Not long ago at a wedding I attended, the rabbi offered the bride and groom a piece of very doable advice: The key to a long and happy union, he said, is to touch each other every single day. The touching can be as simple as a hug hello, he explained, or a gentle rub on the back. But to stay connected romantically and emotionally, a couple needs to stay connected physically—by literally connecting.
While the rabbi’s handsy advice made intuitive sense, I was curious: Was there any science to back it up?
The burgeoning field of touch research suggests the answer is an emphatic yes. Not only can affectionate touch promote feelings of bonding and attachment in couples, according to multiple studies, but in long-term relationships, it can also contribute to overall physical health and well-being.
“When touch is wanted, it basically communicates, ‘I’m on your side,’” David J. Linden, a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of the 2015 book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, tells Health. Whether you’re touching or being touched, he says, “it’s pretty good for what ails you.”
And yet, while it’s common for couples to be very physical at the beginning of a relationship—to not be able to keep their hands off each other—over time, we often get distracted by the demands of work and home and just, well, forget to touch our partners. By being more mindful about how and when we touch our significant others, say experts, we can give our relationships a quick and easy boost. Here why.
Touching fuels your bond
If you want to feel emotionally close to your partner, look for opportunities to be physically close to him or her—so close that you can easily make contact. “What I say to people is stay in touch,” Helen Fisher, PhD, a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, tells Health. “We are just built to touch—the brain is built to do this.”
The science works like this: When we’re touched by a romantic partner, we experience a surge in the hormone oxytocin, often called the “love hormone,” in the brain, which helps to sustain feelings of deep attachment. Walk arm in arm, hold hands, put your foot gently on top of the other person’s under the table, or learn to sleep in the other person’s arms, advises Fisher. “We’ve evolved all kinds of brain mechanisms to fall madly in love and stay in love,” she says, and touch is high among them.
Touching can ease stress
One of the most remarkable effects of touch is its ability to help our bodies and brains chill out. This is a phenomenon developmental psychologist Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute, has spent decades studying in an effort to harness the power of touch to treat mental and physical health conditions. Generally speaking, “you want to keep yourself in a state of relaxation,” Field tells Health, “and touch from someone who is close to you really helps in doing that.”
When we touch or are touched by someone we’re close to, we produce more of the mood boosting neurotransmitter serotonin and less of the stress hormone cortisol, she explains—our heart rate and blood pressure go down, and our brain waves “change in the direction of relaxation.” What does this mean IRL? Studies have suggested that when we’re massaged, hugged, and otherwise lovingly touched before a stressful event (such as a work presentation), we’re better able to manage the stress; our bodies remain in a more mellow state.
Touching can lessen pain
Being hands-on with our partner has also been shown to work as a natural analgesic—something Pavel Goldstein, PhD, a pain researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, observed intimately when his wife went into labor with their daughter. “My wife was in pain, and all I could think was, ‘What can I do to help her?’ I reached for her hand and it seemed to help,” he said in a 2017 news release. “I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”
In the resulting study, published in the journal Nature, Goldstein was indeed able to replicate his delivery-room finding on a small scale. In an experiment involving 22 heterosexual couples, Goldstein subjected the female half to a mild heat pain on the forearm for two minutes. When couples were allowed to hold hands, the women’s pain subsided. Even sweeter? The study also found that, while holding hands, the couples’ breathing and heart rates synchronized. (Aww.)
Touching can make you both healthier—and happier
When touch is wanted, it appears to be fantastic for our overall health—and the health of our relationships, say the experts. In a kind of domino effect, when we’re relaxed and receiving more feel-good chemicals and fewer stress ones, we’re better able to fight disease and infection, explains Field. “It’s very important that people remain in touch with each other to keep their stress levels down and their pain levels down—and keep their wellness up,” she adds.
But perhaps most convincing of all, research suggests that incorporating regular touch into one’s relationship is linked to higher relationship and partner satisfaction. “It’s amazing how touch can really facilitate relationships,” says Field. Let’s hope the bride and groom gave their rabbi a big hug for his hands-on advice.