Physical touch is an important way to keep the emotions of love alive in your marriage. It is one of the first senses we develop as humans and is a primary component of intimacy in adult romance. Unfortunately, it’s something we can forget about, be turned off towards, or start to associate with difficult memories or experiences. Today, we want to look into the research on physical touch to see the benefits of it and learn how we can rekindle it in marriage.

Touch Matters

Social touch is essential for normal human development and for the development of attachment during intimacy. We talked about attachment in episodes 251 to 254: it’s the development of a loving, secure bond between two people. There is a large body of research literature on the beneficial effects of touch (typically mother-infant) for attachment and soothing during infancy and in that very important infant-caregiver relationship.[1]

There’s also a lot of research on the benefits of physical touch in marriage, and we want to talk about touch in that context. We’re talking about the kind of affection that includes “any touch intended to arouse feelings of love in the giver and/or the recipient.”[2] And while we are using the word “arouse” in that definition, loving touch can be either non-sexual or sexual. Really, both are important. Another research article we looked at helpfully pointed out that, “Ideally, the touch is appropriate to the setting, does not interfere with goal-directed behavior, and is not oriented toward immediate sexual gratification.”[3]

When is Touch Appropriate?

Touch that is appropriate to the setting means that you are not touching your spouse sexually in a public place, in front of family, etc. That kind of touch can be loving, but is appropriate only in some contexts. Most couples will understand that intuitively.

Physical touch should also not interfere with goal-directed behavior, meaning that it’s not intrusive. It should never involve holding or restraining your partner when they’re trying to do something else. Affectionate touch should not be controlling or interfering even if it is intended to be warm. Furthermore, it should not interfere with safety. For example, you shouldn’t attempt to hold your partner’s hand while they are driving during a snowstorm and need both hands on the steering wheel. Touch should always be respectful — this should not take away from spontaneity completely, but there are times that respect and safety should come before spontaneity.

Finally, physical touch should not simply be “oriented toward immediate sexual gratification.” There is certainly a place and time for sexual touch in a healthy marriage, and there is a place for touching your spouse in a way that invites sexual initiation or invitation. At the same time, if every time you touch your spouse you are really just approaching your spouse sexually with little or no loving non-sexual touch, and this is a regular it is likely that you will leave your spouse feeling objectified like you are only touching them for sexual gratification. Something to be handled or groped. That’s not intimate, respectful or nurturing.

Touch Is a Love Language

Touch is one of the love languages articulated by Chapman in his book, The Five Love Languages.[4] If you feel this is one of your love languages or your spouse’s, then tender touch is very important.

For some husbands, when they heard the words “physical touch” they immediately think of sex. But think of sex as just one dialect of this love language: holding hands, brief kisses, hugging, back rubs, an arm around the shoulder… these are all ways of expressing love by non-sexual physical touch.

Some forms of touch may be explicit and call for your full attention. For example, a back rub or foot massage from your spouse. Naturally, sexual foreplay calls for your full attention. But other kinds of touch may only require a moment and can be part of other activities, for example putting your hand on your wife’s shoulder while you pour her a cup of coffee.

Touch can also be a way to add a positive touch to a mundane or even dreary experience. For example, a kiss when you get in the car to set off on a road trip together. Or a hug before you go shopping — even if you don’t like shopping, sets a positive tone for the activity.

When you reach out to your partner with tender touch, you create emotional closeness. This is important. And sometimes I hear people say, “Well, I didn’t grow up in a touchy-feely family”. The good news is that you can learn to speak this love language. It can begin with a pat on the back or resting your hand on your spouse’s leg as you drive or watch TV. It’s OK to ease into this.[5]

Touch Impacts Physical Health

Some research has shown that affectionate touch in marriage is linked to health benefits. A number of studies have found that there are positive benefits for cardiovascular health, as well as neuroendocrine, and immune biomarkers.[6] Various forms of positive physical contact with a relationship partner, including holding hands, neck and shoulder massages, kissing, physical intimacy (holding hands, touching, hugging, kissing, or sexual interaction), and nonverbal affection.[7]

If you’re interested in other health benefits associated with physical touch, research has also revealed other benefits to physical affection and social interaction.[8] Warm partner contact is described as positive, relationship-focused interaction (including talking about a topic that enhanced feeling of closeness as a couple and watching a 5-minute romantic video) while maintaining physical contact (e.g., holding hands) for 10 minutes, followed by a full ventral hug lasting for 20 seconds.[9] In a comparison of groups with and without warm contact, the group with warm contact had lower SBP [systolic blood pressure], DBP [diastolic blood pressure], and HR [heart rate] responses to laboratory stress tasks”[10]

Why You Need to Touch Your Spouse More

Once again, we’ve created a bonus guide with some extra touch exercises for our much-appreciated supporters. This will step you through some physical touch experiences with your spouse — it’s really great to do if you are out of the habit of touching or if you come from one of those not-touch-feely feely families. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

Touch Enhances Emotional Bonding

Not only does touch benefit physical health, but it also helps with emotional bonding between you and your spouse. There was a study in 2006 (Coan) where they actually zapped women with an electrical charge while they held the experimenter’s hand or while they held their husband’s hand. The shock was not perceived as threatening if the wife was holding someone’s hand, but if the wife was happily married, the part of the brain that is threat responsive was even calmer if she was holding her husband’s hand. In other words, the more happily married you are, if you are holding your husband’s hand, the less threatening the world around you becomes.[11]

Another study we found looked at non-sexual cuddling: whole body touching that was intimate and physical and loving. They looked at cuddling before falling asleep and also during waking up, and on average the participants reported feeling very protective and very nurtured. They found it to be moderately relaxed and peaceful, very much enjoyable and they felt very positive after cuddling. They rarely brought up sexual themes in response to questions about what they did or felt, and instead reported themes like love, intimacy, closeness, and comfort.[12]

Indeed, this kind of touch along with holding hands and hugging and other forms of touch can release oxytocin. This causes a calming sensation (oxytocin is also released during sexual orgasm). Furthermore, physical affection reduces stress hormones in the body by lowering daily levels of cortisol.[13]

You can see how incorporating physical touch into the daily patterns of interaction in your marriage has benefits for health and for the bond between you. It really provides an experience of being grounded and connected, protected, and cherished in your marriage. 

Where To Start

So if you have not been a touchy-feely couple or person, you may be wondering where to start. It’s OK to start slowly: to just explore and experiment and let yourself get used to one form of touching before adding others. This is especially important if you’ve had trauma or touch deprivation in your background. It can take a little time to learn to get comfortable with safe, loving touch if you’ve had other touch in the past that really was not safe or loving. You’ll have to talk yourself through that, to remind yourself to stay present, and to remind yourself that this touch is touch that you’re choosing, and you’re choosing to do with someone who is safe and loving and respectful towards you.

You might consider holding hands, whether you’re out together or sitting next to one another on the couch. You could offer to give your spouse a shoulder, back or foot rub. If necessary, you can just practice this as a form of affectionate non-sexual touch to get used to enjoying. Or, if you are trying to rekindle the sexual passion between you, you can enjoy the touch with the possibility but not the necessity of it becoming sexual.

Cuddling is similar. Get good at non-sexual cuddling. After some time, some of your cuddling could be sexual — just learn the cues to send those signals to each other. But even then, save a good portion of your cuddling for non-sexual intimacy.

Initiating hugs or kissing is much the same; these are non-sexual gestures of affection or appreciation or warmth that can be a great way to feel close and connected to your spouse. Hold those hugs: try them for several seconds, then for 20 seconds or even 30 seconds if that is comfortable for both of you. If you want more on that you can check out one of our early episodes at OYF dot link slash 24 on hugging your way to a better marriage. Even hugging well is a learned skill.

We pray this information is a blessing for you, and that it would bring you greater warmth and joy in your marriage! Of course, if it does help you, we’d love to hear from you through an Apple Podcasts review, or you can shoot us an email.


[1]M. H. Burleson et al., “Marriage, Affectionate Touch, and Health.,” ed. Newman Matthew and Roberts Nicole, Health and Social Relationships: The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated. American Psychological Association (2013): 67–93,
[2]Andrew K. Gulledge, Michelle H. Gulledge, and Robert F. Stahmannn, “Romantic Physical Affection Types and Relationship Satisfaction,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 31, no. 4 (July 2003): 233–42,
[3]Burleson et al., “Marriage, Affectionate Touch, and Health.”
[4]Gary Chapman, “Speaking Love through Physical Touch,” The 5 Love Languages, 2019,
[6]Burleson et al., “Marriage, Affectionate Touch, and Health.”
[7]Burleson et al.
[8]K. M. Grewen et al., “Warm Partner Contact Is Related to Lower Cardiovascular Reactivit” 29, no. 3 (2003): 123–30.
[9]Grewen et al.
[10]Grewen et al.
[11]Burleson et al., “Marriage, Affectionate Touch, and Health.”
[12]S. M. van Anders et al., “Descriptive Experiences and Sexual vs Nurturant Aspects of Cuddling between Adult Romantic Partners.,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 42, no. 4 (2013): 553–60.
[13]Terry Gaspard, “10 Ways to Rekindle the Passion in Your Marriage,” 2016,