Should You Hold Hands With Your Partner?

The link between physical connection and conflict management.

Posted Nov 17, 2020

Image from vandersuzy from Pixabay
Source: Image from vandersuzy from Pixabay

We often see couples strolling along crowded streets, on the beach, even sitting on their own front porch holding hands. How important is hand-holding to relationship satisfaction?

Having a Hand to Hold

Although many people take their relationships for granted, not everyone has a hand to hold. The significance of this interpersonal gap has inspired some interesting inventions. The New York Post reported on a Japanese robot hand invention designed for single men that simulated holding a woman’s hand.[i] As you stroll along the beach, the robot hand reportedly squeezes your palm, and even secretes moisture to simulate sweat. The fact that there is a market for romantic robot hands in the first place illustrates the importance of hand-holding within relationships.  

Conflict Is Easier Holding Hands

H.J. Conradi et al. (2020) examined the impact of hand-holding on conflict discussions in romantic relationships.[ii] They began by acknowledging what most couples understand instinctively—it is important to know how to handle relational conflict. They note the potentially beneficial effect of touch on three facets of conflict discussions: communication behavior, affect, and physiological reactivity.  

Studying the impact of couple hand-holding during conflict discussions as well as afterward, Conradi et al. found some beneficial results. For men, holding hands while discussing conflict resulted in improved communication, higher positive affect, and lower heart rate reactivity. For women, it resulted in improved communication, but lower positive affect.  

What if you forget to hold hands while having tough conversations but remember afterward? The researchers found that the impact of holding hands after conflict discussions varied depending on the type of couple studied. For student couples, it resulted in less reactivity in heart rate and more heart rate variability. For both student and clinical couples, post-conflict hand-holding resulted in a higher degree of positive affect. The authors conclude that hand-holding appears to be a valuable addition to use in couples therapy.

Hand-Holding Lowers Stress

But there’s more. Tyler C. Graff et al. (2019) found that hand-holding can lessen the impact of stress.[iii] The researchers began by noting that interpersonal relationships, especially marriage, can act as positive buffers to stressful events. Acknowledging prior research studying the longer-term impacts of this association, they sought to investigate immediate measures of this balance.

Graff et al. used pupillometry to measure the impact of stress in real-time, explaining that pupil dilation under stress is due to the fact that the muscles controlling pupil size are tied to the autonomic nervous system. They studied 80 people (40 couples) who either held hands with their spouses or were alone during a stress reaction task. They found that individuals holding hands with their partners showed less pupil reactivity, indicating a buffering effect of social support due to the presence of their spouse holding their hand. They note their results indicate not only the benefits of hand-holding, but also the speed of measurable stress-buffering under such conditions.  

Walking Hand-in-Hand into the Sunset

Hand-holding appears to be beneficial for couples, particularly when faced with negativity. The buffering effect of holding hands may require a measure of intentionality between partners, noting possible resistance to be the one to (literally) reach out during conflict. But research appears to demonstrate that when couples are able to overcome this resistance and connect physically, they are more likely to end up resolving differences, reducing stress, and walking hand-in-hand into the sunset. 

Facebook image: George Rudy/Shutterstock

References

[i] https://nypost.com/video/robot-hand-aimed-at-lonely-bachelors/. 

[ii] Conradi, H. J., A. Noordhof, and A. Arntz. 2020. “Improvement of Conflict Handling: Hand-Holding during and after Conflict Discussions Affects Heart Rate, Mood, and Observed Communication Behavior in Romantic Partners.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, April. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2020.1748778.

[iii] Graff, Tyler C., Steven G. Luke, and Wendy C. Birmingham. 2019. “Supportive Hand-Holding Attenuates Pupillary Responses to Stress in Adult Couples.” PLoS ONE 14 (2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0212703.