For ten years, from the time I was about seven, I don’t recall many memories of physical closeness to others. I remember a sweaty wrestling game with my friends when I turned ten. I have sweet memories of being close to the girl I was in love with when I was 14, when our small gang of classmates slept over in a windbreak. I also remember a couple of clumsy hugs with a few girls. Otherwise, there was not much closeness in my life.
Later in life I have experienced much more closeness. I have had several long relationships and most of my friends like to hug when we meet. Occasionally we walk arm in arm. I have participated in various courses and contexts where physical touch has been part of the interaction between the people involved. There have also been periods in my life where touch has not been as important. Maybe I got the need met enough and did not have to seek it outside of my relationships?
So many benefits
The need for touch is a very basic need. It is a prerequisite for human thriving and a healthy life. When we don’t have physical contact, we suffer from stress, depression, high blood pressure, increased risk of infections, etc. There are reports from different parts of the world where orphaned children who grew up in institutions without affection and touch suffered from mental disorders and even death. We can also see how the restrictions during the pandemic affected many people negatively.
What are the positive effects of touch? If you hug for at least 20 seconds, then oxytocin (the “feel-good hormone”) is released. Some other effects of touch are that it stimulates nutrient uptake, increases confidence, suppresses fear, stimulates alertness, accelerates wound healing and raises the pain threshold. Just remember, if you don’t have a very close relationship with the person you want to hug for a longer time, make sure to warn them. I myself have been “exposed” to long hugs from “strangers” and it feels a little weird…
In my experience, physical touch is generally more tricky for men. In the cultural contexts I’ve been in, it seems to be easier for women to have contact with other women than it is for men to have contact with men. Even in the rather alternative circles I’ve taken part in, it has been easier for me to be close to women than to men. I’ve seldom taken the initiative to get physically closer to men.
At the same time, being close to women has often been a challenge for me as well. “What does this touch mean?”, “When does a friendship turn into a romantic relationship?”, “How close can we be to each other?”. If I got a little longer hug than usual from a girl, fantasies about a possible sexual relationship could start. It also prevented me from seeking non-sexual intimacy because I didn’t want to appear to be someone who was just looking for sex.
Before I got in touch with NVC, I practised Reevaluating Counselling (RC). In this movement there is a guideline that we don’t create private relationships with those we got to know in RC, neither connected to business, friendship or romance. In RC, I was able to let go of all hidden motives about possible sexual interactions. This guideline made it very safe to be close. I could enjoy touch without having to think about potential implications.
Another thing I got from RC were some thoughts about sex and intimacy. For some heterosexual men, the only chance for intimacy with other people is to have temporary or long-term sexual relationships with women. Part of the sometimes compulsive fixation on sex is thus an expression of the longing for touch and closeness. If men had easy access to touch, perhaps some preoccupation around sex would diminish?
Intimacy and integrity
A few years ago I participated in a course with the theme of intimacy and integrity. The trainer said that one of the fears of getting close is that our “no” is not respected. We took part in exercises where we expressed “no” both verbally and with body language. One challenging exercise was to say “no” so clearly that it could not be misunderstood. It showed me that in order to really enjoy closeness I need to know myr boundaries and be safe. I need both to be able to express “no” and of course be received with my “no” with respect.
My conclusion after reading and writing about touch is that it is a pure miracle medicine! Imagine if we could introduce touch as a subject in our schools. Together with communication skills like NVC and the ability to express and receive “no”, I guess we would live much more joyful and healthy lives.
How easy is it for you to be close to other people?
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Joachim Berggren (CNVC Certified Trainer)
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On 24 July at 15:00-15:45 CEST, you can participate in a Zoom Talk with me and Amy Dyer. We will talk about the need for touch.
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