I hear a lot of couples talk about how they ‘used to be’ when they started dating.
They tell stories of how they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, how they held hands, kissed, caressed each other. Touch was a major part of their early relationship.
So, what happened along the way? How did life interfere with our connection? Literally?
In this article I want to explore why physical touch in marriage is important. But more pointed, why a simple act of holding hands can change your marriage. It’s really simple. Because touch is powerful.
Never underestimate the power of connecting on a physical level. Not just sexually, but connecting physically through touch.
A Little Backstory
My wife and both come from previous marriages. This gives us unique insight into what makes a relationship ‘go south’ AND what creates a good marriage. We’ve learned from our mistakes, and the mistakes of couples we help.
Early in our relationship we made a commitment to each other – one born our of deep love, admiration and determination – to never let life get in the way of our connection.
By the way, if you want to know how your relationship stacks up, take our marriage quiz and discover your marriage score. Following this short quiz you’ll be given advice on what area’s need work, and specific things you can do to shore up your relationship.
For us, this means we spend time together doing ‘life’s little things.’ We cook together, hike and take adventures, make sure we spend time daily talking about our day (and dreams). We also make sure we touch.
We hold hands while watching television, driving in the car, or hiking on a trail somewhere. Non-sexual physical touch increases our connection and intimacy.
What About The Physical Touch Love Language?
Gary Chapman made the idea of ‘love languages’ popular in the early 1990’s. His book is still recommended reading for couples wanting to discover how to relate better with their spouse.
The premise is every person has a preferred way they like to receive love. For some, it’s acts of service (doing special things for them), others it’s gifts (giving them a gift makes them feel ‘thought about’), and others, it’s physical touch. Those are three of the five. The other two are words of affirmation and quality time.
My take? This is useful, but incomplete. Truth is, it is only a snap shot of what’s going on in your life at any given time. It can’t give you the full picture. This is true for a number of reasons; we change over time. Our needs evolve, grow and mature.
So what makes us feel connected at one stage of marriage, may not be the best way to connect at another stage. We are complicated individuals. I’m sure you realize that.
Plus, one potential danger is to think that you only need to do ‘one thing’ to make your spouse feel loved. This is far from the truth.
That said, the five love languages DO help us understand our spouse better.
Here’s my big thought on this:
Physical touch is not JUST a love language. We all need it. We are hardwired to respond to physical affection.Physical touch is not JUST a love language. We all need it. We are hardwired to respond to physical affection. Click To Tweet
Sure, some people respond deeper than others, but science has proven that physical touch is necessary for the development of mental, emotional and spiritual health.
So physical touch should be a part of our regular connection with our spouse.
In the video below, ‘What’s Up Dude‘ talks about the benefits of physical touch.
Here’s a few of those benefits:
• Mental health and emotional well being
• Better sleep
• Improves immune system
• Reduces loneliness
• Decreases stress
• Lowers blood pressure
• Increases white blood cell production
• And much more…
Human Touch – Human Touch And Health – Importance Of Physical Contact
How Important is Physical Touch in Marriage?
According to researchers, it’s pretty necessary for long term relationship success. Dr. Justin Lehmiller sums it up this way:
Physical intimacy plays a vital role in long-term relationship success. However, such intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual in nature in order for it to have a profound effect on the partners and their relationship. A new set of studies published in the journal Physiology & Behavior suggests that non-sexual touch plays an important role in stress relief and relaxation.
In each of two studies, a team of European researchers brought male-female couples into the lab to take turns stroking each other in a non-sexual way. Specifically, one partner would lay down on a bed with their arm outstretched, while the other partner would be seated in a chair next to them. The seated individual was then instructed to stroke the other partner’s forearm as they normally would in an intimate situation.
The partners were separated by a blanket, meaning the “stroker” could only see the “receiver’s” forearm. In addition, the partners were instructed not to converse. This was to ensure that any effects observed were due to physical contact, not visual or verbal feedback.
While the stroking occurred, participants’ heart rates were monitored and, afterward, they rated the pleasantness of the touch.
In both studies, the researchers found that both strokers and receivers rated the experience as pleasant; however, those who received touch found it to be even more pleasant than those who gave touch.
More importantly, those who received touch (but not those who gave touch) experienced a decrease in heart rate over time. In other words, being stroked on the forearm by one’s partner appears to have a calming or soothing effect on the body.
The more satisfied receivers were with their relationships at the start, the more pleasant they found the touch to be and the more it reduced their heart rate.
This is certainly not the only study done on physical touch. Researchers at Arizona State University report that ‘affection can lower blood sugar levels, and lower the risk of depression and stress. We saw something similar in the video above.
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More Research on Physical Touch
Another more famous study by Ted Huston, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, evaluated 168 couples over 13 years of marriage. They Discovered the happiest couples never stopped being affectionate toward each other. They ‘maintained the same levels of affection they had during their first two years of marriage.’
So, how does sex fit in with all this physical touch? Huston says:
Sex in marriage has long been known to be a measure of happiness. Although sex in itself is not the answer to a bad marriage, it is more of a result of things being right, like a thermometer that tells the temperature.
Compassion is at Your Fingertips
Dacher Keltner (Greater Good Science Center & Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley) conducted research to determine if emotions could be conveyed non-verbally only through touch.
They set up a lab that put a barrier between two subjects (people). They could not see each other, but could touch hands through a hole in the barrier. Subject A was given a list of emotions to convey to Subject B. Subject B stuck their arm into the hole in the barrier and waited to be touched.
Given the number of emotions being considered, the odds of guessing the right emotion by chance were about eight percent. But remarkably, participants guessed compassion correctly nearly 60 percent of the time. Gratitude, anger, love, fear—they got those right more than 50 percent of the time as well.
In fact, in other research I’ve found that people can not only identify love, gratitude, and compassion from touches but can differentiate between those kinds of touch, something people haven’t done as well in studies of facial and vocal communication.
I’ve included a video below of Dr. Keltner discussing this study.
Why Physical Touch Matters to Your Well Being
Back in the mid-’70s, when I was in graduate school, I was working in a neonatal intensive care unit, and we were trying to figure out how we could help the preemies grow and be discharged faster. We started by stimulating with non-nutritive nipples, because they were being tube-fed and so they didn’t have any sucking experience. That helped them grow, and we figured if we stimulated more of the body than just the mouth, we would get even better results. So we started massaging them and they started gaining more weight and being discharged earlier.
The question often comes up: Isn’t this all just the result of the placebo effect? Can it be backed up by science?
Field was asked: What’s the most surprising finding from your research?
We found that massage actually increases natural killer cells. Natural killer cells are the front lines of the immune system. They kill viral cells, bacteria cells. We found it first in men who had HIV, and then we studied adolescents who had HIV and found the same results. Then we studied breast cancer and again found an increase in natural killer cells. We think that the reason that happens is because we’re knocking down cortisol levels, the body’s culprit stress hormone. Cortisol kills natural killer cells, and so if we can reduce the stress hormones, we can save natural killer cells.
It’s easy to see that physical touch has powerful healing properties.
But what about those couples who don’t experience the benefits of physical touch?
Lack of Physical Touch in Marriage
Dr. Fields was asked about lessons we can learn from the research on touch. She makes two big observations:
First, lack of touch is associated with aggressive behavior.
Yeah, and there’s also a lot of monkey data showing a direct relationship between aggressiveness and touch deprivation. They put a plexiglass wall between monkeys so they can see, they can hear, they can smell [each other], but they can’t touch [each other], and they become extremely aggressive. In fact, the guy who did these studies reports that they can kill each other when they’re touch-deprived like that.
Compare this to her second observation: Touch stimulates better performance in all areas of life.
They injected a cold germ into these people who were in the study, and those who had more hugs had a better immune response to the cold virus. And then [there are] some studies showing that if you get hugged by your partner before a stressful condition like giving a speech or doing math problems, people do better. Performance is better if they’ve been hugged by a partner before the stress.
The healthy couples I know all share this one common factor; they all touch. I’m not talking about the grandiose expressions of affection. Those can be shallow and fake.Healthy couples share small, almost undetectable expressions of physical connection. Click To Tweet
Healthy couples share small, almost undetectable expressions of physical connection.
Affection Can Be Learned
For those who say, ‘I’m just not that affectionate!’ think again.
Research shows that affection can be learned…if it is practiced. Like any skill, the more you do it, the more accomplished you become at it.
Here’s some advice from Dr. Ted Huston:
Anyone can learn to be affectionate, even those who have grown up in a culturally un-affectionate environment. You need affection from him that he initiates. Communicate your needs to him in a non-threatening way.
When you sit down with your mate for that heart-to-heart, give him a list of two or three things he can do every day. It might sound insincere, and extremely unromantic, but it will pay off in the end. More than likely your husband will come to enjoy the affectionate touches, and eventually you won’t have to beg for them.
You can also try a few of these ideas:
- Hold hands
- Kiss for 3-5 minutes every day
- Touch each others arms when sitting together
There are hundreds of ways you can incorporate touch into your daily life. Be creative. And don’t rule out the role of sex. But that’s for another article.
Researchers Jim Coan and Richard Davidson conducted a study with couples. One partner was put in a fMRI brain scanner and told they would hear a loud, painful blast of white noise. The brain scan showed spikes in the regions of the brain that measures threat and stress.
They found those spikes disappeared when their spouse gently stroked their arm while they waited,
Their partners touch turned off the stress and threat switch.
Increase Your Non-Sexual Physical Touch With This One Simple Step
In many Western cultures (US, Britain, Canada) physical touch is not given high priority. In spite of that, we CAN and should practice connecting on a physical level.
We talk a lot about making emotional connections with our spouse; truth is, emotional connection increases with physical touch. Research backs this up. [See research notes at the end of this article.] We talk a lot about making emotional connections with our spouse; truth is, emotional connection increases with physical touch. Click To Tweet
We can increase our touch by simply disconnecting from our digital world and focusing on our spouse (and our relationship).
Disconnecting can help us connect. So turn off the cell phone, ipad, and computer. And turn on touch with your spouse.
Wrapping It UP
So much research has been done on the power of touch.
The one big take-away is this…
Physical touch in marriage can help us feel more connected and experience a greater sense of well-being in our relationship.Physical touch in marriage can help us feel more connected and experience a greater sense of well-being in our relationship. Click To Tweet
The title of this article is ‘Physical Touch in Marriage: How Holding Hands Could Change Your Relationship.’
I hope you’ve seen the need, power and purpose of physical touch with your spouse.
Cultivating the habit of holding hands when you are together (sitting on the couch, walking in the store, etc) can create intimacy and connection between you and your spouse.
As Keltner puts it:
But to me, the science of touch convincingly suggests that we’re wired to—we need to—connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts.
It’s your turn. I’d love to hear what you think. Scroll down and leave a comment below.
What has your experience been with physical touch in your marriage?
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