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Hungry for your touch

Deprived of physical contact in a sterile relationship, Lilian Kannemeyer explores the human need for touch in an increasingly insular and technological world

by Psychologies

Distressed for hours before dawn filters into my bedroom, I realise that I have run out of options in my relationship – I am unhappy and can endure it no longer. He rests with his back curved towards me just centimetres away but the small space between us is a chasm. He is not a tactile person, and I cannot bring myself to reach for the stilted embrace that is the most I can hope for from him. What I crave is what psychologists refer to as ‘contact comfort’, and it is considered as essential for human beings as food and water. It’s not about sex, although many of us use sex as its conduit.

In my shadowy place of want, there is guilt, because he loves me and that isn’t enough; and shame – that my need for his skin against mine is somehow grubby and should be hidden. I have told him that I yearn for more nurturing – because he wants to, not because I whine about it like an unwanted pest – and, in fairness to him, he responds with ‘we are all different’, which tells me all I need to know. We are not a good match, and it must end.

Some people are more comfortable with touch than others, which is often a product of our childhood experiences. My father was a violent man and, while many people grow up and continue such patterns, some, like me, will try to fill the tenderness deficit. What I know is that not getting my need for affection met has become overriding – a gnarly, angry giant looming over the now inconsequential dwarves of companionship, security that another adult has my back, help around the house and our shared enjoyable experiences.

A forgotten need

‘On a physical and emotional level, touch is the most important sense, yet it is perhaps the most overlooked in technological societies,’ says writer and director Nichola Wong. She examines our obsession with electronic devices alongside our growing physical isolation in her film, Skinship, about an alienated woman who turns to a touch therapist to fulfil her longing for flesh-to-flesh contact. ‘From the moment we are born, we crave touch – we need it to survive, thrive and feel alive,’ says Wong.

So, what happens when we don’t get our fill? A heartbreaking reality is that babies who are insufficiently cuddled can stop growing and die. In a study, some orphanages had mortality rates of up to 40 per cent because infants in group residential care can fail to flourish without the touch they need.

I love you, baby

For years, bathing my offspring, dressing and snuggling them has, almost, been enough. I remember putting a whole baby foot into my mouth; nipping juicy skin with my teeth, actually salivating with a primal appetite. Even as they became stand-offish teenagers, I would watch TV shows I didn’t like just to be close to them on the sofa. I wonder if this goes partway to explain the surge in divorce rates among the over-50s when the children leave home – those wisps of affection between couples with intimacy issues lack the might to sustain a marriage now that there is no one else to touch.

We know there is a link between depression and a lack of touch, a problem defined as ‘skin hunger’ by Kory Floyd, author of The Loneliness Cure (Adams Media, £12.99). ‘I examined the construct of skin hunger – and the social, relational and health deficits with which it is associated,’ says Floyd. ‘People with high levels of skin hunger are disadvantaged in multiple ways. People who feel affection deprived are less happy, lonelier, more likely to experience depression and stress and in worse health generally.’

Beyond lovers and children, I’ve always been a touchy-feely person. When there are two air kisses with a friend, I am the one who adds an awkward third, a big smacker on the cheek for surprise and good measure. If there’s a willing baby around, I will nuzzle it and steal a sniff of its fuzzy, fragrant little head and, if someone has a niggle in their shoulder, I will take on the task enthusiastically, until they protest that they’ve had enough. My mother said I had healing hands.

I think the loss of my mother emptied my reserves on many levels, including my dwindling ‘touch bank’. Although I raced to her deathbed, I did not get there in time and I could not hold her hand or bury my face in her neck while she took her last breath. With a childlike disregard of appropriate behaviour, while no one was watching, I climbed into my mother’s coffin and lay there with her, stroking her face and weeping onto her icy skin. I had a primitive compulsion to fully embrace her, any way I could, one last time.

Tribal instinct

So, what do we skin-hungry people do in our disconnected world? Is a pet enough to fill the gap? ‘Social animals, which include humans, are biologically adapted to transmit life-affirming energy to other individuals through touch,’ say Viktor and Annie Reinhardt in their study, The Magic Of Touch: Healing Effects Of Animal Touch And Animal Presence. ‘Touching another creature with friendly intention brings about ease of mind and body.’ I read this as my plush little cat settles onto my lap. I tickle her cheeks, which induces a purr. But while the sweetness of petting her fills me with contentment, she is not another person. The Reinhardts explain that animals of the same species need to touch their own kind, which is why, love her as I do, my cat is not the answer.

‘The mere touch of a conspecific has healing powers,’ say the Reinhardts. ‘Solitary imprisonment is one of the most serious stressors for primates.’ Scientists found that the sight of another ape will not diminish an animal’s desolation in isolation. These lonely souls will eventually self-harm to a life-threatening extent without members of their tribe to touch, which spells out the difference between company and cuddling.

We also know the touch of another person soothes suffering. Compassionate touch can calm, console and reduce stress and anxiety. In the form of massage, touch is an ancient method to comfort and heal, and it is widely practised for pain relief in cancer patients. Such is the power of touch, and it’s no surprise, and not due to unnatural neediness or an unhappy upbringing, that I am pining for it. 

In Wong’s film, the woman returns to her relationship after seeing a touch practitioner and reconnects with her partner. I don’t fancy touch therapy, but I am interested to discover that there is a booming market in cuddle therapy, and even cuddle parties, which are, it has been reported, platonic and mostly attended in your pyjamas! I am sceptical about these but mostly saddened that there are people so in need of touch that they would spoon a stranger. But I cannot judge them – after what I have learned, especially regarding the agony of self-mutilating primates that, where once I might have scoffed at the idea, I now say each to their own.

Hold onto wellness

Cuddle therapist Rebekka Mikkola, co-founder of Nordic Cuddle, explains that her one-to-one practice involves hugs, hand-holding and arm rubs, combined with talking therapy. ‘Clients report a renewed sense of hope and happiness,’ she says. ‘One lonely person said their anxiety was no longer as severe, and they were sleeping better.’ Could such therapy replace regular and loving intimacy with a partner? ‘Touch therapies, such as cuddle therapy, are one solution for tackling touch deprivation, but should not supplant relationships with friends and family,’ says Mikkola.

For me, it’s the old-fashioned route of seeking another red-blooded primate who will give me what I need. As I finally understand that the tenderness I crave is integral to my happiness, I realise that my sexual self is not an entirely separate entity, rather like an equally neglected twin sister to my touch-hungry self. I set out to find a more emotionally satisfying way to feed my need and, a few months after my break-up, I start dating…

Into your arms…

I am drifting back to sleep in the half-light. I’m recounting a gentle, stolen kiss in the hallway; fingers spidering into my hair to rub my scalp as we watch a film and the heat of his thigh beside mine… A twist in my belly and a thump in my chest as he trails his thumb pad across my cheekbone and a steadying hand clasping mine as we stomp through waterlogged fields. He rests behind me with an arm over my hip. It’s solid and reassuring, unfamiliar still – it tightens, and he draws me closer without stirring. The bones of him echo my own, the soles of my feet perch on the tops of his. I feel the humidity of his breath, with the occasional rasping snore, against the nape of my neck. I do not know if I have found love – but I am touched.

Watch ‘Skinship’ at nowness.com/series/dark-web/skinship-nichola-wong. And see koryfloyd.com; awionline.org/sites/default/files/publication/digital_download/AWI-LA-Magic-of-Touch.pdf; nordiccuddle.com

The Touch Test

Attitudes towards the physical and mental experience of touch are being explored by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, working with BBC Radio 4 and the Wellcome Collection. The Touch Test questionnaire aims to understand the similarities and differences in our experience of touch, to increase our understanding of its role in health and wellbeing. The results will form the basis of a series, The Anatomy Of Touch. The study examines how touch relates to empathy, loneliness and the size of our social networks and whether contemporary society allows us to get enough touch or leaves us wanting more. The results will be announced in the autumn, and you’ll be able to hear them on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service. For more, go to touchtest.org

Image: Getty Images.