In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Why a Lover's Touch Is So Powerful

It can be stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and make people possessive.

"You may be with my husband, but do not dare to touch my lover."—A married woman to another married woman

“I’m a rational woman whose heart has never been touched until now."—A married woman who has an affair

 

Touch plays a crucial role in generating and enhancing love. People feel more satisfied in a relationship in which physical affection is a significant part.

But should the touch of love be exclusive?

Touch is the first sense to develop, and the primary means of providing love to a baby. In a review of studies on touch, Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence (2010) describe the positive effects of touch:

  • Elderly nursing home residents often feel unwanted or unloved because of a lack of physical contact with others.
  • Customers respond more positively to a tasting and purchasing request in a supermarket when they are touched by an experimenter posing as a store assistant.
  • People are significantly more likely to return a dime left in a phone booth if the preceding “telephone caller” touched them.
  • Bus drivers are more likely to give a passenger a free ride if they touch him while making the request.
  • People are more likely to give someone a free cigarette if the request comes from a person who touched them at the same time.
  • Individuals who have been touched are more likely to agree to participate in mall interviews.

Gallace and Spence argue that that even the briefest touch from another person can elicit strong emotional experiences. They further indicate that the amount and nature of touch is different from one culture to another:

  • In Italy, a hug and kiss on each cheek is considered a common and acceptable form of greeting.
  • In Japan, the proper greeting consists of a respectful bow and the absence of tactile contact whatsoever.
  • Generally, people from the United Kingdom, certain parts of Northern Europe, and Asia touch each other far less than those in France, Italy, or South America.

A shortage of touch often carries negative connotations, as in the expression “out of touch with reality,” while a deeply-felt experience is often described as “touching.”

In her book Touch (2001), Tiffany Field claims that in many circumstances, touch is stronger than verbal or emotional contact. Touch is critical for children's growth, development, and health, as well as for adults' physical and mental well-being. Nevertheless, Fields argues that many societies, such as current American society, are dangerously touch-deprived—accordingly, many people today suffer from a shortage of tactile stimulation, which she terms “touch hunger.”

Negative Touch

“Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.”—Charles Dickens

There are cases in which touch is perceived negatively, and excessive or unwanted touch can lead to criminal charges. Indeed, because of the powerful emotional impact of touch, people consider interpersonal touch to be much more harassing than verbal behavior. The perception of touch as having a negative value depends on the specific part of the body that has been touched, and on the specific characteristics of the person who touches it (their gender, age, and relationship with the touched person). Touch on the face is rated as significantly inappropriate and harassing behavior, while a tap or pat on the shoulder is considered the least harassing behavior.

In his book Bad for Us (2004), John Portmann tells of a stripper who did not allow men to touch her, and emphasized that the divide between watching and touching made a world of moral difference to her: "It wasn't the act itself; it was a matter of setting up boundaries somewhere, so that one didn't feel like one's entire self was oozing away."

Romantic Touch

“Blow me a kiss from across the room…Touch my hair as you pass my chair, little things mean a lot.”—Kallen Kitty

Touch is crucial in creating and strengthening romantic relationships. Tactile physical affection is highly correlated with overall relationship and partner satisfaction. Moreover, conflict resolution is easier with more physical affection—conflicts are resolved more easily with increased amounts of hugging, cuddling/holding, and kissing on the lips (Gulledge et al., 2003).

Gallace and Spence (2010) report studies showing that individuals who received pre-stress partner contact demonstrated significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure and increased heart rates than the no-contact group. Non-sexual physical affection involving tactile stimulation, such as back-rubbing and hugs, has also been shown to be of value: Women who report having received more hugs from their partners in the past have been shown to have significantly lower blood pressure levels than those women who do not have much history of being hugged by their partners. Accordingly, affectionate physical behavior can lower reactions to stressful life events.

Tactile sensitivity, of course, is also associated with sexual arousal, and alterations in tactile sensitivity can impact sexual function. Tactile stimulation plays a very important role in interpersonal communication, sexuality, and creating bonds between people. Married people generally consider touch more pleasant, more loving and friendly, and as conveying more sexual desire than single people do.

Eye contact is crucial in love, but its combination with touch multiples the romantic impact. When people are still unsure about the romantic attitude of the person they have just met, eye contact with “accidental" hand-touching can remove all doubt.

Touching Online

“It's often just enough to be with someone. I don't need to touch them. Not even talk. A feeling passes between you both. You're not alone.”—Marilyn Monroe

The popularity of online relationships may appear to cast doubt on the importance of romantic touch, as such relationships lack physical touch. Nevertheless, online communication may touch upon very sensitive romantic aspects: People sometimes say they feel as if the words on the screen actually touch them.

Here, from my book Love Online, are a few descriptions of online lovers who despite the lack of physical touch, consider their online lover to profoundly touch them:

  • One man who has participated in cybersex claimed that online lovers “are touching each other’s minds in a mutual and cooperative way that silent fantasy does not permit.”
  • A woman wrote: “I don’t know what it’s like to touch this man, yet he has touched me a thousand times in my dreams.”
  • A different woman said about her online lover: “He had reached deep inside my heart and touched where no other man has ever before.”
  • Another woman who was having an online sexual affair argued that her online lover, “who has never seen or touched me, knows my body and its responses better than either of my two former husbands” (this last citation is from Semans & Winks, 1999: 171–172).

The great importance of physical touch in romantic relationships generates in online lovers a strong feeling of mental touching, even when physical touching is absent and merely imagined. People in online relationships touch each other romantically and sexually, without making any direct physical contact.

Why Is Touching Your Lover Forbidden?

“How many husbands have I had? You mean apart from my own?”—Zsa Zsa Gabor

"Never have an affair with your best friend's wife—unless she is extremely beautiful."—Unknown

I return now to the citation at the top of the article in which a married woman says, “You may be with my husband, but do not dare to touch my lover." What are the factors that allow this woman to tolerate a friend touching her husband but not her lover?

A woman may tolerate sexual touching between her married lover and his wife more easily than she would endure that the same between her married lover and another woman. The wife was present before she met her lover and their sexual touching poses less threat to the current situation. The man’s original choice was made long before he knew his lover, and there may be reasons that make it difficult to terminate that decision. The lover can therefore believe that her married lover does not really prefer his wife, and her attitude toward the wife may be closer to envy than to jealousy, which is generated when you lose some unique relationship with your significant other. It would be much harder for a lover to tolerate the situation if her married partner takes an additional new lover. In this case, jealousy (in addition to envy) may arise as the lover would lose the unique relationship she has with her partner. In many cases, people who had a long affair with a married person angrily terminate their relationship upon finding that that their partner had taken another lover.

In this regard, I have suggested the distinction between exclusiveness, which negatively establishes rigid boundaries, and uniqueness, which positively celebrates an ideal (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008). Exclusive means “not allowing,” “restricting,” and “not dividing or sharing with others.” Unique implies distinctiveness—“being one of a kind,” or “being different from others in a way that makes somebody or something special and worthy of note.” Accordingly, uniqueness is of greater romantic value than exclusivity. The shift in emphasis from exclusivity to uniqueness expresses the shift from basing love upon the negative requirement of controlling and limiting the lover to the positive perspective of seeing the partner's special value. While romantic love involves both features, uniqueness is of greater significance, especially in the long term.

When another lover touches your lover, it violates the aspect of uniqueness as well as of exclusiveness. When another lover touches your husband, only the aspect of exclusiveness is violated. In the former, two powerful romantic aspects—uniqueness and exclusiveness—are violated, which can have a devastating impact.

The Power of Touch

“At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.”—Plato

Touch has a powerful romantic value. Its different usages may elicit a variety of emotional attitudes in the beloved. In Greek mythology, King Midas's touch turned to everything he touched into gold. Lovers can turn their partners into happy people with a physical and mental golden touch. As Melanie Griffith nicely put it, "You know what? There is a place you can touch a woman that will drive her crazy—her heart."

 

References

Gallace, A. & Spence, C. (2010). The science of interpersonal touch: An overview. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 246–259.

Gulledge, A. K., Gulledge, M. H. & Stahmannn, R. F. (2003) Romantic physical affection types and relationship satisfaction, The American Journal of Family Therapy, 31, 233-242.

Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2004). Love online: Emotions on the Internet. Cambridge University Press.

Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press.

Field, T. (2001). Touch. MIT Press.

Portmann, J. (2004). Bad for us: The lure of self-harm. Boston: Beacon Press.

Semans, A. & Winks, C. (1999). The woman’s guide to sex on the Web. Harper Collins.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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