How Physical Affection Can Heal

Can something as simple as holding hands, sharing hugs, or gentle kisses truly affect the core of our relationships? Samantha Wagner, a doctoral student at Binghamton University, alongside esteemed researchers, led a profound study delving into the power of non-sexual intimate touch. Their findings are not just fascinating but incredibly revealing about the nuances of attachment styles, marital satisfaction, and the impact of affectionate touch.

Can Hugs and Kisses and Holding Hands heal our nervous system? Doctoral student Samantha Wagner headed up a research team at Binghamton University in New York. The research looked at the impact of holding hands, hugs, and kisses (described as non-sexual intimate touch).

Co-authors of this important study included include noted relationship researcher Joanne Davila from Stony Brook University, associate professor at Binghamton, Professor Richard Mattson Binghamton University Psychology Chair Professor Matthew Johnson, and Binghamton University Associate Professor Nicole Cameron.

Of particular interest to the researchers was the connection between attachment style, marital satisfaction, as well as the satisfaction of the touch experiences themselves.

How the Study Was Conducted

To determine the connection of attachment style, touch satisfaction, and marital satisfaction, researchers used a sample of 184 couples over the age of 18, consisting of husbands and wives. Unfortunately, same-sex couples were excluded.

The research was quite granular. It included hormonal sampling, as well as pregnant breastfeeding, and postmenopausal women. All 184 women were interviewed separately about the amount of physical affection they typically experienced in their relationships, as well as their overall relational satisfaction.

Researchers Had Expectations Based on Attachment Styles…

An Attachment style refers to how we understand loving and being love.

People with Avoidant Attachment are more comfortable maintaining an interpersonal distance, while individuals with Anxious Attachment anxious fear losing intimacy and connection. We develop our attachment style in childhood, but it’s not set in stone. Attachment Styles may change over time and vary with a person’s relational experiences over time.

“It all depends on how open, close, and secure you feel with that person, which is impacted by many, many factors,” Wagner said.

An Avoidant Attachment Style Isn’t Always Avoidant…

Researchers expected to find that the research subjects with an Avoidant Attachment style would prefer less touch, and folks with Anxious Attachment would prefer more. What they found was more nuanced. However, that wan’t the finding. The more routine affection that a spouse experienced, the more they liked it. Even if they had an Avoidant Attachment style.

The Less…the Less…

Husbands with Anxious Attachment differed from wives with Anxious Attachment. The fewer hugs and kisses anxious husbands received, the less satisfied they were with the touching experience. However, wives with Anxious Attachment still wanted and appreciated holding hands and receiving hugs and kisses.

Overall, men saw holding physical affection as a sign that all was well in the marriage. They saw holding hands and receiving hugs and kisses as confirming behaviors. Physical affection is correlated with higher levels of relationship satisfaction, no matter what the attachment styles.

Women saw it differently. For women, the less physical affection they received, the less satisfied they were with the relationship. Women see holding hands and hugs and kisses as essential..when it’s missing; there’s a problem. It’s a subtle but critical distinction.

Couples Holding Hands, Hugs, and Kisses…More is Always Better!

Samantha commented on this distinction; “There’s something specific about touch satisfaction that interplays with relationship satisfaction but not dissatisfaction for wives.” These gender differences are an area for future research.

Being on the receiving end of your partner’s physically demonstrative behavior is healing, confirming, and satisfying.

Physical Affection Helps to Regulate the Nervous System

When a partner reaches out to hold hands or bestows hugs and kisses, the intention to connect is readily apparent.

Overall, the study shows a connection between the frequency of bestowing hugs and kisses and holding hands with stable, satisfying marriages. Still, the researchers stopped short of saying the relationship was cause and effect.

Couples therapists should take note that this research suggests that holding hands while in a conflictual conversation helps to regulate the nervous system. Wagner emphasizes the stress-reducing power of affectionate touch.

“Interestingly, there’s some evidence that holding your partner’s hand while you’re arguing de-escalates the argument and makes it more productive,” said Wagner.

Study Limitations

Wagner emphasized that the study focused only on healthy, consensual touch — not unwelcome touch. Wagner warned that not everyone appreciates being touched. I credit Wagner with commenting on neurodiverse couples.

People with autism, for example, can find touch overwhelming. Wagner reminds us that touch means different things to different people. There is an admitted neurotypical bias to this research.

A partner on the autism spectrum may be overwhelmed by tactile sensitivity, and someone with a history of trauma may also experience touch as averse. Another limitation was that same-sex couples were not included in the study.

Touch can mean different things to different people, and in the wrong context can constitute abuse.

Still, most people find touch comforting, especially in times of stress, said Ms. Wagner:

“Feel free to give some extra snugs on the couch. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests touch as a way to decrease stress.”

Couples Holding Hands, and Hugs and Kisses…and Coronavirus

Wagner describes herself as a “hugger.” She has been fascinated with the impact that holding hands and receiving hugs and kisses has on intimate relationships across the lifespan.  She wants to understand why some people enjoy physical affection more than others.

The social importance of touch

Dacher Keltner, a University of California, Berkeley sociologist who studies the impact of touch, says that the fabric of society is held together by even the smallest physical contact.

“Touch is as important a social condition as anything,” It reduces stress, helping people to trust one another. It allows for cooperation. When you look at people in solitary confinement suffering from touch deprivation, you see that people lose a sense that someone’s got their back, that they’re part of a community, and connected to others.”

Previous research has shown that the experience of loneliness has a massive impact on health. Studies have shown extreme loneliness is correlated with increased inflammation and impaired immune system response.

“Under normal circumstances, when you feel lonely, you run the risk of a stressed, compromised health profile. Add to that the quarantine, and that really elevates the severity.” Dacher Keltner.


In an age where physical connection has faced unprecedented challenges, Samantha Wagner’s study highlights the potent influence of holding hands, hugs, and kisses on relationships. From unraveling the distinctions in attachment styles to pointing out the subtle but vital differences in how men and women perceive physical affection, this research sheds light on the healing and confirming nature of touch.

It’s a reminder, especially during times of isolation, that these simple acts—holding hands, giving hugs, and sharing kisses—not only signify affection but serve as potent tools in regulating stress and strengthening the fabric of our connections. As Dacher Keltner suggests, even in the smallest physical contact, we find the ties that bind us, offering solace, trust, and a sense of belonging that we crave more than ever in times of solitude.


The paper, “Touch me just enough: The intersection of adult attachment, intimate touch, and marital satisfaction,” was recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.