Attention — 18 February 2006
The healing power of a loved one’s touch and connection

The process of transition from strangers to lovers entails five stages. Couples usually connect through eye contact, evolve into conversation, share activities and then touch. The pleasurable physical connection helps cement the pair’s readiness for ongoing commitment to each other.

Touch is much more than the expression of physical attraction. It is a measure of emotional intimacy, close bonding, support and unity and a major contributor to physiological soothing and health.

The benefit and necessity of touch for infants and children has long been known. Babies who were well fed and cared for, but who were not held, failed to thrive.

Neuroscientists, in a first study of this nature with adults, recently discovered the physiological benefits of hand holding to reduce anxiety associated with anticipated pain. The study at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Virginia recruited happily married couples as subjects for an experiment in which the wife was lying under a scanning machine anticipating receiving a mild electrical shock to her ankle. Brain images documented that the heightened emotional strain of the coming pain was significantly reduced by her husband’s hand holding. The women also responded to a stranger’s hand, though not as well as they did to their husbands’ touch.

Dr. James A. Coan, the research psychologist highlighted that the couples whose questionnaire responses rated them as having an extremely close relationship, were most impacted in blunting the physical pain through the affectionate touch of their spouse. He also affirmed that ordinary day-to-day worries can be alleviated by a physical expression of support and reassurance such as a touch, hug, back rub or any other tender touch.

Conversely, the absence of a reassuring touch is profoundly distressing to mates. Women are usually more vociferous than men about missing the tender touch and affectionate cuddling. Some men perceive hand holding in public embarrassing and perhaps evidence of submission to their women’s wishes. Others see touch as only a prelude to sexuality. However, now scientific findings support the health value of supportive contact.

Research done at the University of Ohio by Dr. Ronald Glaser and his wife Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser found that blisters healed more slowly after a conflicted discussions between spouses than they did after a more cooperative discussion. The healing proteins at the wound sites were much higher in couples with lower level of hostility toward each other.

Physical touch and emotional gentleness have finally been documented to have physiological benefits for health.

Perhaps now those who find hand holding, hugging, back rubs and supportive contact as highly emotional and unnecessary acts may reconsider their views. The request for touch is not just an expression of neediness of an insecure spouse, nor should it be viewed as a burdensome imposition by a mate. It actually has the power to heal, soothe and perhaps even increase the longevity of both lovers.

The above findings are now being used as a possible partial explanation for the healthier and longer life of married people. Since stress creates physiological reactions that reduce health and contributes to earlier demise and since supportive connection enhances life, then good relationships are essential to everyone’s well being. The studies have not fully explained why unhappily married men still live longer, while unhappily married women do not. Perhaps women’s greater insistence upon receiving affectionate touch is borne out of physiological programming for survival rather than emotional and romantic notions.

For whatever motivating reasons, please consider:

• Touch is a sensual pleasure and a human nurturing act that is pleasing and needed throughout life. Some lonely elderly people who are not touched enough manifest in their eyes and bodies the isolation and despondency they feel.
• Affectionate contact enhances all people, not only women. The validation of being liked and cherished enriches all humans.
• A supportive touch does comfort an ill, worried or bereaved person and helps soothe the body.
• The need for affectionate touch varies between individuals. Honor your partner’s need for physical connection even if your desire for it is lower.
• Decide to touch people in gentle appreciation, hug often and speak lovingly to others, while respecting their boundaries. Do as much of it in your love relationship.

• Deal with conflicts in your relationship with kindness, both of you will be healthier and happier in your life and love.
• Work to maintain an affectionate and supportive relationship. It will not only be an emotional blessing but also a physical gift to both of you for health and longevity.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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