Are You Suffering from Touch Deprivation?

Are You Suffering from Touch Deprivation

Touch is the first of the senses to develop in a human infant and it remains the most emotionally central sense for the rest of our lives. Touch deprivation affects mood, the immune system, and our general well-being.

Most research on this topic has been conducted with newborns or the elderly, showing strong associations between lack of touch and alterations in mood, level of happiness, longevity, and health outcomes.

When children and the elderly are not touched, their mood, attitude, and overall well-being suffer. But recent research on adults is beginning to surface, showing similar results.

Even short bouts of touch lead to improvements in physical and emotional well being. The right kind of touch can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels and has been linked to positive and uplifting emotions. Also, people who experience touch on regular bases can fight infections better, have lower rates of heart disease and fewer mood swings. The more we learn about touch, the more we realize how central it is to our physical and emotional health.

Distressed couples often fall out of the habit of touching. We know that couples who don’t touch each other for a long time suffer from touch deprivation. If adults are not touched on a regular basis they can get more irritable. Persistent touch deprivation can lead to anger, anxiety, depression, and irritability.

Why is it so hard to get back into the “sandbox”?

When you are in a bad mood or your partner does something that upsets you, you may not feel like touching or being touched. Additionally, if you think all touch will lead to sexual activity and you are not in the mood, you may avoid, and even recoil, when your partner tries to touch you.

You then stop getting back into the “sandbox” to play, you become more irritable, which in turn may make you even less playful; you get even more irritable, and you feel like touching/being touched even less often, which makes you or your partner even more upset or irritable. If this sounds all too familiar to you, you have entered a vicious cycle that may lead to touch deprivation. Sometimes, it’s hard to know who or what starts the cycle. What is clear though, is that this is not a good recipe for a successful relationship.

Another kind of vicious cycle develops when one partner considers touch to be an inferior form of intimacy, in favor of other forms, considered superior to touch,  such as spending quality time together or verbal intimacy. In reality, there is no hierarchy of intimacy, just different forms of intimacy.

But if you consider “touch” a lesser form, you may not provide your partner with touch, expecting quality time or verbal intimacy instead. The ensuing vicious cycle is obvious: The less you give a physical touch, the less you will receive verbal intimacy or quality time. And so it goes. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Two misconceptions regarding the human touch

1. Physical touch always has to lead to sexual touch and to intercourse

Human physical intimacy and erotic pleasure are complex activities and not as natural as we may believe they should be. Many feel anxious about sharing their bodies. Additionally, the hormonal cocktail that fuels passion and erotic desire in the first stages of a relationship doesn’t last. And on top of it, people vary in how much sexual activity and touch they want. Some want more, some want less. This is normal.

Related: How Often Do Married Couples Have Sex?

Things get complicated when couples who have a different level of sexual desire start to avoid touching each other. They stop the playfulness; they stop touching each other’s faces, shoulders, hair, hands, or backs.

That’s understandable: If you think that if you touch your partner, sexual intercourse will necessarily follow, and you are the one with lower desire, you will stop touching to avoid sex. And if you are the one with higher desire, you may stop touching your partner to avoid further rejection. To avoid intercourse, many couples stop touching altogether

Physical touch always has to lead to sexual touch and to intercourse

2. All physical intimacy or erotic activity has to be reciprocal and equally desired at the same time

Not all sensual or sexual activity requires reciprocation. Much of physical and erotic activity is about knowing what you want and being comfortable asking for it, and knowing what your partner wants, and being comfortable giving it.

Can you think of yourself as someone who can give touch for a few minutes without the expectation of getting anything for it? Can you tolerate receiving pleasurable sexual and non sexual touch without the pressure to give anything in return?

You don’t always need to be in the mood for Chinese food in order to please your partner who may be in the mood for cashew chicken. Similarly, you don’t need to be in the mood for sex or even for being touched yourself to give a back rub or touch your partner if that’s what he or she wants or requests. Conversely, just because you feel like getting a long hug, or you want your partner to touch your back or your face or hair, does not mean that she or he has to want the same thing as you. And, most importantly, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will lead to intercourse.

RelatedProblems in the Bedroom? Sex Tips and Advice for Married Couples

The following exercise is for when you are ready to get back into the “sandbox” and “play” again with your partner.  When you can mentally separate touch from intercourse, you can  make yourself prepared to:

  • Give pleasurable touch to your partner even when you are not in the mood to receive it yourself
  • Receive pleasurable touch from your partner without thinking that you need to give anything in return
  • Receive touch even when your partner does not want it at the same time

Touch exercise: Getting back into the sandbox

When you are ready to get back into the sandbox, align your mind with your body, get rid of the misconception that all activity needs to be reciprocal, and try this exercise. See the menu of touch activities on the next page. Read the guidelines first

Getting back into the sandbox

1. General guidelines for the touch exercise

  • Schedule the touch activity in collaboration with your partner, i.e., is this a good day/time for you? What others days/times would be better for you?
  • The one who wants to be touched is in charge of reminding the partner that it is time (not the other way around). You are the one who schedules and reminds.
  • There should be no expectation on the part of your partner that he or she will reciprocate. If your partner wants a turn with touch, he or she would find out if this is a good time for you too.
  • There should be no expectation on the part of your partner that this touching time will lead to “other things,” i.e., sexual intercourse.

2. Guidelines for couples who have not touched in a long time

If you haven’t touched or been touched in a long time, this will not be easy. The more time you have avoided touching or being touched, the less natural or more forced this will feel. This is normal. Here are some guidelines if you have not touched or been touched in a long time, to start you off in the direction of a virtuous cycle.

  • Pick items from the menu, but I recommend starting with menus 1 and 2.
  • Try not to move too quickly from one menu to the next.
  • Stay with the exercise for a minimum of two and a maximum of five minutes
  • Do the exercise a few times until it feels comfortable and natural, before you move on to items in the other menu.

3. Steps of the touch exercise

  • Step one: Pick three items from the menus (see below) that you think are pleasurable for you.
  • Step two: Ask your partner to spend no more than five minutes doing the three things you picked.
  • Start playing!

Your partner does not necessarily take a turn following yours and your partner needs to do his/her own requesting at a time when it is convenient for you, just as you requested.

Menu of touch activities

Menu 1: Non sexual touch–basic

Long Hugs Cuddling
Embracing Touching hair
Long kisses on the cheek Touching face
Scratching back Touching shoulders
Touching waist Holding hands sitting down
Holding hands walking Moving hand up and down the back
Add your own Add your own

Menu 2: Non sexual touch–premium

Long kisses on the mouth Caressing face
Caressing hair Combing Hair
Massaging back Massaging feet
Touching or massaging each finger from hand Massaging shoulder
Caress or massage legs Touching or massaging toes
Caress or massage arms Caress or massage under arms
Add your own Add your own

Menu 3: Sexual touch–basic

Touch erogenous parts Caress erogenous parts
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Sara Schwarzbaum
Counselor, Ed.D, LMFT, LCPC
Sara is the founder of Couples Counseling Associates in Chicago where she works with couples who want to improve their relationship. She is the author several articles about the reasons for the high levels of relationships distress in the US. She offers consultations for counselors who want to improve their work with couples.