
Certain cultures also send the message that expressions of support and affection through touch are less acceptable for men than women.
The result of these anti-touch messages is that some of us can become touch-phobic—what once brought us a sense of connection and feelings of wholeness at the beginning of our life can now make us feel uneasy and want to recoil as adults.
Rediscovering the Power of Touch
Couples aren’t always touch-compatible—it’s common for one partner to want to be touched more often or to be more expressive through touch than the other partner. There are simply high-touch and low-touch personalities—accepting these differences is part of the compromise process that all relationships must navigate.
But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a conscious effort to ramp up the amount of touch in your relationship. Holding hands, hugging, leaning into each other while sitting, placing a hand on your partner’s arm or leg or back takes little effort in the long run, yet it can pay out big relationship dividends.
Like all effective couples communication skills, increased awareness of a desired behavioral change is the first and most important step in improving communication (in this case, awareness that you and your partner will be increasing the amount of touch in your relationship). And having a plan to implement the desired changes is just as important—some couples create a specific plan to add a certain number of touch behaviors to their relationship each day (e.g., we will hug each other three times a day; we will kiss each morning and evening).
Finally, it’s important that you and your partner listen to touch. Often, couples touch one another without even realizing it. In these circumstances, touching has become so automated that it goes unnoticed and it’s like the touch doesn’t even exist. This is common in long-term relationships and it’s easily fixed. To break your numbness to the touch, you must direct your attention to the sensations of touch and allow them to register in your conscious experience.
Feel the warmth and pressure of touch. Imagine these sensations radiating beyond the touch-points on your skin, and see them traveling throughout your body. Remember, when you entered the world, you were immediately bathed in touch. Reclaiming the gifts of touch can go a long way in nurturing your relationship.
Marriage/Relationship Help Resources
For more information about how to make effective communication (including touch) a regular part of your marriage/relationship, click communication workbook.
Until next time!
Dr. Rich Nicastro