When you're having a rough day, there's nothing better than a long hug from your partner to bring you comfort. Physical affection in a relationship is super important, but what if your partner's touch could do more than just give you the warm and fuzzies? According to a new study from researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, if you want to help a partner who's physically hurting, it might be as simple as reaching for their hand.
For the study, 22 long-term heterosexual couples were put through a series of tests, in which the man was the "observer" and the woman was the "pain target." For the first part of the study, the couples sat in three different positions — together but not touching, together and holding hands, then in totally separate rooms — all while instruments measured their heart and breathing rates. The couples' heart and breathing rates actually synced up to some degree while they were merely sitting together, a process known as interpersonal synchronization.
Then, they repeated the same three scenarios, except this time the woman was subjected to a mild heat pain on her forearm for two minutes. The researchers found that when the woman was subjected to pain and her partner *couldn't* touch her, that interpersonal synchronization was severed. But the most interesting thing? When her partner was allowed to hold her hand while she was in pain, their heart and breathing rates fell into sync again and her pain actually decreased.
Why Does Physical Touch Make Us Feel Better?
It's kind of a no-brainer that a touch from your partner would be figuratively comforting when you're in pain, but how can it literally make us feel better, as this study suggests it's capable of doing? In short, having our partner touch us in times of pain can release feel-good chemicals in our brains, thereby lessening our pain.
"There are noticeable changes in mood and even health when we’re exposed to simple human kindness in the form of touch."
"Touch is more than a physical act," Dr. Martha Lee, founder and Clinical Sexologist of Eros Coaching, tells Bustle. "It can also represent acknowledgement ('I hear you'), empathy ('I wish I could make you feel better'), and love ('I want to hold you, and be close to you'). As such, the physical act can translate to emotional closeness and connectedness – which we know can release oxytocin (feel-good hormones) and endorphins (pain relief) in the body."
Besides making us feel closer to our partner and releasing those feel-good chemicals, the simple act of physical touch can also play a role in stress and anxiety relief. "Studies have shown that touch can lower stress levels, lessen anxiety, and help a myriad of other physical disorders," Lee says. "There are noticeable changes in mood and even health when we’re exposed to simple human kindness in the form of touch."
Touch Bolsters Our Romantic Relationships
Knowing the powerful potential of touch to ease pain and stress, it only makes sense that physical touch and affection (or a lack thereof) can seriously impact your overall relationship satisfaction.
"Touch establishes communication, and what is transmitted has more meaning than words," Lee says. "Touch communicates involvement. It means you care that you are really supporting the other person. Touch heals and provides emotional sustenance. Physical closeness and touching stimulates the continued growth of your loving relationships. It is the conduit between two individuals that allows them to connect as one."
How To Use Touch To Build (Or Rebuild) Intimacy
Too often, people in long-term relationships lose the physical intimacy that bonded them in the early stages of the relationship. While a suffering sex life is one major side effect of this, it's not the *only* thing that matters. In fact, a couple who has sex but lacks other forms of physical intimacy outside the bedroom is just as (if not more) at risk for dooming the relationship.
"In a relationship, the desire for physical closeness often gets misinterpreted as a desire for sex," Lee says. "Misunderstandings that stem from miscommunication about how we want, like, or need to be touched does happen. Communicate, communicate, and communicate!"
Sure, a healthy sex life is important, but so is making sure that both partners are on the same page about other, smaller kinds of affection — because those build emotional intimacy, too. So what can you do to reintroduce little moments of affection into your relationship?
"Hug and kiss each other before you leave for work, or when you return home," Lee says. "Give affection to each other during quiet moments of the day. Hold hands while walking down the street, watching a movie, or between courses at a restaurant. Shower or bathe together. Ask for a massage and give one in return. Subtly keep your hand on your partner’s leg, or on the small of their back, to maintain a physical connection."
Ultimately, the most important thing you can do is communicate with your partner about your desired levels of physical intimacy. Touch has the power to bring you closer to your partner — but only if you're both on the same page about how you like to receive that affection.