This article appears in July/August Family magazine.
It’s possible that just reaching out and touching your partner is as important to your marriage as sex, and possibly more important, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.
The study examined the effects of intimate touch such as holding hands, hugging or cuddling on the couch when non-sexual in nature, meaning the affection was not intended to lead to sex.
“Affection is a necessary component of a healthy marriage for most couples,” said Samantha Wagner, a Binghamton University graduate researcher and doctoral student in psychology.
Affection in romantic relationships is associated with higher overall marital satisfaction, increased attraction, increased willingness to take on challenging tasks and lower response to stress, Wagner said. It can also increase positive feelings for both partners when one is upset, she said.
Attachment styles exist on a spectrum, and people have individual preferences when it comes to how much they like and want to be touched.
“Marriage and a romantic relationship, in general, is a constant negotiation of understanding the other’s needs and wants,” Wagner said.
The research found that people were more satisfied with the amount of touch in their marriage, as well as their marriage overall, the more frequently they were touched.
“This was even for individuals who we would theoretically suspect would be touch-avoidant or prefer less touch than others,” Wagner said. “Overall, I would say that frequent physical affection is important so long as you are also respecting your partner’s boundaries and need for space.”
Because it used cross-sectional data, or data collected at one time point, the study did not prove cause and effect that touch equals a more solid marriage.
“This means that we cannot say which came first: It could be that those who engage in more frequent shows of affection have more satisfying marriages or that those with more satisfying marriages engage in more frequent affectionate touch,” Wagner said.
Wagner suspects that happier spouses touch each other more and that spouses who touch each other more are happier.
“Being physically affectionate with your partner is absolutely a non-verbal way of showing that you are responsive and there for them. In fact, touch is one of the ways that we measure how a person perceives the responsiveness of their partner,” she said.
Context matters. A mindless quick hug or hand hold doesn’t necessarily convey that the relationship is a priority, Wagner said.
“That being said, sometimes a hug or holding a partner’s hand speaks more than words can and conveys your availability,” she said. “Imagine a situation wherein your partner is very distressed and you don’t know what to say, but you want to ensure that they know that you support them. An embrace can mean just as much, if not more, than saying those words.”
Touch and affection can be calming and reassuring. It can lessen stress.
“Touch often de-escalates a fight or keeps a fight from escalating. Additionally, it’s pretty common for someone to withdraw emotionally and physically during a fight when what they really need is to be comforted and told they matter,” Wagner said.
Next time you and your partner fight, reach out and touch or hug.
“From there you may find that you have a more productive discussion. It’s scary, but can be worth it,” Wagner said.