The power of touch
from publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS December 2011
The fact that gentle, non-erotic touch is a vital ingredient in a relationship is nothing new. However, since couplehood has its ups and downs, all partners may notice that, sometimes, they’re not touching each other as usual. This physical isolation is almost always a reflection of emotional distance.
If we are noticing its absence, we can be sure that our partner is also noticing it. Yet, at times, although we want to, we both resist reaching out, because we’re too angry, hurt, scared, or upset in some way. The power of touch has been on my mind these days because of some recent, very dramatic scenes in two couples’ therapy sessions.
When partners reach out appreciatively to touch each other in the sessions, it’s always moving and emotional. But the two couples I’m thinking about were having trouble figuring out if they even wanted to stay married, so obviously, touch didn’t come as easily. That’s why, when it happened with them, it was even more dramatic and emotional. One couple had come for a few sessions and they were both seeing that the changes they needed were indeed possible.
But one day, they had slipped back into old, painful communication patterns and came in to the next session very hurt, angry, and guarded — to the point that she decided to move off the couch and sit in a chair on the other side of the room. As we tried to figure out what might repair the break and let them reconnect, she took the risk of expressing what he could do to make it better for her. She talked of a goal they both had already set for themselves, and he reaffirmed that he would remember better and try harder. She felt appreciative, reaffirmed that she would do her part, and calmed down.
But him! Although he had just heard a reminder that she wanted to give him more of what he needed, emotionally, he couldn’t figure out how to let go of the fear in his head and the tension and anger in his body. We were stuck and just sat there. Finally, I asked if a physical connection might help, and he shrugged and said “maybe.”
His partner was willing and went to sit next to him, and he allowed her to hold him for a few moments. Almost immediately, a dramatic change occurred in the room. All the tension and discomfort was gone! His body was visibly calm and relaxed. She and I saw it immediately. He, too, acknowledged how her holding him had allowed him to physically let go of his anger.
The next day, I saw another variation on this theme. A new couple who had recently started counseling hadn’t yet seen any hopeful changes; indeed, they weren’t yet sure that change was possible. She didn’t even know if she wanted to work on change since she wasn’t sure she still wanted the marriage; but he did.
During their conversation, as he was explaining how much he wanted to help improve things, he held the tip of his finger against her leg. Given the hopelessness she was expressing, even this very tentative touch was a brave, reaching-out act on his part.
Afterward, when I asked how that physical connection felt, limited though it was, she responded that it felt good and calming. So, even with all that emotional and physical distance, that tiny physical contact had a positive effect on creating a bonding feeling.
Can touch really be that powerful? My experience is that it’s one of the most powerful tools a couple has. We know that being touched releases hormones that give us a feeling of safety and comfort. Adding touch to gentle talk while looking in the other’s eyes is a connection triumvirate that can’t fail to improve things. When partners talk to each other like that, it creates the safety to drop their guards and become truly available.
This kind of gentle, non-erotic touch, by definition, is a loving act. When one of us reaches out affectionately, even with a tip of a finger, it feels nothing but good. We all know this works, since touch is one of the reasons we were able to get close enough to our partner in the first place. So, when things are going well, touch is an integral part of the interaction; when touch is gone, something in the relationship is going badly.
Yet, from the two couples above, I was reminded how being willing to risk responding to an outreach or reaching out with gentle words and just the barest minimum of touch still seemed the way to begin the repair process in a deeply emotional way. Saying, “I’m sorry,” or “I really want this to work,” while looking elsewhere with hands folded, doesn’t compare to the experience of saying the same words while looking at and touching our partner.
Looking into your partner’s eyes and saying, or hearing, “I miss you,” along with a gentle touch, is guaranteed to bridge the distance and bring some loving feelings back between the two of you.