When I worked in the Child/Adolescent Psychiatric Unit, part of my job description was to give hugs to the children. I was perplexed by this, as this was at a time when sexual allegations were of major concern. I admire the facility for this policy, as they acknowledged the importance physical touch was to the child’s physical and emotional development. There were patients as young as three-years-old and I observed how these children thrived off of this positive affection. Now that I am in a different phase of my life, I have learned touch to be an important aspect for the health of adults as well. In fact, researchers have found touch is one of the characteristics that successful couples exhibit in their relationship, that unsuccessful couples do not.
During the first few months of a relationship, especially when a person is infatuated, the couple has difficulty taking their hands off of each other. But as time goes on and life happens many couples fail to put physical affection on their list of priorities.
Let us break this down to understand what is happening when couples go from all to almost nonexistent. In the beginning of a relationship, the component of physical touch is very simple to maintain. Think about the first time he/she reached over to hold our hand, or your very first kiss. The physiological response this has on the brain has been compared by many experts as a “high” drugs would be likely to cause. After all, it causes an increase of dopamine in the brain, which is the same neurotransmitter that cocaine and other stimulants work on also. This results in an elevated mood (excitement and euphoria), decrease in appetite, and increased energy. Many of you have been there before; extremely excited about the new relationship that you forget to eat and cannot sleep. However, to maintain this level of dopamine in the brain over long periods of time, is not healthy for the body. Overtime, the body creates homeostasis (balance) and the physiological effects wear off.
This may be where many relationships enter the danger zone. Because they do not get the same feeling, or high, they used to get when touching their significant other, touching is no longer a priority in the relationship. While the dopamine may not be stimulated as much, the neurotransmitter/hormone, oxytocin (AKA The Love Hormone), is always involved in physical touch, which is significantly beneficial for the relationship.
The main role of oxytocin is to help a person bond with another. Mothers release a significant amount of oxytocin when they are giving birth and breast feeding their child; which helps create and strengthen the bond between her and her baby. Females release an increased amount of oxytocin when they climax during sexual experiences; causing them to bond with their partner. (This is the main culprit for females not being able to have casual sex without getting emotional attached like males can.) Every time we touch another person, oxytocin is released increasing the strength of the bond in our relationship.
Oxytocin has also been identified to have other effects, which indirectly result in better relationships. Everyone can relate to a time in which he/she felt stressed and it resulted in impatience, ultimately causing conflicts in our relationship(s). Cortisol is the hormone that is released when we are stressed, and when oxytocin is released it counteracts the cortisol and decreases our stress levels. An added bonus to this is effect is that with less stress it improves a person’s mental well being, as well as promotes physical health.
Researchers have also found that touch during a conflict, increases oxytocin, decreases our defenses, increases trust, and resolves conflicts. Obviously, the ability of the couple to resolve conflicts is also a significant factor in having a successful relationship. I personally have to acknowledge that my husband figured out this technique before I did, and consistently uses it on me when I am wanting to be stubborn in conflicts. Needless to say, this technique has been 100% effective for us.
Touch is essential for a successful relationship. So when I am awakened in the middle of the night on the edge of the bed, feeling like I am going to fall off because my husband snuggled up so closely behind me; I will just be thankful. I will be thankful that he loves me. I will be thankful that we are bonding. I will be thankful that his touch is decreasing my stress, and I will be thankful that we are a healthy and successful couple. I encourage you to do the same with your love. Increase your public displays of affection, cuddle during your favorite TV shows, steal a kiss, allow the tips of your fingers to graze his/her skin as you walk passed them in the hallway, and always live in love.