Xs & Os: Couples Who Regularly Show Physical Affection Have Happier Relationships

BINGHAMTON, NY — Cuddling, hugging, and touching that doesn’t lead to sex can help build a stronger and happier relationship and marriage, according to a new study conducted at Binghamton University. The research team examined the effect of non-sexual physical intimacy on relationship satisfaction across a variety of attachment styles.

One’s “attachment style” refers to how comfortable a person is regarding both physical and emotional intimacy. Some people crave such affection, while others are more reserved and selective. These tendencies usually develop within a person during their childhood, but they can also change over time as well.

“It all depends on how open, close and secure you feel with that person, which is impacted by many, many factors,” explains study leader Samantha Wagner, a Binghamton University doctoral student in psychology, in a release.

To examine the connection between marital or relationship satisfaction, attachment style, and touch satisfaction, a group of 184 couples were gathered for the study. All participants were over the age of 18, and no same-sex couples were included. People receiving hormone therapy, and pregnant or breastfeeding women, were also excluded due to the study including hormonal sampling.

Each participant was interviewed separately and asked about their attachment style, the usual amount of touching and affection in their relationship, and their overall happiness with the relationship.

Before starting the study, researchers expected to find that avoidant people wouldn’t enjoy being touched and anxious people would like more physical affection. The findings, though, weren’t as cut and dry as expected.

Regardless of attachment styles, the more a couple reported showing physical affection towards one another, the more satisfied they felt with their partner’s touch. Anxious husbands tended to be less satisfied with their wife’s touch if physical affection was infrequent, but the same relationship wasn’t observed in anxious women. This suggests, according to the study’s authors, that women may look for missing affection more naturally.

Higher overall levels of physical intimacy were linked to more relationship satisfaction in men, and low levels of physical intimacy were linked to relationship dissatisfaction in women. It’s subtle, but researchers believe those two findings point to distinct differences in the genders. For men, physical intimacy is a nice extra, but for women it’s a necessity.

“There’s something specific about touch satisfaction that interplays with relationship satisfaction but not dissatisfaction for wives,” Wagner notes.

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Additionally, regardless of attachment styles, touch perception was associated with “touch satisfaction.” Essentially, this means more touching is beneficial because it helps partners communicate without actually speaking. All in all, researchers believe their work indicates non-sexual physical affection can help build a strong relationship.

“Interestingly, there’s some evidence that holding your partner’s hand while you’re arguing de-escalates the argument and makes it more productive,” Wagner comments.

Just like anything else, there are exceptions to these observations. Someone with physical abuse in their past may not react positively to lots of touching, for example.

“Feel free to give some extra snugs on the couch. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests touch as a way to decrease stress,” she concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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