Touch as an Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Process in Couples’ Daily Lives: The Mediating Role of Psychological Intimacy
By Anik Debrot (University of Fribourg), Dominik Schoebi (University of Fribourg), Meinrad Perrez (University of Fribourg), & Andrea B. Horn (University of Zürich)
You get home late after a hard day’s work, very tired and maybe not in the best mood. Your partner is at home and asks you how your day was. You begin to recount the day’s ups and downs but feel too tired to even talk about it. So you just fall on the couch and ask your partner to join you and give you a hug. As simple as this hug may be, it helps you relax and the hassles of the day seem suddenly far away.
Maybe most of us know this comforting feeling of the beloved one’s touch, and it seems quite obvious that a hug of your dear one does good. Yet, despite the possible importance of such behaviors, researchers have paid little attention to how a simple touch or hug might influence partners in a romantic relationship.
Physiological research tells us that physical contact can have very positive effects. In fact, massage may lower blood pressure, stimulate development in infants, or enhance the immune functioning; it also reduces depression and aggressive behaviors (Field, Diego, & Hernandez-Reif, 2007). In couples, too, touch seems to have a beneficial effect on several stress sensitive parameters (Holt-Lunstad, Birmingham, and Light, 2008). But is it only the physical contact that matters? Could we get a “massage robot” to enhance our health? Probably not. Recent research underlines the importance of the relationship between the partners being close. For example, the positive effect of simply holding hands on mood and neural correlates in a distressing situation was found to be stronger with the partner as compared as with a stranger. Moreover, the better the relationship quality, the stronger the positive effect (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006).
This evidence is based on laboratory studies, but in our work recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Debrot, Schoebi, Perrez, & Horn, 2013) we examined the effects of responsive touch in couples as it occurs in daily life. To do so, we gave a handheld computer to each partner in 102 couples, and we had them report their experiences four times a day during one week of their normal life. We were surprised to find how frequently partners touched each other in a non-sexual way. In about 85% of the situations where they had been together, they reported having caressed, hugged, or touched their partner in a nonsexual manner. As expected at times of the day when a person indicated having been touched by his or her partner recently, a positive mood increase was reported. So touch not only benefits the body, but also the emotional state of mind. And not only did the touched partner benefit; our findings suggest that touching partners also felt better shortly after they were physically tender with their beloved during the day. Thus, there is a mutual benefit that underlines the importance of interpersonal ways of regulating mood in daily life.
Could it be that this all is a mere consequence of reduced physical stress, totally independent relationship-related processes? Our results suggest otherwise. As one would expect when it comes to interpersonal ways of regulating mood, felt closeness is an important pathway of the effects we observed. In fact, when touching the partner or being touched by him or her, participants experienced increased feelings of psychological intimacy toward each other following this tender contact. Our data suggest that hugging not only strengthens the bonds partners feel, but also in part explains individual’s mood increase in daily life.
Another important finding in our study is that this subtle (but yet significant) increase of positive mood in the normal daily fluctuations of mood of couples is not short lived. Six months after the initial study we contacted the participants again. We found that the ones that had been touched most across the duration of the study improved most in their psychological well-being–so there seems to be an enduring, accumulative effect.
In sum, even small caring touch gesture can have an impact on our emotional and social lifes and these accumulated in benefits that can be perceived even several months later. So, no hesitation: go and hug your partner–you doing something good for both of you!
Anik Debrot has done her PhD at the unit of Clinical Psychology of the University of Fribourg. She is currently working at a Swiss Psychiatric Clinic and training to become a psychotherapist. Her research interests involve emotions regulation, close relationship processes as well as affective and personality disorders.
Dominik Schoebi, PhD., is Associate Professor for Clinical Family Psychology and the Director of the Institute of Family Research and Intervention at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His research focuses on emotional dynamics in intimate relationships and its connection with relationship quality and stability, well-being and health. In his research, he uses primarily momentary assessment approaches in combination with longitudinal surveys and laboratory interactions.
Meinrad Perrez is Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology of the University of Fribourg. Over his career, he has been particularly interested in stress and family processes. His research method of predilection is the Ambulatory Assessment, which he helped develop over the last 30 years.
Andrea B. Horn is senior researcher at the Division Psychopathology and Clinical Intervention of the Institute for Psychology of the University of Zurich. Her research interests encompasses primarily intra- and interpersonal emotion regulation in the context of mental and physical health. Expressive writing, and language use are further research topics of hers.
Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1032–1039. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01832.x
Debrot, A., Schoebi, D., Perrez, M., Horn, A. B., (2013). Touch as an Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Process in Couples’ Daily Lives: The Mediating Role of Psychological Intimacy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(10), 1373–1385. doi:10.1177/0146167213497592
Field, T., Diego, M., & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2007). Massage therapy research. Developmental Review, 27(1), 75–89. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2005.12.002
Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W. A., & Light, K. C. (2008). Influence of a “warm touch” support enhancement intervention among married couples on ambulatory blood pressure, oxytocin, alpha amylase, and cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 976–985. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e318187aef7