By Kara Condie
The emotional and physical affection shared between a couple can bond them together, sometimes to the point of being sickening to those around them.
But unbeknownst to many, the common act of cuddling can actually relieve stress and increase positive feelings. Most relationships incorporate some form of physical intimacy, whether it be kissing, holding hands, or sex, and it depends on individual couples. This intimacy can be beneficial to the health of couples.
The American Psychological Association says that stress is commonly described as feeling run-down or worried and is defined as any uncomfortable “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes.”
According to the APA, chronic stress causes anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, heart disorders, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system.
In a report by Psychosomatic Medicine, the stress levels of married couples was decreased after four, 30-minute intervals of “warm touch,” or massages. Among the couples, levels of cortisol and alpha amylase (stress hormones) were compared along with blood pressure and levels of oxytocin, the hormone of love and trust. In couples who shared “warm touch,” levels of alpha amylase were significantly lower, and levels of oxytocin were much higher. Researchers even reported lower levels of blood pressure in men who participated in “warm touch.”
Psychosomatic Medicine says the lowered levels of stress hormones as result of physical affection decreases the risk of stress-related disorders in couples.
The increase of oxytocin in the brain encourages the body to seek contact with others, according to social psychologist Shelley E. Taylor.
Couples who share nonsexual affection like cuddling may not be aware of the benefits, but some do see the results nonetheless.
Brookelyn McGauley, 18 of Palm Harbor, Florida and long-term boyfriend Justin Hocherg, 20 of Clearwater, Florida have been together for more than two years. Though the two live in an apartment together, Hochberg and McGauley don’t receive quality time together until the weekend when their schedules permit. The two notice that spending time together cuddled up on the couch relaxes them and makes them feel much closer as a couple.
“We only see each other Friday through Sunday because of work and school,” McGauley says. “Just being in each other’s company and enjoying it is a huge stress reliever.”
Cuddling is a form of “protracted” touch, according to Experimental Brain Research. The article says that “protracted” touch involves longer, skin-to-skin contact like embracing and cuddling. This kind of touch produces affiliative behavior such as liking or longing for someone. This behavior is commonly accompanied by positive feelings of fondness or alleviation of stress or anxiety.
“Physical intimacy can boost a couple’s relationship when they are going through a tough time,” says Chicago-based Marriage and Family Therapist Grace Norberg. “Sexual satisfaction is an important component in every relationship, but so is non-sexual touch.”
According to Norberg, many women and men crave simple touches from their partners on a daily basis, such as kisses, hugs or even just pats on the back. Norberg says partners can feel rejected when they do not receive affection. In addition, non-sexual physical touch increases the willingness of a partner to want to engage in sex, according to Norberg.
“I believe that cuddling is essential to a relationship,” Norberg says. “Human beings are wired for connection through touch.”
According to Norberg, couples that cuddle are more satisfied in their relationships than couples who don’t, and are more likely to express satisfaction in the relationship as well as sexually.
“Physical touch is something that connects people,” Norberg says.
McGauley and Hochberg make time for each other on a regular basis because it makes them feel closer as a couple.
“I for sure think it’s vital to have intimacy like cuddling,” McGauley says. “It not only is nice and pleasurable to have that intimacy, but it also brings those two people closer together.”
Though cuddling positively affects couples and their health, too much physical intimacy in a relationship can be a sign of insecurity, according to Stephanie Castillo, a writer for Medical Daily. The constant need to publicly display affection through touch, posting on social media, or telling others is a red flag.
“Having completed a certification in domestic violence, I can say that an early warning sign of possibly being in a relationship with an abuser is too much affection too soon,” Norberg says. “If your partner says they love you after only a couple weeks of dating, pressures you to post about your relationship on social media, or engages in [public displays of affection] to an uncomfortable level, it is time to take a step back.”
Too much affection can be dangerous to a relationship, but no physical touch at all can be just as devastating. According to Norberg, some couples over time have built up a barrier to any sort of physical touch, which is commonly known as a “wall of resentment.” This wall keeps partners from reaching out to say what they need.
“Couples that are having a hard time in their relationship should incorporate physical touch into their relationships, starting off with non-sexual touching such as hugs, back massages, and squeezes or pats on the shoulder,” Norberg says. “These can progress to kissing and cuddling. Once a physical connection has been re-established and both partners are comfortable, sex can boost satisfaction, too.”
When faced with stressful situations or hardships, it is beneficial to a couple’s health to engage in physical affection like cuddling. Though cuddling can be a form of support for couples, it is still recommended to seek medical or therapeutic assistance for serious conditions or signs of abusive relationships.