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The Power of Touch

“Skinship” doesn’t just refer to the intimate touch of sexual partners. Rather, it also includes family members and even some friends as well. Babies and small children, in particular, need a lot of skinship time with their caregivers, but we all need some skin-to-skin contact with those who are close to us.

The Japanese understand intuitively what Western psychologists have only come to realize after extensive research—namely that affectionate touch is a powerful way to communicate intimacy in close relationships. The frequency of affectionate touch is associated with both physical and psychological well-being, and those who are deprived of it suffer from depression, anxiety and a host of other maladies.

Nevertheless, some persons recoil from physical contact with others, even those close to them. These people also report more psychological problems than the general population. Perhaps this is because they unwittingly deprive themselves of the affectionate touch they need. But it could also be that physical contact has the opposite effect on them, increasing psychological discomfort rather than alleviating it. This is the issue that University of Lausanne (Switzerland) psychologist Anik Debrot and colleagues explored in a study they recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Debrot and colleagues first consider the role of attachment style in intimate relationships. Attachment style refers to your way of interacting with your romantic partner during times of stress, and it first develops in infancy through exchanges with your caregiver. Infants who learn that their mothers will reliably meet their needs develop a secure attachment style, and as adults, they are generally trusting of others, especially intimates.

In contrast, infants who learn that their caregivers don’t reliably meet their needs will develop one of two different types of insecure attachment styles. Some develop an anxious attachment style, in which they’re extremely fussy in order to capture their mother’s attention. As adults, they’re clingy and demanding, and they frequently worry that their lovers will abandon them.

Other infants develop an avoidant attachment style, whereby they learn to self-soothe. As adults, they prize their independence, and they feel uncomfortable getting too close in intimate relationships. These are the people who feel little desire for physical contact outside of sex, and they dread the affectionate touches and hugs that others try to inflict upon them.

Debrot and colleagues’ research question was straightforward: Do people with avoidant attachment style recoil from touch because it provides them no psychological good or even harms them? Or might they benefit from touch just as much as others do if only they could overcome their deep reluctance to engage in physical contact with intimates?

To explore these questions, the researchers conducted three separate studies. The first was a survey of more than 1,600 individuals who were in an intimate relationship. Questions asked about attachment style, well-being, and touch behaviours, including types (caressing, cuddling, kissing, and so on) and frequency (ranging from never to four or more times a day).


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