The power of touch in your relationship
Practice makes perfect
The impact of touch in a relationship can’t be underestimated. Touch is the first sense we acquire
and a secret weapon in many a successful relationships. So how does this sense work and how does it affect our relationship?
The skin is the largest organ in the body, covered by millions of tiny nerve endings whose sole function is to receive stimuli. It shouldn't come as any wonder that the skin and its touch receptors play such a vital role in relationship-building among couples. Yet for many couples facing demanding schedules and a seemingly endless string of personal, professional and social obligations, taking time to cuddle or even hug on a regular basis is often largely ignored or at best, relegated to a “date night” that comes maybe once a week.
Plenty of studies have shown the essential role touch plays in the healthy development of infants, forming stronger
parent-child bonds as well as helping the infant's emotional development. Indeed, studies have shown how infants deprived of touch are far more likely to have emotional difficulties and problems forming meaningful social attachments
later in life. Yet in our own adult relationships, touch rarely gets the attention it should in the establishment and maintenance of healthy, long-term bonds with the people who mean most to us in life: our partners.
The Physiological Effects of Touch
We all know a positive touch feels good, but what does that really mean, and how does touch work to improve relationships? It all starts, unsurprisingly, in the skin, or more correctly, just below the skin surface, where touch receptors
called Pacinian corpuscles gather information about touch sitmuli, sending signals deep into the brain – specifically, to
the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve has branches that extend to many organs, including the heart and the diaphragm, the muscle that helps control lung motion and breathing. When the nerve receives signals from the touch receptors, it reacts by adjusting heart rate and breathing, lowering blood pressure so we feel calmer and less stressed out. (It's worth noting the opposite effect can also be true when a “negative” touch like a slap is received, and different information is sent to the vagus nerve.)
At the same time, nerve signals triggered by touch release small amounts of oxytocin, a chemical that helps regulate levels of the stress hormone cortisol so we actually feel calmer and less stressed out. Oxytocin also helps build feelings of trust, earning it the nickname of the “bonding hormone” or the “cuddle hormone.” Levels of oxytocin automatically increase with positive touch, including hugging, hand-holding, stroking and massage.
And finally, touching lowers levels of cortisol, a “fight-or-flight” hormone that increases feelings of stress. Touch lowers levels of cortisol to increase feelings of calmness and more positive feelings toward the person providing the touch.
Practice Makes Perfect
Like any skill, touch – and more specifically, the right way to use touch in building strong intimate relationships – can take some practice. And that's the key – practicing touch on a regular and daily basis. You don't have to start “big” - in fact, when it comes to touch, it's often the smallest gestures that have the biggest and most profound impact. Make it a point to hug your partner at least a couple times a day or try holding hands while watching TV. Rub your partner's shoulders while they're brushing their teeth or doing dinner prep. Your partner will benefit not only from the positive physiological effects of skin against skin, but also by knowing you're making the added effort to make their own well-being a priority.