- Non-sexual touch is healing, calming, and important for connection—sexual or otherwise.
- Modern American culture may discourage non-sexual touch.
- Non-sexual, appropriate touch within relationships can help people be less emotionally reactive, creating warmth and connection.
"Nothing is as healing as the human touch." —Bobby Fischer
My team learned just how important non-sexual touch was when we taught our couples a practice called mindful hugging. The idea is that couples stand and support their own weight and loosely hug each other. There is no talking, just a focus on their own breath and an awareness of how it feels to be embraced by their partner.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it is. But it is also emotional. After about a five-minute mindful hug, partners put their foreheads together and talk. They talk about what emotions arose for them, what anxieties they experienced, and if something was irritating or sweet. We noticed the same couples sitting closer to each other, continuing the touch as the class moved on.
Another activity is a mindful gaze. During this activity, couples hold hands and are guided through a meditation that includes looking deeply into each other’s eyes. They are reminded of what connections brought them to this point. As they look at each other, they are invited to see with new eyes. This meditation never ends without tears and new disclosures.
Why non-sexual touch is so important
It sounds like a fairytale ending, but non-sexual touch brings happiness, peace, and physical health[i]. Non-sexual touch is a necessity that is often ignored in our ultra-individualistic culture. We need to be cuddled, hugged, and kissed. We need to hold hands, look deeply into someone’s eyes, and touch their arm. We must have a physical acknowledgment of our needs.
These claims are well-documented in research studies[ii] [iii] that help us understand some of our own cultural problems. Something as easy as holding a hand can lower blood pressure[iv]. No prescription is needed for a hug that can reduce stress. Increased immunity and lower cortisol can come from a gentle cuddle.
This is great news because touch has no harmful side effects. However, in a touch-averse culture like ours, we may struggle to embrace this easy solution. As Americans, we are pretty friendly and talkative, but we are not always inclined to comfort through touch. The former chairman of the psychology department of Seattle Pacific University, Jay Skidmore, explains, “social-cultural trends in America have focused for decades on reducing touch.”
Field describes the larger cultural effects of the lack of touch by pointing out that “ … cultures that exhibited minimal physical affection toward their young children had significantly higher rates of adult violence” but “those cultures that showed significant amounts of physical affection toward their young children had virtually no adult violence.[v]”
How can touch interrupt tension?
When marriages and relationships have tension, our natural response is to pull back. But here is where mindfulness may help.
Next time you feel a bit of tension between you and your partner, tune in to your observing mind. Are you aware of all your senses? Sight, sound, taste, smell, and most importantly here, touch. Notice any thoughts or emotions that arise. Once you notice them, just turn your attention back to your physical sensations. Notice if this process helps you experience less reactivity.
As you process the tension with your partner, see if you can genuinely respond with a compassionate touch. Place your hand on their hand and notice if you are calmed and if your partner is calmed by this simple act. This may be an easy way to deescalate the tension. When couples deescalate tension, they are more likely to be able to solve the problem or find common ground even with different perspectives[vi].
Whether mindful non-sexual touch is used to calm your heart in a moment of conflict or to create a warm connection, commit to implementing this easy, free, and beneficial tool. As you practice this approach to relationships, it will become more instinctive, and you will find that touch has the power to change the environment of your connections to others.
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[i] 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.
[ii] Thomas, P. A., & Kim, S. (2021). Lost touch? Implications of physical touch for physical health. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 76(3), e111-e115.
[iii] Cleary, M., & Hungerford, C. (2021). Physical touch in a changing world: Guidance for the mental health nurse. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 42(2), 201-205.
[iv] Ditzen, B., Neumann, I. D., Bodenmann, G., von Dawans, B., Turner, R. A., Ehlert, U., & Heinrichs, M. (2007). Effects of different kinds of couple interaction on cortisol and heart rate responses to stress in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 32(5), 565-574.
[v] Field, T. (2002). Violence and touch deprivation in adolescents. Adolescence, 37(148), 735.
[vi] Carson, J. W., Carson, K. M., Gil, K. M., & Baucom, D. H. (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior Therapy, 35(3), 471-494.