New research suggests that being on the receiving end of intimate touch from a partner improves relational well-being in ways that giving intimate touch may not. The findings were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The field of psychology has long contended that simple, human touch offers many benefits, such as reducing stress, providing feelings of comfort, improving physical health, and supporting brain development. In adults, touch within the context of intimate relationships has been studied as an important component of relationship satisfaction.
Study authors Cheryl L. Carmichael and team were motivated to investigate whether adult attachments styles would be associated with different touch preferences and different responses to touch from a romantic partner.
In an initial study, 323 non-single adults completed a scale designed to assess their attachment styles. The scale measured attachment anxiety — defined by fears of being alone and a dependency on the affection of others, and attachment avoidance — defined as an aversion to closeness and a preference for independence. The subjects also answered questions concerning 12 touch behaviors (e.g., cuddling, holding hands, kissing).
As the researchers expected, those who were higher in anxious attachment had a greater desire for touch behaviors, engaged in them more often, were more likely to initiate them, and felt they were more important to a relationship. Those who were more avoidant, however, displayed the opposite pattern for all five of these ratings.
To investigate how these associations would play out in the context of everyday behavior, the researchers next conducted a 10-day diary study. Here, 115 individuals kept a daily log of the touch behaviors they received from their partners and those they provided to their partners. They also completed several measures related to relationship well-being.
As the researchers expected, being avoidantly attached was linked to providing less daily touch to a romantic partner. Being anxiously attached, however, was unrelated to daily touch provided to partners.
Interestingly, being on the receiving end of touch behaviors offered unique benefits compared to initiating touch. Initiating touch behaviors was linked to greater relationship quality, closeness, and willingness to accommodate one’s partner. Receiving touch behaviors was also linked to these three benefits, but was uniquely linked to greater ratings of partner responsiveness.
This finding, the researchers say, indicates that “although giving and receiving touch both benefit a relationship in some ways (e.g., satisfaction, closeness), only receiving touch can promote feelings of understanding, validation, and care.”
As it turns out, attachment styles were found to influence the extent that participants benefitted from touch behaviors. Importantly, these benefits were strongest among those with anxious attachment, who were perhaps more tuned into their partner’s demonstrations of touch. Surprisingly, avoidant attachment was not associated with a decreased benefit from touch behaviors, something the researchers call an “interesting paradox” given that these avoidant participants reported less desire for these behaviors.
The studies were limited due to a reliance on self-reports of touch behavior, which may be biased. Still, the findings suggest that both receiving and providing touch has strong benefits for couples, especially those with attachment styles characterized by fearfulness and dependency.
The study, “Security-Based Differences in Touch Behavior and Its Relational Benefits”, was authored by Cheryl L. Carmichael, Matthew H. Goldberg, and Maureen A. Coyle.