Married couples seem to do less hand-holding, kissing and cuddling with each passing wedding anniversary. The decline in physical touch among these couples could indicate that they’re increasingly “out of touch” with each other on a relationship level.
When marriages result from a social bond built by mutual emotional and physical attraction, physical touching during courtship helps create this bond. Researchers don’t know enough to conclude that the lack of hand-holding, kissing and cuddling between spouses leads to an erosion of this social bond, but research points in that direction.
Normal Doesn’t Look So Good
Among the researchers seeing a connection between less touch between spouses and a breaking down of relationships are the authors of The Normal Bar study. Chrisanna Northrup with sociologists Pepper Schwartz and Jim Witte used data from surveys of over 100,000 men and women around the world to draw conclusions about what normal marriages and long-term domestic partnerships look like. They discovered that what’s normal often changes the longer couples stay together.
For the many couples, physical touch and romantic feelings fall away over time. Satisfaction with the quality of the relationship and sex also declines. While less hand-holding and kissing seems to be a “normal” part of an aging relationship, cuddling diminishes as couples become parents.
The Normal Bar study found that hand-holding declined most around couples’ sixth anniversary. After six years, only 64 percent of couples hold hands regularly. After 10 years together, 61 percent of couples reported never kissing passionately. Among couples who lasted 21 years together, 67 percent never kissed passionately. And while 82 percent of childless couples cuddled regularly, only 68 percent of parenting couples cuddled regularly.
We Need Touch to Thrive
Frequent, warm, physical touch between people is important to human happiness and thriving. If a person doesn’t regularly receive positive physical touch in their marriage or family, the chances of receiving warm, physical touch at all are slim by comparison.
We feel touch through a network of nerve fibers woven through our skin. An array of touch sensors near the surface of our skin communicates through our nervous system to tell us when we’ve been touched. A square inch of skin contains approximately 165 touch sensors, telling you when your spouse’s hand is in yours, when your lips receive a passionate kiss, and when you’re being gently held.
Researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, identified several feel-good hormones that are produced by warm touch between married partners. Oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, is one of those hormones that surge after couples make a warm physical connection.
Triggering Love Hormone
Oxytocin facilitates social bonding. When we clasp hands, kiss in the right place, or snuggle with someone we care about, the pea-sized pituitary gland in our brain secretes oxytocin. The more this happens, the more trust and closeness a married couple can feel toward each other.
My wife and I aren’t always good at regularly touching each other. When I realize there’s been a lapse, sometimes I will corner her in the kitchen and lay a soft kiss on her lips. Sometimes she’ll take my hand and pull my arm around her waist to give me a not-so-subtle hint. Sometimes I have to coax her to slow down and walk at my side so we can hold hands. We like to touch each other, but sometimes one of us gets too focused on what we’re doing or where we’re going to remember to connect with each other.
Warm, physical contact between spouses doesn’t only strengthen the social bond. It also lowers blood pressure in both men and women, according to a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine. Other studies show affectionate touch lowers stress-related hormones like cortisol. Too much cortisol can cause body fat to build up and other health problems.
Getting Back in Touch with Each Other
If you’re detecting a deficiency of hand-holding, kissing and cuddling in your relationship, talk about it. Talk about the kinds of touch you like, how you like to be touched, and when it’s okay and when it’s not. Then develop a plan to turn back the trend. Consider these options:
- Hold hands while talking to each other. Holding hands expresses intimacy. It can emotionally synchronize a couple, making you feel closer to each other. And, because holding hands can also be stress-reducing, it may help you both stay calmer when discussing issues on which you disagree.
- A daily 6-second kiss. Make a habit of sharing a 6-second kiss on the lips once a day. Plan it to occur at a specific time isn’t the day, such as before you part ways for work, or when you meet at the end of your day.
- Cuddle in bed. Many couples don’t go to bed at the same time unless it’s for sex. Bedtime doesn’t have to be only about sex and sleep. It can be a great time to snuggle up next to each other while talking, reading or watching a romantic movie.
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.