A friend had told me years ago that he knew his marriage was over when his wife wouldn’t let him touch her anymore. That story stuck with me because he was by no means the first person to tell me that, and unfortunately won’t be the last.
The sense of touch is, when you think about it, an exercise in paradox. Jennifer Kennerk (2014) discusses how the sense of touch is how we first learn to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the world. If we touch something, we develop awareness of where we end and the other person (or object) begins. Touch is the sense that demonstrates the boundaries between our individual bodies and the rest of the universe. She states that touch “allows us to understand our own individual place in the world, and also to understand that others have their own individuality as well. The sense of touch provides human beings with the ability to understand their own uniqueness and therefore the uniqueness of others.” (p. 51).
The paradox arises because touch is also our primary means of experiencing intimacy with others. Human beings are hardwired to connect, and the primary mechanism for doing so is through touch. We express closeness through touch. We experience other human beings, gain awareness of their presence, and invite them into our own. We need touch to survive.
In the thirteenth century, King Frederick II of Germany wanted to study language acquisition. He was curious as to whether children are born with knowledge of language or if it is something they learn from caregivers over time. He set up a true experiment to determine if children would speak, spontaneously, if they never heard language to begin with. He took 50 babies within his kingdom and assigned them each to foster mothers. The babies had their basic needs met. They were bathed and nursed, but they were not held or cuddled or talked to.
The experiment failed because all fifty infants died.
In more recent years, the world has learned about the horrific overcrowding and miserable conditions in many orphanages in the world. Harvard Medical School researcher Mary Carlson observed the conditions in a Romanian orphanage, where due to understaffing and overcrowding, babies lay neglected in their cribs and were rarely touched, even during meal times. She observed no engagement, no crying, no babbling, and no whimpering. While their physical needs were being met, in theory, Carlson found that by age two the babies had unusually high amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone known to cause brain damage. Growth was stunted; the children acted half their age.
What conclusions can be drawn from King Frederick’s failed experiment and the Romanian orphanage scandal? Lack of touch impedes the human ability to thrive. In some cases it leads to death. Caring for basic physical needs is not enough; we need touch to survive.
Those of us who did not get a lot of touching before age 12, struggle with touch as adults. Snuggling, cuddling, hugging, and holding hands often makes us uncomfortable. And we lose opportunities for connection.
We express closeness through touch. We experience other human beings, gain awareness of their presence, and invite them into our own. We need touch to survive.
No matter what your primary love language, touch is a universal one. Touch, both sexual and non-sexual, is essential for intimacy. Non-sexual touch is an essential building block for physical touch. Many times we look to assuage our craving for touch through sex, rather than engaging in other acts of touch throughout the day, which may or may not culminate in sexual intimacy. For those of us who identify touch as our primary love language, it becomes not just a physiological need; it is an expressive one as well. We communicate best through touch, as many of our ancestors did throughout the ages.
Touch also builds up the immunity system by recharging the libidinal system (Dworkin-McDaniel, 2011). Touch is ultimately good for the libido!
Oxycontin is released through touch. We know it as the “love” drug, but more importantly it’s the “trust” drug. We feel safer and more secure with others when we experience them through touch.
Touch makes us more relationally honest. Klienke’s (1977) study of compliance in field settings showed amazing results when touch was involved. In the study, researchers put money in the change box of a public telephone (a dime). People would go in, make a call, and then would put their hand in the little coin receiver to see if there was any extra change. As they exited the booth, they would be approached and asked “Did you find any money in the change box in the telephone booth?” 97% of the people would lie and say no. But in the same experiment, if the researcher reached out and touched the individual on the shoulder while asking the question, 95% of the people would tell the truth. They would say they found money there and would offer it to the person who asked.
The famous family therapist Virginia Satir said that we need four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth.
Do you get the amount of touch that you need in a day?
If you are partnered, I always highly recommend using sensate touch exercises. Email me and I’d be happy to send you the PDF of my sensate focus worksheet, which will be part of my intimacy workbook (slated for publication by the amazing Microcosm Publishing in 2018). And no, I’m not going to sell your email or add you to a mailing list. I just don’t want to have it all out over the internetz when it is something slated for publication. But ask me for it, it’s the same one I use in my practice.
If you aren’t partnered, don’t have regular access to your romantic partner (long distance relationships can be such a PITA), or just aren’t getting enough touch from them for any reason…here are some other ways to get more touch in your day.
Any other ideas? I’d love to hear them!