Why touch is important for relationships

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How does affectionate touch benefit relationships? An expert has some answers for you.

Brett Jakubiak, associate professor of psychology at Syracuse University, looks at whether affectionate touch can help people maintain intimacy and offer responsive social support.

Jakubiak focuses on interpersonal support processes that regulate stress, encourage autonomous goal pursuit, and enhance relationship quality across the lifespan.

For Valentine’s Day, Jakubiak explains his research and offers some tips to foster both individual and relationship well-being:


What are you looking at specifically in your research regarding the effects of affectionate physical contact on well-being?


In my research, I assess whether affectionate touch is an effective strategy to help couples maintain intimacy, manage conflict, and offer responsive social support. In one current project, I am assessing whether affectionate touch is a uniquely effective strategy to promote these outcomes or whether verbal affection is similarly beneficial. In the same study, I am also assessing whether partners are uniquely willing to increase one form of affectionate communication.

These are critical questions because researchers and clinicians need to know not only which interventions work best but also which interventions will be feasible to implement.

In another study, my graduate student—Jason Mitala—and I are assessing what long-distance couples do to compensate for a lack of physical affection in their relationships. We expect that partners who use touch-adjacent behaviors (like describing how they wish they could touch or blowing kisses on Facetime) may manage separation better than partners who do not use these strategies.


Why is affectionate touch important to relationships? What are the benefits (for both romantic and family and friend relationships)?


Affectionate touch provides a salient cue that we are not alone and that we are loved (or at least liked!). In infancy, touch is the first language we speak; it’s the first way that we come to understand that we are safe and cared for. In adulthood, touch maintains some of that significance. People feel less stressed and are less vigilant to danger when they know another person is around to “have their back.”

We also tend to reserve touch for people that we like so receiving a hug or even a high five communicates some amount of affection.

Touch is also an effective way to offer social support; it tends to be less difficult for support-providers and tends to be more appreciated by support-recipients than verbal support (which can unintentionally miss the mark when people say the “wrong” thing).

That said, not all people enjoy giving and receiving touch and touch is not appropriate in all contexts or in all relationships. It’s always a good idea to ask if it’s okay to offer a hug or other affectionate touch.


What other attributes make for a healthy and strong relationship?


Perhaps unsurprisingly, relationships flourish when partners communicate their needs clearly, express gratitude for one another, spend quality time together (and avoid digital distractions during that quality time), support one another’s goals, and compromise when disagreements inevitably arise… among many other things.

More surprisingly, research has consistently shown that the context outside and around a romantic relationship also influences its success. Relationships are more likely to remain strong and healthy when partners have sufficient economic resources, a supportive social network of family and friends, and societal approval for their relationship.


How can individuals incorporate what you have learned through your research to bolster both individual and relationship well-being?


I think a good first step to bolster individual and relationship well-being is to take relationship fitness seriously. We know that the quality of one’s relationships is a key determinant of their overall health and well-being, so we have to work at improving and maintaining our relationship fitness with the same urgency that we work to improve and maintain our cardiovascular fitness.

That might mean investing more quality time in your relationship, seeking individual or relationship counseling to gain insight into your relationship dynamics, or accessing resources to improve your communication skills.

If all of that sounds out of reach, prohibitively expensive, or too ambitious for today, my research suggests that simply adding a little more affectionate touch in your relationship might help you to access the skills you already have and may enhance the quality of any time you do have to share with your partner.