Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Couples Should Hold Hands More

The cognitive and neurobiological benefits of affectionate touch.

Key points

  • Touch can convey affection, has been shown to reduce the impact of stress, and can enhance well-being.
  • Affectionate touch promotes well-being through both relational-cognitive and neurobiological pathways.
Anastasiya Lobanovskaya/Pexels
Source: Anastasiya Lobanovskaya/Pexels

Physical touch can be an important part of a relationship. It can convey affection, has been shown to reduce the impact of stress, and can enhance well-being. Research has examined not only the ways in which touch can affect us but the pathways by which it impacts us.

The Research

Coan, Schaefer, and Davidson (2006) conducted a famous study in which they examined how touch, in the form of hand-holding, could affect the response to threat. The researchers studied 16 married women in highly satisfactory marriages. The women were asked to view images that would indicate either safety or threat in one of three conditions: holding their husband’s hand, holding the hand of an anonymous male experimenter, or not holding anyone’s hand at all. The women were randomly presented with either threat or safety cues while in an fMRI measuring their neural responses. The threat cue indicated a 20 percent chance of receiving an electrical shock to the ankle, and the safety cue did not indicate anything.

Results demonstrated that women who held their husband’s hands had the lowest unpleasantness ratings. Additionally, the spouse and stranger hand-holding conditions were both less arousing than the condition in which the women were not holding anyone’s hand. This demonstrates that holding someone’s hand affects responses to threats.

Women who rated their marriages as more satisfying derived even more of a benefit from holding their spouse’s hand. Therefore, even within this sample of women in highly satisfying marriages, the benefits of spousal hand-holding were maximized for those with higher marital quality. Therefore, not only does touch benefit a person, but who the person is being touched by and the quality of the relationship you have with them also matters.

Jakubiak and Feeney (2017) have discussed the pathways by which touch can affect us. They note that “affectionate touch may facilitate the development of high-quality, intimate social relationships, and it may be one behavior that can be used in the context of a close relationship to demonstrate support and acceptance to promote individual well-being” (Jakubiak and Feeney, 2001, p. 228). Their model links touch to relational, psychological, and physical well-being. One of the ways by which affectionate touch promotes each of the three domains of well-being is by reducing daily stress and reactivity to stress.

Independent of stress, affectionate touch promotes well-being through both relational-cognitive and neurobiological pathways (Jakubiak and Feeney, 2017). The relational-cognitive pathway is activated when touch is interpreted as affectionate, thereby leading to changes in both relational and self-perceptions. In this pathway, touch communicates that the relationship is close and loving, as well as leads to feelings of social inclusion. Furthermore, affectionate touch promotes feelings of felt security and trust.

The neurobiological pathway is activated by the experience of touch itself. Touch causes changes in biological systems that can dampen stress reactions and increase well-being. This pathway is independent of the relational-cognitive path and what was demonstrated in the aforementioned Coan et al. (2006) study.

Touch is powerful. Not only does it mitigate negative feelings, but leads to positive and loving experiences as well.

Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock


Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17, 1032-1039.

Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. C. (2017). Affectionate touch to promote relational, psychological, and physical well-being in adulthood: A theoretical model and review of the research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21, 3, 228-252.

More from Marisa T. Cohen PhD, LMFT
More from Psychology Today