Source: Jules Cavelier's Cornelie, mere des Gracques 1855 from Musee d'Orsay/Roni Beth Tower

A parent cuddles, strokes, and rocks an infant to comfort it. An older sibling takes the hand of a younger one to guide safe passage across a busy street. A pat on the shoulder says, “I applaud you,” and a back massage acknowledges, “I know you are hurting." A hand held while weaving through a crowd insists on maintaining a connection; a hug brings consolation. The warmth of a snuggle, the comfort of holding and being held, the reassurance of a touch on your arm that shows understanding. In this post I address ways in which touching can show “I love you.” 

I do not include sexual touching, given that its meanings are so complex and misunderstandings concerning them can be so common; an excellent article by Jessica Bennett in The New York Times surveys these issues. Nor do I address touches asked for and received from strangers, such as those described in a December 30, 2016 Modern Love column in the Times.

Instead, I discuss touching within close relationships that can vividly illustrate “Pay attention to what I do, not what I say.” These nonverbal messages of love can be the most powerful and honest of all methods of communication. As Fabrice Bousteau recently wrote, "The more you touch, the more you're touched."

Source: Sculpture of hands by August Rodin at Musee Rodin/Roni Beth Tower

Indeed, as Bousteau notes, the magic of Greek statues emanates from their ability to evoke the sense of touch. With eyes closed, their sculptors ran fingers across faces until they were internalized, becoming a part of the one who gained knowledge through touch. Recognizing the often unconscious impact of touch and agreeing on its interpretation is essential when it is used to show love.

What forms can non-sexual touching take?

  • Positive touches. Universally understood as expressions of affection—snuggling, hugging, cuddling, patting, kissing, rubbing, massaging, stroking, smoothing, petting, spooning.
  • Negative touches. Exercised impulsively or with intent, these touches usually indicate a desire to create distance at their most benign and harm at their most toxic. These include hitting, slapping, pushing, pounding, punching, kicking, pinching, scratching, jabbing, biting.
  • Ambiguous touches. These can be given and received with love, neutrality, or hostility. How they are understood depends on the motivation of the one doing the touching, the sensitivity of the one being touched, and above all, the ability of the people in the silent conversation to appreciate and respect each other’s nonverbal lexicon. These include tickling, pointing, restraining, grabbing, encircling, surrounding, and rubbing against. Studies of consumer behavior show that a salesman’s intentional touch on the arm of a shopper can induce some to purchase, while making others swear to never again enter the store. Andrea Webb and her colleagues have tried to better understand these individual differences in how touch is received, and their work sheds light on variations in attitudes toward touch.

How do meanings of touch show love?

  • Recognition of individual sensitivities and differences. People are born with different temperaments, and one of the core temperamental dimensions is sensory thresholds. Simply stated, people vary in the kinds and amounts of stimulation—in all forms—that evoke responses, both positive and negative, in them. For example, to one person tickling may be play, but to another it may be torture and thus signal hostile intent. A firm hug can feel like reassurance, smothering, or crushing. Acknowledging the recipient’s reaction to touch shows attention and respect, a willingness and ability to see him or her as he or she uniquely is.
  • Communication. At its best, touching is communication between people. It shows recognition of another’s desires, needs, or responses. It allows people to develop a private language and send messages that are discreet and personal. One day, my husband takes my hand to cross the street and I feel protected.  Later he squeezes my hand during a tense moment in a movie; we share the emotion of the moment with complicity. Another time he takes my hand and his skin is clammy and cold. He is reaching out for support and I feel helpful and valued, while he feels supported. We have learned how to understand that which is spoken without words.
  • Appreciation of cultural meanings. Culture defines the meaning of many touches. One culture may recommend stroking or patting a baby to help it burp, another may recommend a firmer pounding on the back. One culture may reassure an infant that the world will provide warmth through swaddling and cuddling; another promotes independence by furnishing non-human supports to lean on. A sense of comfort or relaxation can be promoted in one culture through sensual arousal while in another, calming is admired. Babies in some cultures are routinely carried on a caregiver’s back or in a sling and sleep snuggled up in the same bed. In another, separateness and mastery of autonomy are promoted, and help and comfort are felt as intrusive. In the latter context, resentment of a baby’s needs for physical closeness can lead to touches that are too harsh, too unreliable, or too disconnected. Anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment can result, affecting lifelong expectations of relationship dynamics.  
  • Respect for cultural rules of expression. Not only does culture define the meaning of various sorts of touches, it can also define the rules for their display. Most critical in describing touch as a way to show love, such rules—usually unstated—announce whether a touch is loving or vulgar, appropriate for public or private display, or a sign of affection or hostility. 

Why does touching show love?

  • Original means of connection. Our original means of connection to one another is through touch. A baby grows inside a womb, surrounded by the touch of a mother. Its first sensation at birth is the shift in environment, and attendants are quick to swaddle the infant in receptive human arms or cloth blankets. Reassurance of touch begins at the very beginning and is associated with quieting distress in the newborn. It extends across primates. Harry Harlowe’s famous experiments with monkeys showed that, even when hungry, they preferred to cuddle with a cloth-covered surrogate than to feed from a wire monkey-shaped frame equipped with a bottle filled with nutritionHunger for touch was more powerful than that for food.  
  • Universal way to regulate closeness. Family theorists believe that the critical challenge for people in a close relationship is “regulating distance," or negotiating how to be connected and how to be separate. No method of communication is as honest as touch. It offers experiences that highlight essential differences between electronic communications and human ones. Its absence is one of their greatest challenges to long-distance relationships.
  • Messages are conveyed. A hand on one’s arm can mean reassurance or support; a squeeze can mean complicit understanding, pay attention, or “I am fearful.” Once two people understand the private meanings that their touches convey, nonverbal language can override that of words. In a video of six-week-old twins, a sister uses touch to comfort her brother long before she can speak. Her touch is far more powerful than any words could ever be. The limitations of words are further illustrated in today’s electronic world. Two people texting is not the same as them reaching out to provide the information without words, through a pat, a hug, or wiping away a tear. In a study by Kelley Robinson and colleagues, even a touch of comfort from a loved one that was neither requested nor consciously acknowledged brings comfort and other benefits. 
  • Oxytocin is released. At a chemical level, touch releases oxytocin, the “connection” hormone. As Sharon K. Farber argues, touch can serve as a profound agent of healing, comfort, and emotional honesty. Oxytocin, the hormone that helps our very entrance into the world also helps bonds between us to be formed and maintained. 
  • Feelings of comfort and security are induced. Research by Brooke Feeney and her colleagues shows that even imagining a loved one’s touch can temper the negative effects of stress and help people address challenges with flexibility and exploration. The benefits of a more secure attachment are, again, personal and protective—they help us understand why loving touch can be more powerful than words. Although these effects are stronger in adults with initially secure or anxious attachment internal scripts than in those who have avoidant patterns, touch can be the mechanism that restores emotional order and helps people confront the challenges in their lives with greater confidence.    
  • Protection is provided. In yet another creative series of experiments, Sheldon Cohen and his colleagues showed that hugging helps protect against viral infections, even in the presence of heightened interpersonal conflict, normally a risk factor. It is a safe, inexpensive, available source of strength and resilience, even going so far as to temper pain in advanced illnesses.
wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

To summarize, touch is a basic way to show love. Partners need to let each other know—through their responses as recipients or behaviors as initiators—what messages are being sent and whether they agree with those that were received.

How has touch helped you better understand that you are loved? How has it helped you to better express your own love? Can you describe situations when it has taken you where words could never go?

Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower

Visit me at www.miracleatmidlife.com 

References

Bousteau, F. (January, 2017). Touched... Air France Magazine, pages 23-24.

Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

Lustig, M. W. & Koester, J. (1996). Intercultural competence: Interpersonal communication across cultures. New York: HarperCollins.

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