Even the People Most Reluctant to Touch Others Benefit From It
In the current pandemic times, we are all particularly aware of how important interpersonal touch (or its lack) is. But do all people equally benefit from touch? Our studies seek to better understand whether the people who claim not to like touch and physical proximity to others (those high in attachment avoidance) actually benefit less from touch. Attachment avoidance is one way of approaching close relationships, whereby a person tends to highly value their independence and autonomy, as well as to dislike or undervalue psychological intimacy. Often because of relational experiences in childhood, they see others as unreliable, unavailable, and uncaring.
Touch is an inherent experience of human relationships. More and more research is showing how touch that is meant to be affectionate in close relationships is associated with important benefits: higher well-being, more positive emotions, and reduced physiological stress (like blood pressure or heart rate), to name only a few.
However, we still have little knowledge about whether touch equally benefits everyone. We suspected it wouldn’t. In particular, as relationship researchers, we know that not all people equally enjoy proximity (physical and psychological). People with a so-called avoidant attachment style have reported in previous research that they like touch less and engage in it much less than the average. Thus, they were the perfect candidates to investigate people who could benefit from less touch. However, recent research has shown that despite their claimed aversion for interpersonal proximity, these people can benefit from and even appreciate several positive relationship experiences (like receiving support or sharing daily positive activities). Given these newer results, we thought that, in contrast to our original speculation, avoidantly attached people could actually benefit from touch, but as a result of engaging in it less, their well-being would be negatively affected.
So, we studied these questions. In a first study, we asked people to report on their typical level of touch in their relationship, their attachment style, and their well-being. In a second study, we observed couples having conversations about emotionally laden topics and measured how much they touched each other during this time. Finally, we asked other couples to complete online diaries during a month and to report how much they touched each other and how happy they felt each day.
In all three studies, like in previous research, we found that touch was associated with higher psychological well-being and with the experience of more positive emotions. We also replicated the result that more avoidantly attached people report lower well-being (except in the second study) and less touch. Most importantly, in none of the studies did the more avoidant people report a lower link between touch and well-being; that is, they benefit as much as any other people from the very touch they claim to dislike. This underlines how physical proximity and affection are an important aspect of close relationships and how both can benefit people, independently from their personal preferences (note that this was touch occurring within a romantic relationship and was most probably consented).
Finally, that the fact that people higher in attachment avoidance do engage in less touch with their partner helps explain why they report lower well-being and less positive emotions. This shows us how important interpersonal closeness is for well-being. It might indeed even be considered a basic human need, because, even if one values distance and autonomy as well as dislikes affectionate touch (like avoidantly attached people do), disengaging from the universal need to be close to others undermines one’s well-being.
In the current pandemic crisis and the associated distancing measures taken around the globe, the present results underline that nobody might be immune to being kept physically distant from others.
For Further Reading
Debrot, A., Stellar, J. E., MacDonald, G., Keltner, D., & Impett, E. A. (2020). Is touch in romantic relationships universally beneficial for psychological well-being? The role of attachment avoidance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220977709
Chopik, W. J., Edelstein, R. S., van Anders, Sari M., Wardecker, B. M., Shipman, E. L., & Samples-Steele, C. R. (2014). Too close for comfort? Adult attachment and cuddling in romantic and parent–child relationships. Personality and Individual Differences, 69, 212–216. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.05.035
Stanton, S. C. E., Campbell, L., & Pink, J. C. (2017). Benefits of positive relationship experiences for avoidantly attached individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(4), 568–588. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000098
Anik Debrot is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. She studies close relationships with a focus on affectionate behaviors. She is also a psychotherapist and develops and evaluates internet interventions.