By Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Physical intimacy plays a vital role in long-term relationship success. However, such intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual in nature in order for it to have a profound effect on the partners and their relationship. A new set of studies published in the journal Physiology & Behavior suggests that non-sexual touch plays an important role in stress relief and relaxation.
In each of two studies, a team of European researchers brought male-female couples into the lab to take turns stroking each other in a non-sexual way. Specifically, one partner would lay down on a bed with their arm outstretched, while the other partner would be seated in a chair next to them. The seated individual was then instructed to stroke the other partner’s forearm as they normally would in an intimate situation.
The partners were separated by a blanket, meaning the “stroker” could only see the “receiver’s” forearm. In addition, the partners were instructed not to converse. This was to ensure that any effects observed were due to physical contact, not visual or verbal feedback.
While the stroking occurred, participants’ heart rates were monitored and, afterward, they rated the pleasantness of the touch.
In both studies, the researchers found that both strokers and receivers rated the experience as pleasant; however, those who received touch found it to be even more pleasant than those who gave touch.
More importantly, those who received touch (but not those who gave touch) experienced a decrease in heart rate over time. In other words, being stroked on the forearm by one’s partner appears to have a calming or soothing effect on the body.
The more satisfied receivers were with their relationships at the start, the more pleasant they found the touch to be and the more it reduced their heart rate. What this suggests is that happy couples probably have even more to gain from this kind of touch than unhappy couples.
This research is important because it validates the longstanding advice of Masters and Johnson, the founders of the modern sex therapy movement. Masters and Johnson recommend non-sexual intimate touch (known as sensate focus) as part of virtually every couple’s sex therapy treatment plan, in part, because it was thought to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. These studies offer evidence that, both biologically and psychologically, it does, which is probably why their treatment approach has been so successful and continues to be widely used to this day.
Triscoli, C., Croy, I., Olausson, H., & Sailer, U. (2017). Touch between romantic partners: Being stroked is more pleasant than stroking and decelerates heart rate. Physiology & Behavior, 177, 169-175.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. He is currently the Director of the Social Psychology Graduate Program and an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Ball State University.