The Power of Touch

In his seminal work, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, Ashley Montagu illuminates how the skin is the most important organ system of the body, because unlike other senses, a human being cannot survive without the physical and behavioral functions performed by the skin. He concludes: “When the need for touch remains unsatisfied, abnormal behavior will result”.

Did you know that touch is our first language. Long before we can see an image, smell an odor, taste a flavor, or hear a sound, we experience others and ourselves through touch, our only reciprocal sense. We cannot touch another without being touched ourselves.

Research done by the Touch Research Institute has demonstrated that touch triggers a cascade of chemical responses, including increased serotonin and dopamine levels (decreases depression). Loving touch triggers the release of oxytocin, often referred to as the “bonding hormone.”

A neuroscientist at the University of Virginia has found that women under stress who hold their husbands’ hands show signs of immediate relief, which can clearly be seen on their brain scans.

In our True Intimacy conference we remind couples that clinical studies have confirmed that our drive for relationship is stronger than our drive for food.  One of the appetites that feed that drive is touch, also referred to as “skin hunger.”  Studies reveal that skin hunger is as real and as controlling as food hunger. But it seems we do not recognize skin hunger.  “Skin cells offer a direct path into the deep reservoir of emotion we metaphorically call the human heart,” says Dr. Paul Brand, co-author of Fearfully and Wonderfully Made.

Everyone needs to be touched. We believe God not only ordained and mandated it, He modeled it in Christ.

Luke 4:40 encapsulates the dozens of instances in the NT where Jesus TOUCHED people.

“As the sun went down that evening, people throughout the village brought sick family members to Jesus. No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed every one.”

Perhaps the most notable of His touches was when He touched the leper.  Everyone else avoided even getting close to a leper, let alone touch them.  Throughout His earthly ministry he touched men, women, children, the sick, the lonely, and especially sinners.

Luke 8:42-46 – reveals more of Jesus’ legacy of touch.

As Jesus went with him, he was surrounded by the crowds. And there was a woman in the crowd who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years. She had spent everything she had on doctors and still could find no cure. She came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his robe. Immediately, the bleeding stopped.

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

Everyone denied it, and Peter said, “Master, this whole crowd is pressing up against you.”

But Jesus told him, “No, someone deliberately touched me, for I felt healing power go out from me.”

Purposeful touch increases its power and results.  (On the other hand, how many times have we touched w/o purpose, perhaps selfishly or inappropriately?)

Purposeful Touch can be for:

  • Healing
  • Comforting
  • Compelling
  • Protecting
  • Assuring
  • Loving
  • Enfolding (being inclusive)

But if touching is so valuable and pleasurable, why is it necessary to advise couples to do more of it?

The answer lies in our culture, both relationally and morally.  While our western civilization is highly sexual, it frowns on or ignores touching apart from sex. Morally, the sad mistake of replacing touch with sex has occurred.

The cultural ramification of this false and biblically incorrect view is that couples never discover total intimacy even after they marry. Because critical steps of physical touch and intimacy are skipped and never learned they are left with a huge marital deficit.

A second cultural failure affects men in particular. Because of our culture’s fascination with sex, men are left with only three acceptable kinds of touching in today’s world: the superficial handshake, aggressive contact sports, and the sexual encounter. Men have been conditioned to turn to sex whenever they feel any need for loving closeness. No wonder experts believe that our extreme preoccupation with sex in this society is actually an expression of our deep, unsatisfied need for the warmth, reassurance, and intimacy of nonsexual touching.

In my counseling ministry, the non-sexual touch deficit in nearly every couple I’ve seen is alarming.  I’m not clear about whether it is unresolved issues that cause couples to stop touching or that when loving touch diminishes the issues become more intense. What is clear to me is that marital dissatisfaction and the absence of loving touch go hand in hand (or should I say hand NOT in hand!)

There is simply no way to say more persuasively “You are not alone,” “I appreciate you,” “I’m sorry,” or “I love you” than through touch. So take time to touch your partner today and everyday.  Husbands and wives need to decide tonight that they will regularly hold, touch, and caress each other.

Here are some questions to ask yourself and your spouse as you evaluate your touch quotient:

1. Do I only touch my spouse when I want something from them?

2. Do I know how my spouse likes to be touched?

3. Do I know how my spouse dislikes being touched?

4. Did we skip initial stages of physical closeness while dating by jumping inappropriately into sexual activity?

5. Dads – do you provide appropriate touch to your children, especially your daughters?  Moms – do you know how to provide meaningful touch to your adult children, especially your sons?  Have either of you mistakenly avoided physical touch with them because of awkwardness or fear?


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