We Could All Benefit From a Hug

(Credit: Getty Images)

By Char Adams 
Digital Editor 

Growing up, family was everything for Professor Cheryl Carmichael (GC/Brooklyn College,  Psychology). She had a “really big, really close-knit” family full of great aunts and uncles and several cousins. This birthed in her a desire to study how people relate to one another. 

Carmichael’s research aims to understand how interactions between close partners impact their health and well-being — particularly in romantic relationships. In a new study, she and fellow researchers worked to determine how much attachment patterns in adulthood impact "affectionate touch." 

“It’s important to realize just how much subtle things we may be doing in our day-to-day encounters with our romantic partners may actually be very powerful,” Carmichael tells The Graduate Center.

“We found that providing touch and receiving touch both independently had effects on several different relationship outcomes: how close you feel to your partner, how good you feel your relationship is that day, how responded to you feel by your partner, and how much you’re willing to accommodate or go out of your way for them.”

The authors theorize that because touch is foundational in the development of attachment security, this security should have an effect on touch behavior in adulthood. Attachment security refers to affectional bonds developed early in life when caregivers are responsive to a child’s needs.  Scholars have long noted that affectionate touch is crucial for babies to develop a sense of bonded attachment. But little is known about how attachment and touch relate in adulthood. The study establishes that differences in attachment security impact how much touch a person gives and how much they benefit from the touch they receive. For example, the authors of the study found that, for people with high anxiety, touch can be the perfect way for their partner to reassure them of their affections. However, for adults who are more “avoidant,” meaning that they view affection as a threat to their independence, affectionate touch can seem intrusive.

Still, Carmichael concludes, we all need it. 

“Even avoidant people who say they don’t like touch and give less touch to their partners, they don’t benefit any less when they get touch! If they are cutting that off, it’s in spite of themselves because they do get a benefit from it,” Carmichael says. “The overall pattern is that giving and receiving touch is beneficial. People who are avoidant don’t benefit any less. They benefit equally when they get and give touch. If they’re not engaging, it’s to their own detriment.”

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 health crisis has created an environment in which people have to forgo touch from their loved ones for the sake of their health, and the health of those around them. Social distancing guidelines include staying six feet away from other people and only leaving home for essential business. 

“If you’re living alone, not able to see your friends, people that you would be physically affectionate with, I think that could be detrimental,” Carmichael says. “We found in this data that there are stress-relieving benefits associated with receiving and giving touch. There is something people are missing right now, that could be detrimental. Especially for people who are higher in attachment anxiety, who benefit more from touch, it could be particularly challenging for them right now.”

Char Adams is the digital editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @CiCiAdams_

Submitted on: JUL 9, 2020

Category: Faculty Activities | General GC News | Psychology | Research Studies