When I met James and Catherine for their first couple therapy session, they told me that they weren’t a very touchy kind of couple. They did not hug, hold hands or kiss much. When they did, it was perhaps when he was leaving for or returning from a business trip. ‘You see we are British. We aren’t nearly as demonstrative of affectionate as you North Americans.’ James explained.
I was somewhat familiar with what they were speaking of, having been raised by parents and educated in the British tradition and culture of formality and muted emotionality. I asked them how else do they express affection to each other. Catherine smiled as she looked at James and said, ‘We share a wicked sense of humour. James is very quick witted and he teases me mercilessly. When I feel stressed or if there is any tension in the air, James can say something clever and funny and we both laugh and relax.’
When I met alone with each of them the following week, I learned that the teasing Catherine received sometimes felt hurtful to her and not funny at all. She would never let on how she felt. If she expressed her upset or said something that James did not like, there was silence for days. I learned that neither had been raised with much physical nurturing and contact. James could not remember being hugged or even kissed as a child. He had been raised in a boarding school after his mother had died when he was 8 years old. He talked about the way boys were taught about character and were shaped into men in the boarding school. It sounded to me like he was exposed to harsh punishment and bullying by today’s standards. Catherine’s childhood was less emotionally austere, but her father was very much like James when it came to expression of feeling and physical contact.
Since the 1950s, scientific research has shown the importance of physical contact for children. Studies on parent child attachment has proven that cuddling, rocking, hugging can be as important to human development as food, sleep and shelter. Subsequent neurobiological studies have shown that the need for physical contact extends into adulthood and for our entire lives. At all ages, the touching or hugging can have measurable positive neurobiological consequences for physical and psychological well-being.
Physical Touch as Medicine for Each Other
Partners can help each other minimize their stress and optimize their health according to Stan Takin in his book Wired for Love. He encourages couples to spend some time in close physical contact every day. Close physical contact is not just making love, although that is part of it, but holding hands, kissing, hugging and giving or getting a massage. This type of contact can reduce your stress and help you relax and even prevent health problems. Here are five suggestions to accomplish this:
- Find time to be alone together for a minimum of ten minutes every day. It can be before bed or any other time that is convenient for both of you.
- During this time, spend it in close physical contact. You can cuddle, caress, brush her hair, or even just hold one other. If you are someone who feels uneasy with physical contact, do this anyway and talk about it with your partner.
- Notice the effect this has on your level of stress and on your physical health. Although you may want to continue way beyond one week to realize the health benefit, you should notice some benefits in the first few days.
- Manage each other’s stress. You and your partner can support each other in reducing stress by engaging in healthy activities and achieving balance in your lifestyle. Whether it is more sleep, not enough exercise or not eating so well, you can help each other out – go to bed earlier, go to the gym together, watch a comedy to relax together.
- As we age, we inevitably encounter physical and medical challenges as our bodies are less resilient and youthful. By loving each other more fully, learning how to diffuse conflict and making choices that put your relationship ahead of your needs, you stand the best chance of enjoying a happy, healthy and satisfying relationship.
James and Catherine made very good progress in therapy. Catherine was willing to initiate a hug on a daily basis. James went along and eventually admitted that he really enjoyed it and he started to initiate himself. Catherine and James were encouraged to spend 10 minutes cuddling daily. James who had always been quite touch aversive, would talk about what made him uneasy, and Catherine listened and helped him to relax. She really appreciated how tender James became over time. She was also glad that physical contact did not always lead to sex. The fun they had with their sense of humour translated into playfulness in the bedroom. Their emotional connection strengthened as Catherine became more assertive and James became gentler, and she could say how she felt without the fear of days of angry silence. Instead, they joked about having shed their British-ness and were slowly becoming more “Canadian”.