The Japanese have a word that they believe they borrowed from English, but you won’t find it in any dictionary. When the Japanese use this word, they're referring to the importance of touch in close relationships. They call this skinship, that is, a relationship built on and nurtured by skin-to-skin contact.
“Skinship” doesn’t just refer to the intimate touch of sexual partners. Rather, it also includes family members and even some friends as well. Babies and small children, in particular, need a lot of skinship time with their caregivers, but we all need some skin-to-skin contact with those who are close to us.
The Japanese understand intuitively what Western psychologists have only come to realize after extensive research—namely that affectionate touch is a powerful way to communicate intimacy in close relationships. The frequency of affectionate touch is associated with both physical and psychological well-being, and those who are deprived of it suffer from depression, anxiety, and a host of other maladies.
Nevertheless, there are persons who recoil from physical contact with others, even those close to them. These people also report more psychological problems than the general population. Perhaps this is because they unwittingly deprive themselves of the affectionate touch they need. But it could also be that physical contact has the opposite effect on them, increasing psychological discomfort rather than alleviating it. This is the issue that University of Lausanne (Switzerland) psychologist Anik Debrot and colleagues explored in a study they recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Debrot and colleagues first consider the role of attachment style in intimate relationships. Attachment style refers to your way of interacting with your romantic partner during times of stress, and it first develops in infancy through exchanges with your caregiver. Infants who learn that their mothers will reliably meet their needs develop a secure attachment style, and as adults, they are generally trusting of others, especially intimates.
In contrast, infants who learn that their caregivers don’t reliably meet their needs will develop one of two different types of insecure attachment styles. Some develop an anxious attachment style, in which they’re extremely fussy in order to capture their mother’s attention. As adults, they’re clingy and demanding, and they frequently worry that their lovers will abandon them.
Other infants develop an avoidant attachment style, whereby they learn to self-soothe. As adults, they prize their independence, and they feel uncomfortable getting too close in intimate relationships. These are the people who feel little desire for physical contact outside of sex, and they dread the affectionate touches and hugs that others try to inflict upon them.
Debrot and colleagues’ research question was straightforward: Do people with avoidant attachment style recoil from touch because it provides them no psychological good or even harms them? Or might they benefit from touch just as much as others do if only they could overcome their deep reluctance to engage in physical contact with intimates?
To explore these questions, the researchers conducted three separate studies. The first was a survey of more than 1,600 individuals who were in an intimate relationship. Questions asked about attachment style, well-being, and touch behaviors, including types (caressing, cuddling, kissing, and so on) and frequency (ranging from never to four or more times a day).
The results showed, as expected, that people who touched their partners more frequently also reported higher levels of well-being. Furthermore, as expected, those with an avoidant attachment style generally indicated less frequent physical contact with their partner, and they also exhibited lower levels of well-being. However, some avoidantly attached individuals claimed that they did touch their partner often, and these persons enjoyed levels of well-being similar to others who reported frequent physical contact.
This last finding suggests that persons with an avoidant attachment style can benefit from intimate touch just as others do, and at any rate, it certainly doesn’t harm them. However, we always need to be wary when interpreting the data from self-reports such as these. So, to further explore the connection between avoidant attachment and the benefits of touch, Debrot and colleagues invited 66 couples to visit their lab.
When they arrived at the lab, the couples individually responded to surveys about attachment style, well-being, and touch similar to those in the first study. They were then asked to engage in a series of conversations with each other about times they had made a sacrifice for their partner or felt strong love for their partner. These conversations were recorded, and afterward, observers counted the number of times they touched each other. The participants also indicated their level of positive feeling before and after each conversation.
The results of this second study were similar to those of the first. But one new finding was that a high frequency of touching during a difficult conversation didn’t necessarily boost positive feelings right away. Rather, the researchers speculate that it’s the general pattern of touching in the relationship that leads to higher levels of well-being overall.
The third study was a 28-day diary study consisting of 98 couples in which each partner reported attachment style on the first day and then noted positive mood and touch behaviors on a daily basis thereafter. The results confirmed the findings of the two previous studies, but in addition, it provided new information about the impact of attachment style on the partner. That is to say, not only did those individuals with an avoidant attachment style report lower levels of positive mood, so did their partners.
However, avoidantly attached individuals who were receptive to their partner's touch advances generally reported higher levels of positive mood. This clearly indicates that physical contact is beneficial even for those who tend to pull back when significant others try to touch. Thus, Debrot and colleagues suggest that therapists develop techniques for helping those with an avoidant attachment style to overcome their aversion to non-sexual physical contact.
Most people are comforted by the “skinship” connections they have with intimate partners and close family members. Yet people with an avoidant attachment style tend to recoil from physical contact, even though it would do them good if only they were open to it.
Although attachment style is set in childhood, there’s plenty of evidence that it can change in adulthood. This is especially true when you can develop enough self-awareness to know your attachment style, and if you have a partner who is supportive of your personal growth.
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Debrot, A., Stellar, J. E., MacDonald, G., Keltner, D., & Impett, E. A. (2020). Is touch in romantic relationships universally beneficial for psychological well-being? The role of attachment avoidance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0146167220977709