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4 Ways That More Touch Can Strengthen a Relationship

There's touch, and then there's touch.

Key points

  • Long-term partners often forget how important touch can be to keeping a relationship fresh.
  • New research testing the power of physical communication suggests there are 4 simple techniques that work.
  • By learning how to use touch with your partner, you can restore some of the feelings that first brought you together.

The idea that you could use touch to improve your communication with your partner may seem pretty obvious. However, when you stop and think about it, how often do you actually take advantage of the simple benefits of physical touch? If you’ve got something difficult to talk about, do you focus entirely on what you’re going to say but forget to tap into this additional reservoir of potential good feelings?

According to a recently published article by University of Helsinki’s Aino Saarinen and colleagues (2021), what’s called “social touch” (i.e. touching someone else) is a fundamental building block of good relationships. Needless to say, the type of touch that can improve a relationship is one that the recipient perceives as pleasant, so it needs to be appropriate for the context. Assuming that the touch is indeed regarded as pleasant, then, the Finnish authors propose that social touch is “the most fundamental form of contact,” which can “relieve stress, build a sense of togetherness, and convey feelings of love and empathy."

It's probably safe to assume that your partner will perceive a social touch that expresses love as one that is pleasant. Indeed, as Saarinen et al. suggest from previous research, hugging and stroking among partners “are experienced less often than wished." However, previous research also points to the many complexities involved in knowing when a social touch can in fact benefit a relationship.

There’s Touch, and then There’s Touch

Clearly, before launching into a touch campaign with your partner, you might want to check out some of these complexities. The broad theoretical model that the Finnish authors investigated in their review provides a backdrop for understanding how touch affects people in different ways.

As Saarinen et al. note, the long-term effects of social touch on the so-called “target person” (i.e. your partner) reflect a combination of such factors as the sensory qualities of the touch, including its force or velocity (whether it hurts or not), how softly it is enacted and even its temperature (no cold hands, please). To be effective, it’s necessary for the target person to be aware that the touch is even happening, which might not be completely obvious in a busy environment As you'll see below, the environment also provides additional sensory cues that can enhance or detract from the experience. The toucher’s facial expression also plays a role as part of the context of the situation. Finally, people who’ve experienced traumatic events may not experience a well-intentioned touch as pleasant.

Although touch is, by definition, a physical sensation, it can actually be registered by the nervous system before it even happens. In those few milliseconds, the brain starts to anticipate it, causing a “top-down” influence on the way the touch is interpreted. Once the target person is touched, the pattern of stimulation works its way up from the sensory structures in the body to the brain. At that point, the context of the touch becomes integrated with the actual physical sensations stemming from the way the touch is registered by the receptors in the skin.

The kind of touch that from a physiological standpoint is “optimal,” also called “CT-optimal touch,” occurs with a speed of 3 cm/second (so not that fast), targets the so-called “C-tactile” fibers on the skin (found in hairy skin), and is experienced as a gentle caress. These fibers can be stimulated by such touches as a tap on the shoulder, an embrace, and holding hands. Along with their meaning, optimal touches then become translated into social touches.

The 4 Qualities of the Optimal Touch

In their extensive review of 99 published articles investigating social touch and its impact on target persons, Saarinen and her collaborators examined a broad range of factors within this overall model. Honing in on close relationships, the authors were able to tease apart the basic elements of a social touch that can enhance a couple's bonds. Using these can help you figure out not only when you should touch, but also how to approach your partner in a way that will produce the desired outcome of greater emotional closeness.

It’s worth noting that there appears to be a geographical aspect to a welcomed social touch. Previous authors report a range of from 20 to 70% of bodily regions that other people can safely touch. A stranger’s touch should be limited to the hands, but a relationship partner has a wider range that can include the head and upper torso (in non-sexual situations).

As your relationship deepens from dating to commitment, touch frequency tends to increase until reaching more or less a plateau once you’ve entered marriage or its equivalent. In other words, long-term committed relationships may evolve into a less-than-desirable touchless situation. Rolling back the clock to return to those earlier days means, then, restoring those old ways of touching.

Turning now to the type of touch that can bring back this spark, here are the qualities that the Helsinki team identified as most effective. As an added boost, several also were shown in prior research to have beneficial physiological effects:

  1. Hold your partner's hand. When your partner’s under stress, holding their hand or stroking their forearm seems to have special powers. In general, partners who engage in this type of touching seem to have lower blood pressure and show other signs of improved cardiovascular functioning.
  2. Hug. Research on the benefits of hugging shows that partners who frequently hug are more likely to keep the positive vibes going even if they’ve been engaged in some form of conflict. Hugging can also help alleviate any physical pain your partner may be experiencing.
  3. Put other sensory modalities to work. Even the best touch can be offset by a disgusting smell, according to research that Saarinen and her colleagues reviewed. Conversely, a touch that you offer in a visually pleasant environment can work to your advantage. The environment sets the context, which, in turn, affects the “motivational relevance” of the touch, in the words of the authors.
  4. Show that the touch was deliberate. A brush on the arm while the two of you are doing the dishes may not have much of an effect because, in accordance with the Saarinen et al. framework, your partner won’t interpret it as an effort on your part to establish contact. Although the physiological effect may be the same, the touch will lack emotional connotations.

Bringing Touch Back Into Your Relationship, One Step at a Time

You may be convinced by now that it’s worth exerting the extra effort to put these strategies to use. However, before you go from zero to 60, remember how important context is in affecting the way your partner will interpret a new burst of physical contact.

Starting with that old-fashioned technique of hand-holding, you can go back to what might be a simple lost art in your relationship. While watching TV, a movie, or even just while going for a stroll outside, a gentle (but clear) reach for your partner’s hand would be an excellent starting point. You might get a quizzical look in return, but a reassuring smile (that also shows it was deliberate) should quell any doubts.

As you move from the 20 to the 70% of permissible, everyday touching, keep in mind that it is important to pace yourself. Even though you may know your partner better than anyone else does, you still need to respect the boundaries of what they regard as permissible. If it’s been a while since you’ve gone into full-out touch mode, your partner may have some new concerns about what it means to be touched, even by you.

To sum up, the optimal-CT touch can have a wide range of benefits for your relationship and potentially for your partner’s physical health as well. Bringing back the physical connections can turn this "fundamental form of contact" into one that deepens your relationship's emotional bonds.

Facebook image: bbernard/Shutterstock


Saarinen, A., Harjunen, V., Jasinskaja-Lahti, I., Jääskeläinen, I. P., & Ravaja, N. (2021). Social touch experience in different contexts: A review. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 131, 360–372. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.09.027

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