Loving couple holdind on the hands and sunset

Relationships have 2 components that comprise the intimacy of the relationship: emotional intimacy and physical intimacy. Emotional intimacy is based on effective communication, sharing, and willingness to be vulnerable with one another. Physical intimacy includes touch, proximity, and sexuality. Physical intimacy includes the willingness to be vulnerable, as well.

When a relationship feels amiss we point to and attempt to remedy the emotional intimacy of the relationship. Couples will put effort into working on the communication, doing the chores required to please their partner, and enhancing the emotional stability of the relationship. Touch and physical intimacy are often overlooked. We err in thinking emotional intimacy can grow without physical intimacy. A relationship needs both emotional and physical intimacy and the two feed off each other. Take away one, and the relationship will suffer.

Why is touch important?

We live in a touch deprived culture. The more we burry our face and hands in technology the more we crave touch. Harry Harlow, a psychologist who studied attachment in rhesus monkeys, conducted a famous and controversial study. He placed an iron made monkey and a furry made monkey in the cages of the rhesus monkeys. The iron made monkeys had a nipple for the baby monkey to feed from. The furry made monkeys did not provide food. When observing the monkeys, Harlow noticed the monkeys clung more to the furry surrogate mother than the iron surrogate mother, even though the iron surrogate had the food. Harlow’s work has been used to explain the importance of touch in children. The need for touch does not end when a child grows up. Adults need and crave touch. In addition, touch has shown to provide many health benefits.

The 4 levels of Touch

There are different levels of touch. Each level is important for the relationship. Generally, when relationships begin, the levels of touch will increase as the relationship progresses. Within the long-term progression of touch, there is also the daily progression of touch. Throughout the day or week a couple will use various levels of touch.

The first level of touch a couple experiences, is intimate touch. Intimate touch can include, holding hands, hugging, cuddling, a light peck on the cheek; all forms of touch that can be done when one is fully clothed. The next level of touch is sensual touch. Sensual touch begins the escalation toward erotic and sexual touch. This category includes any form of touching that can be done without clothing but avoids the erogenous zones. Examples of sensual touch can be a massage, light touching, or kissing the partners body. From sensual touch one can escalate to erotic touch. Erotic touch includes touch that is focused on the erogenous zones but excludes intercourse. Erogenous zones are areas on the body where arousal is heightened, most commonly, the mouth, breasts, and genitals. The last and most intimate level of touch is sexual touch, which is intercourse.

Touch changes overtime

Touch and physical intimacy ebb and flow throughout the span of a relationship.

Givens (1978) found intimate or casual touch was high when couples first began dating but declined when sexual intimacy began. When all you can have is intimate touch, you spend a lot of time touching, but as soon as sexual touch comes into play couples forget other forms of touch are still important.  Guerrero and Anderson (1991) had similar findings. They found couples that were engaged participated in more casual touching than couples that were married.

Revisiting Emotional Intimacy and Physical Intimacy

All levels of touch need to be present in a relationship. Often, relationships have sexual touch but the couple fails to maintain all other levels of touch. The purpose of touch can be to lead toward sexual touch. But, the most important is to use touch to maintain the feelings of intimacy, connection, and bonding between the couple. As Aaron Ben-Zeév writes in Psychology Today, conflict resolution is more effective with physical touch.

Studies have found, couples with higher levels of brief touching during the day, not only enjoyed a close bond but their levels of stress decreased. In relationships, touch increases the levels of oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone. Oxytocin is the hormone that creates attachment and a feeling of trust. Touch plays a particularly strong role in intimate relationships, but we have also found touch from strangers or friends have benefits, as well. NBA teams that did more fist pumping, patting on the back, and high-fives were more successful teams.

Studies show couples in satisfied relationships touch more than couples that are not satisfied with their relationship. The popular cliché, which came first the chicken or the egg, is applicable here. How do we know if satisfied partners touch more often, or touching often, influences the satisfaction in a relationship? Our instinct may be to go with a linear approach, happy equals more tdhouching, what’s if it isn’t so? As mentioned before, touching causes a chemical reaction in the brain, which enhances feelings of intimacy and bonding. There is a common misconception that relational/emotional intimacy and physical intimacy run along an equal path. Emmers and Dindia (1995) found in their research that relational intimacy and physical intimacy were not always equal throughout the span of the relationship. High levels of relational intimacy did not mean the couples also had high levels of physical intimacy and visa versa. Therefore, when emotional intimacy is low couples should not give up on the physical intimacy. Couples are encouraged to continue with the physical intimacy while they work on enhancing the emotional intimacy. This applies the other way around as well. If the physical intimacy is low, couples should continue to maintain the emotional intimacy as they work toward enhancing the physical intimacy.

Allowing oneself to be touched or to touch requires vulnerability and trust. Sexual touch requires the ultimate ability to be vulnerable to a partner and to completely trust the partner. Because touch calls on our ability to be vulnerable it often opens up emotional vulnerability in the relationship. Thereby, heightening the emotional intimacy between the couple. Remember, all levels of touch can create a bond between you and your partner. Relationships need both emotional intimacy and physical intimacy in order to thrive!

Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, MHC-LP, CASAC is a psychotherapist in New York City where she practices individual therapy, couples counseling, and sex counseling. You can contact Sara at [email protected] and read more blog posts at www.mwr.nyc
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