North Americans have been called one of the world’s least tactile people; we hold, hug, pat, stroke, fondle, and caress each other much less often than do other folks. Psychologists have suggested that we suffer from “touch hunger” and that this is just one of the signs of our ongoing loss of connection and community. Most of us have fewer and fewer people to confide in and live our everyday lives on the edge of emotional isolation. Ironically, this is happening at a time when scientific studies are giving us the clear message that loneliness seriously harms our physical health, especially our hearts (literally!) and our resilience to stress.
This sense of isolation is a pivotal concern in love relationships. As a therapist, I know that when I ask a couple to tell me their story, they will immediately launch into tales of anger, fights, and frustration. But the real story begins emerges when someone says the word “lonely.” Partners tell me, “I am lonelier with him/her than when I am by myself!” and they weep. This deprivation, this loss of emotional connection, is most obvious when we are not touched or do not feel safe enough to reach and touch our loved one. Emotional and physical connection go together.
Why is this separateness is so devastating to people? The new science of love tells us that feeling a sense of connection to another is the deepest and most pressing need we have as human beings. Our social brain codes this connection as safety, and touch is the most obvious route into this safety. There is evidence that touch floods us with the cuddle hormone oxytocin. This chemical turns off stress hormones like cortisol and turns on the reward centers in our brain. With a simple touch, we feel recognized, soothed, comforted, and, in sexual contexts, aroused. Without this sense of connection, we feel emotionally deprived, even starved.
Rejection and a sense that we are emotionally separated from or shut out by our loved one triggers the same part of the brain, the anterior cingulated, as does physical pain, Partners speak about the pain of rejection or abandonment in terms of life and death. This is not because they are immature or too needy. It is because emotional isolation is traumatic, reminding us of our essential vulnerability in a world teeming with danger.
If we cannot recognize our basic need and ask directly for touch and connection—perhaps to be held, this moment of disconnection can be the beginning of a slide into more and more isolation and relationship distress.
The men I see in couple therapy crave physical and emotional touch as much as women do, but perhaps because of male conditioning, they feel uncomfortable asking for it. So they ask for sex instead. Women, feeling used, often turn them down. We almost seem to be more comfortable touching our pets and our children than our lovers. Perhaps because they are transparent about needing to be touched by us.
The couple therapy I do is a tested, cutting edge approach to healing a love relationship. The powerful outcomes it achieves seem to hinge on a couple’s ability to shape a “hold me tight” conversation, where each partner can reach for the other, be held and hold in return. When we know how love works, we can get the touch, the sense of connection, we need.
One of the most powerful pictures ever created is on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. People enter the chapel, gaze up and let out a collective sigh. It is the image of Adam reaching out and touching God with just one finger. The magic is in the touch. So just risk it, reach out for connection and hold your loved one tight.
By Dr. Sue Johnson