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Beau Wright
Beau Wright

Intimate Touch


Physical intimacy is sensual proximity or touching. It is an act or reaction, such as an expression of feelings (including close friendship, platonic love, romantic love or sexual attraction), between people. Examples of physical intimacy include being inside someone's personal space, holding hands, hugging, kissing, caressing and sexual activity.[1] Physical intimacy can often convey the real meaning or intention of an interaction in a way that accompanying speech cannot do. Physical intimacy can be exchanged between any people but as it is often used to communicate positive and intimate feelings, it most often occurs in people who have a preexisting relationship, whether familial, platonic or romantic, with romantic relationships having increased physical intimacy. Several forms of romantic touch have been noted including holding hands, hugging, kissing, cuddling, as well as caressing and massaging. Physical affection is highly correlated with overall relationship and partner satisfaction.[2]




Intimate Touch


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It is possible to be physically intimate with someone without actually touching them; however, a certain proximity is necessary. For instance, a sustained eye contact is considered a form of physical intimacy, analogous to touching. When a person enters someone else's personal space for the purpose of being intimate, it is physical intimacy, regardless of the lack of actual physical contact.


Most people partake in physical intimacy, which is a natural part of interpersonal relationships and human sexuality, and research has shown it has health benefits. A hug or touch can result in the release of the hormone oxytocin and in a reduction in stress hormones.[3]


Due to the important role that language-based communication plays in humans, the role of touch is often downplayed; however, there is ample evidence that physical touch still plays an important role in everyday human relationships. While humans often communicate verbally, they also participate in close contact. Physical touch has emotional and social connotations that often far outweigh anything that can be expressed via language.[4]


Inducements towards physical intimacy can come from various sources. During colder seasons, humans as well as other animals seek physical intimacy with one another as a means to apportion thermoregulation.[5] Some forms of physical touch among monkeys and apes serve multiple functions, including cleaning, treatment of a lice influx or infection and social grooming.[6]


Decreased amounts of affectionate touch from caregivers (i.e. for infants in institutional settings or infants with depressed mothers) is related to cognitive and neurodevelopmental delays.[12] These delays appear to persist for years and sometimes whole lifetimes.[13] Studies suggest that if depressed mothers give their infants massages, it benefits both the baby and themselves, increasing growth and development for the babies and leading to increased sensitivity and responsivity of the mothers.[14] There are also biologically beneficial effects of infant massage, with premature infants displaying lower cortisol levels after being held by their mothers. During the holding period, the mothers' cortisol levels also decreased.[15]


Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger or anxiety when somebody encroaches on their personal space without consent.[16] Entering somebody's personal space is normally an indication of familiarity and intimacy. However, in modern society, especially in crowded urban communities, it is at times difficult to maintain personal space, for example, in a crowded train, elevator or street. Many people find the physical proximity within crowded spaces to be psychologically disturbing and uncomfortable.[16] In an impersonal crowded situation, eye contact tends to be avoided. Even in a crowded place, preserving personal space is important. Non-consensual intimate and sexual contact, such as frotteurism and groping, are unacceptable.


People who are on a familiar basis may enter into each other's personal space to make physical contact. These can be indicators of affection and trust. The manner in which people display affection is generally different in a public context to a private one. In private, people in an intimate relationship or who are familiar with each other may be at ease with physical contact and displays of affection, which may involve:


In public, however, and depending on the nature of the relationship between the people, a public display of affection is generally constrained by social norms and can range from a gesture, such as a kiss or hug in greeting, to an embrace or holding hands. Maintaining eye contact can be regarded socially and psychologically as analogous to touching.


The role of touch in interpersonal relationships across development and in different cultures is understudied, however, some observational data suggests that in cultures who engage in more physical intimacy have lower rates of violence, demonstrated in adolescents and children.[17] Peoples living nearer to the equator (Mediterranean, central and South America, Islamic countries) tend to have high-contact social norms, whereas countries further from the equator tend to be lower contact (northern Europe, North America, northeast Asian). The public display of interpersonal touch and intimacy appears to vary across cultures as well.[18]


Study after study has found that couples who touch each other more tend to be happier. From backrubs to gentle caresses to hand-holding to hugging, the more intimate contact couples have with one another, the more satisfied they tend to be with their relationships [1].


A new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships explored how attachment anxiety and avoidance are linked to satisfaction with the amount of touch people are getting in their marriages and, further, how this is linked to their overall feelings about the relationship [2].


Both partners completed a survey about their attachment style, their satisfaction with the amount of intimate touch they are receiving, how often they engage in routine affection with their partners, and how satisfied vs. dissatisfied they are with their marriage.


Overall, and consistent with previous research, partners who touched each other more and who were happier with the amount of touch they were receiving tended to be more sexually satisfied and were happier in their relationships. Also, on average, wives were more satisfied with the amount of touch they were getting than were husbands, and people who had been in their relationships longer were less satisfied with touch than people in newer relationships.


However, when accounting for the amount of routine affection in the relationship, this association disappeared for women, but remained for men. In other words, for women, the link between anxiety and touch satisfaction was purely a function of how much touch they were actually getting; however, for men, touch satisfaction was about more than just how much touch they received.


Exploring this association further, the researchers found that when routine touch was really high, most men were pretty satisfied no matter what their anxiety level was. However, when routine touch was low, this seemed to affect anxious men much more profoundly (and negatively) than non-anxious men.


Also, for women only, those who were high in avoidance were happier than their non-avoidant counterparts when the amount of touch was low; however, when the amount of touch was high, the pattern was reversed.


More research is needed, especially to further understand the gender effects uncovered here. However, there are interesting implications of these results. For example, they suggest that attending to discrepancies in attachment style may be vital to understanding the root of relationship conflicts centering around touch. They also suggest that blanket recommendations to increase touch might not affect everyone and every relationship the same way.


[2] Wagner, S. A., Mattson, R. E., Davila, J., Johnson, M. D., & Cameron, N. M. (2020). Touch me just enough: The intersection of adult attachment, intimate touch, and marital satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 0265407520910791.


As the study protocol included hormonal sampling, individuals on hormonal therapy were also excluded, as well as postmenopausal, pregnant, or breastfeeding women. They were interviewed separately on their attachment tendencies, the amount of touch and routine affection in their relationships, and their relationship satisfaction.


Millions of people around the world are not getting the physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy they crave. Through the wonders of modern technology, we are connecting with more people more often than ever before, but are these connections what we long for? Pandemic isolation has made us even more alone. In Out of Touch, Professor of Psychology Michelle Drouin investigates what she calls our intimacy famine, exploring love, belongingness, and fulfillment and considering why relationships carried out on technological platforms may leave us starving for physical connection. Drouin puts it this way: when most of our interactions are through social media, we are taking tiny hits of dopamine rather than the huge shots of oxytocin that an intimate in-person relationship would provide.


Affectionate touch, such as hugging, holding hands, kissing, or cuddling, is a way of expressing fondness, love, and support in our intimate relationships. It has been well documented that affectionate touch is positively associated with relationship satisfaction. It promotes intimacy, enhances positive affect, and signals a desire for closeness.


However, the research to date has primarily focused on the positive outcomes of receiving affectionate touch in our relationships. In contrast, little is known about what might promote affectionate touch, or even what might lead someone to engage in more affectionate touch with their romantic partner. 041b061a72


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