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Are some people affected by touch differently than others?

People with high levels of attachment avoidance still benefit from being physically affectionate with their partners.

Image Credit: Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Scientists have shown that affectionate touch in romantic relationships improves overall psychological well-being. In this case, affectionate touch is defined as any form of touch intended to convey fondness or closeness with someone without the sole intention of communicating sexual attraction. Affectionate touch is a meaningful way to share intimacy with a partner, which can improve the well-being of the person giving and the person receiving it. Until recently, we did not know for sure whether touch has the same effect on everyone, specifically those with different attachment styles.

Attachment theory says that people develop beliefs about how they expect others to act and treat them based on their interactions with their primary caregivers. In adulthood, attachment style is especially important in romantic relationships due to the deep emotional connection usually involved and the amount of time partners spend together.

There are three main attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Securely attached people trust that others are dependable and are comfortable being emotionally and physically close to them. Anxiously attached people see others as unreliable and themselves as unworthy of affection, which leads to more anxiety when they get physically and psychologically close to others, along with wanting more touch than they receive. Avoidantly attached people see others as unreliable and uncaring, value their independence, and dislike psychological closeness.

A group of scientists from the Universities of Lausanne, Toronto, and California (Berkeley) came together to look at the effects of touch on psychological well-being in avoidantly attached people. Avoidantly attached people often experience lower psychological well-being, meaning they feel less contentment and satisfaction and often function less effectively individually and in social settings. They are also more likely to experience anxiety and depression.  Previous studies have also found that avoidantly attached people engage in touch less frequently than others.

The scientists conducting the study had two hypotheses about how attachment avoidance and psychological well-being could be related. The first prediction was that touch is less beneficial, or even harmful, to the well-being of people with a higher level of attachment avoidance, whereas touch has a positive impact on securely attached individuals. The second hypothesis suggested that perhaps attachment avoidance is associated with lower psychological well-being because avoidantly attached people engage in less frequent affectionate touch.

The scientists conducted three separate studies to test these hypotheses. The first study included individuals in relationships, but not both partners. The study rated their well-being by having participants rate how satisfied they feel with their life, how much they feel like they are still learning and growing, and how strongly they experience positive emotions. They also reported how frequently they engaged in affectionate touch behaviors like cuddling, massaging, and kissing.

The second study included both partners and took place in a lab setting. Before beginning, partners rated their positive well-being through two assessments, one exploring their positive emotions such as joy, love, and amusement and the other how satisfied they are with their life. They also rated their frequency of affectionate touch such as how often they hold hands with, sit close to, or hug their partner. They then engaged in three conversations covering the topics of sacrifice, love, and suffering where they each took turns being the speaker and listener. The conversations were videotaped so scientists could see how often and for how long they touched.  After each conversation they rated their positive emotions again.

The third study also included both partners, but took place over 28 days which allowed the scientists to see if changes in the frequency of daily affectionate touch would also change daily well-being. Each day the participants would rate how “happy, pleased, joyful” and “interested, attentive” they felt. They also rated how often they engaged in affectionate touch behaviors like cuddling, massaging, and kissing. As in the other studies, partners assessed their positive emotions and frequency of touch behaviors, but there were no in-lab measurements.

Throughout all three studies, the scientists found support for their second hypothesis: people with an avoidant attachment style have lower levels of psychological well-being because they engage in touch less frequently. However, they found no evidence for their first hypothesis that people who are more avoidantly attached touch their partners less frequently because they benefit less from affectionate touch. Instead, they found that avoidantly attached people and securely attached people rated their well-being as more positive when they gave and received more frequent touch, showing that everyone benefits from touch equally. The researchers also found that touch was an indicator of relationship quality. When people were satisfied in their relationships, touch was more frequent so individuals had a higher level of well-being as predicted.

These findings highlight the importance of affectionate touch for humans. People with an avoidant attachment style harm themselves and their loved ones by disregarding their need for touch because their overall well-being, as well as their partner’s, is worsened by a lack of affectionate touch. Because touch is so important for well-being, the authors conclude that finding ways to increase avoidantly attached peoples’ level of comfort with affectionate touch would be a valuable topic for future research.

Study Information

Original study: Is Touch in Romantic Relationships Universally Beneficial for Psychological Well-Being? The Role of Attachment Avoidance

Study was published on: December 7, 2020

Study author(s): Anik Debrot, Jennifer E. Stellar, Geoff MacDonald, Dacher Kletner, & Emily A. Impett

The study was done at: University of Lausanne (Switzerland), University of Toronto (Canada), University of California, Berkeley (USA)

The study was funded by: Authors received no financial support for this article

Raw data availability: Supplemental material here

Featured image credit: Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

This summary was edited by: Erica Curles