Intimate touch is a vital part of most close relationships.
Study after study has found that couples who touch each other more tend to be happier. From backrubs to gentle caresses to hand-holding to hugging, the more intimate contact couples have with one another, the more satisfied they tend to be with their relationships .
Certainly, sexual touch is important, too, but non-sexual physical contact appears to have unique benefits. In fact, this is a big part of the reason why Masters and Johnson, the pioneers of the modern sex therapy movement, incorporated non-sexual touching exercises into most of their couple’s treatment programs.
This kind of touch promotes connection and relaxation, while also building intimacy. In light of this, it shouldn’t be surprising that Masters and Johnson found that by simply encouraging more touch, it was sometimes enough to solve a couple’s sexual problems.
This doesn’t necessarily work in all cases, though, because sexual problems can have wildly different causes, and also because different people may want and desire different amounts of touch from their partners. For example, some people may find that it’s hard to ever get enough touch, whereas others may actually desire less touch than they’re currently receiving. New research suggests that different touch preferences may have a lot to do with our attachment style.
Everyone has an attachment style that reflects the way they tend to approach and think about relationships. Our attachment patterns are shaped early in life through interactions with our caregivers during infancy and childhood. For example, are they available to us physically and emotionally when we need them? Also, how much reassurance do they provide us?
These experiences form the building blocks for our attachment patterns in adulthood and they spill over into the way we navigate our romantic lives. For example, people who developed anxious patterns early on often find themselves concerned about being abandoned by their partners, whereas those who developed more avoidant patterns tend to find themselves uncomfortable with too much intimacy.
A new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships explored how attachment anxiety and avoidance are linked to satisfaction with the amount of touch people are getting in their marriages and, further, how this is linked to their overall feelings about the relationship .
Researchers at Binghamton University and Stony Brooke University studied 180 different-sex married couples. Most participants were White, in their early- to mid-30s, and had been married for 6.5 years on average.
Both partners completed a survey about their attachment style, their satisfaction with the amount of intimate touch they are receiving, how often they engage in routine affection with their partners, and how satisfied vs. dissatisfied they are with their marriage.
Overall, and consistent with previous research, partners who touched each other more and who were happier with the amount of touch they were receiving tended to be more sexually satisfied and were happier in their relationships. Also, on average, wives were more satisfied with the amount of touch they were getting than were husbands, and people who had been in their relationships longer were less satisfied with touch than people in newer relationships.
For both men and women, having a more anxious attachment style (i.e., fear of abandonment) predicted being less satisfied with the amount of touch they were getting.
However, when accounting for the amount of routine affection in the relationship, this association disappeared for women, but remained for men. In other words, for women, the link between anxiety and touch satisfaction was purely a function of how much touch they were actually getting; however, for men, touch satisfaction was about more than just how much touch they received.
Exploring this association further, the researchers found that when routine touch was really high, most men were pretty satisfied no matter what their anxiety level was. However, when routine touch was low, this seemed to affect anxious men much more profoundly (and negatively) than non-anxious men.
So why didn’t the same patterns emerge for women? We can’t say for sure, but the researchers speculate that perhaps anxious women respond to touch dissatisfaction in different ways than do anxious men, perhaps by seeking more proximity to their partners in an attempt to blunt the impact of not getting as much touch as they would like.
What effects did attachment avoidance have? Men whose spouses were more avoidant reported being less satisfied with the amount of touch they were getting; however, this association disappeared when accounting for amount of routine touch. In other words, men with avoidant spouses were unhappy with the amount of touch they were getting because they just weren’t getting much to begin with.
Also, for women only, those who were high in avoidance were happier than their non-avoidant counterparts when the amount of touch was low; however, when the amount of touch was high, the pattern was reversed.
It’s important to note that this study only looked at different-sex married couples who were predominately White. Thus, we should be cautious about generalizing the findings broadly until the results are replicated in more diverse samples.
However, these results suggest that it’s not just the actual amount of touch that happens in a relationship that matters—one’s perception of whether the amount of touch is sufficient also appears to be crucial, and this seems to be driven, at least in part, by one’s attachment style and also by one’s gender.
More research is needed, especially to further understand the gender effects uncovered here. However, there are interesting implications of these results. For example, they suggest that attending to discrepancies in attachment style may be vital to understanding the root of relationship conflicts centering around touch. They also suggest that blanket recommendations to increase touch might not affect everyone and every relationship the same way.
 Gulledge, A. K., Gulledge, M. H., & Stahmannn, R. F. (2003). Romantic physical affection types and relationship satisfaction. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 31(4), 233-242.
 Wagner, S. A., Mattson, R. E., Davila, J., Johnson, M. D., & Cameron, N. M. (2020). Touch me just enough: The intersection of adult attachment, intimate touch, and marital satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 0265407520910791.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award-winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. In addition to publishing articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, he has written two textbooks and produces the popular blog Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research addresses topics including casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller or facebook.com/psychologyofsex.