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The Importance of Touch in Relationships

The Importance of Touch in Relationships

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By Kelly Edwards, LMFT Associate

As a couples therapist, a lot of the work I do has to do with building or rebuilding meaningful connections between people. Frequently, one of the signs of disconnection in relationships is the lack of touch. Touch often plays a crucial role in maintaining connection within interpersonal relationships. Touch is essential because of the ways it communicates emotions to others and because it stimulates the production of oxytocin, sometimes known as the love hormone.

Touch in Communication

Touch can be a powerful way of communicating emotions non-verbally. It offers a subtle and more nuanced approach in which we interact with others. Whether it is a hug or a pat on the back, touch can communicate positive emotions such as love and gratitude. Contact can also be an essential way of conveying sympathy. For example, when someone is experiencing grief, sometimes an arm around their shoulder provides more comfort than words alone.

Touch or hesitation in touch can also signify negative emotions. Imagine a parent and child holding hands when the parent tightly squeezes their child’s hand. This situation could alert the child their caregiver is experiencing fear and signal a warning. Safety and connection are necessary for more intimate forms of touch, such as a long hug. People can often sense when someone feels uncomfortable or not receptive to that kind of touch. Touch also has the potential to expand the depth of communication when combined with conversation, eye contact, and body language.

Oxytocin, The Love Hormone

Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone or the cuddle hormone, is crucial during labor and infancy. After birth, a flood of oxytocin creates a post-birth high, which helps develop a sense of calm after what is often a physically and emotionally exhausting labor. Oxytocin also encourages bonding between mother and infant by promoting feeding and regulating stress for the infant. Although we often associate this hormone’s importance with birth and infancy, oxytocin continues to play a vital role in intimate relationships throughout our lives.

According to Bonnie Badddnoch, a therapist and author whose work focuses on the use of brain science in therapy, oxytocin helps to negotiate the experience of attachment. It creates a feeling of well-being between two people. Oxytocin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, which means that it helps the communication within our brains and bodies and facilitates the way our minds and bodies communicate with others. Oxytocin inhibits stress and increases calmness and connection between people. Studies show that increases or decreases in neurotransmitters, such as oxytocin, can have a striking impact on thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships.

If you have been feeling down because you have been quarantined alone or have been away from someone you care deeply about, it is helpful to know that there are science-based reasons behind this. Lack of oxytocin from physical contact with others can affect our mental and physical health.

Tips for Self Regulating When You Cannot Touch Others

The good news is that many of the benefits gained from touch and oxytocin can be fostered through connection that does not involve touch. Perhaps now more than ever, it is a valuable time to remain in close contact with friends, family, and loved ones, even if it is only virtually. Connecting conversations and expressions of gratitude and appreciation towards others help the production of oxytocin. I would also like to offer a few “hacks” to help stimulate the regulating effects of oxytocin.

1.) Take a bath while visualizing the embrace from a loved one. The warm water surrounding your body has a similar effect on someone embracing you, and the mental image helps to intensify that.

2.) Have a video chat with someone you care about while having a weighted blanket on top of you. The weighted blanket also imitates the effects of a warm embrace.

3.) Give yourself caresses and massages. Whether rubbing your shoulders, rubbing your neck, or massaging your temples has many benefits such as improving sleep and reducing stress.

And last, permit yourself to be disappointed about the lack of touch. It’s okay to miss it. Hopefully, current scientific research on the pandemic will soon inform us of ways to touch one another again safely. In the meantime, it is crucial to find other ways to care for yourself and regulate stress.

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