By Madeleine Castellanos, M.D.
When couples have difficulties that lead to an avoidance of sex, there is often also an avoidance of touching each other for fear it might lead to sex. If you don't have a good amount of non-sexual touching with your partner, then every physical contact is expected to be sexual. This creates an atmosphere of tension, coldness, and isolation.
Just by touching each other on the arm or the hand when you are sitting side by side, you can create an atmosphere of comfort and relaxation. It has been found that there are special nerve endings called C-tactile fibers that produce a feeling of calmness and well-being when stroked slowly and gently. C-tactile fibers are found over the arms, legs, back, and forehead, and explain why it can be so soothing to be touched in this way. This type of touch also helps alleviate pain, and we are instinctually aware of this every time we reach out to stroke someone's arm who doesn't feel well.
Another wonderful benefit of touching is that it releases a small amount of oxytocin, the neurotransmitter that helps us bond and feel confident and connected. Both men and women benefit from it's release, although the main function of oxytocin is to produce uterine contractions during and after childbirth. Oxytocin also produces stronger orgasms in women, which is why stimulating a woman's breasts during foreplay and touching her all over leads to a more dramatic sexual experience for her. Cuddling and staring into each other's eyes are other ways of increasing the flow of oxytocin and increasing the bonding between you both.
Touching regularly has wonderful physical benefits as well. People who have a good amount of non-sexual touching have lower blood pressure and lower cortisol. This is especially found to be true for men. It has also been found that touching, especially massage, can strengthen your immune system, leading to fewer infections, colds and better over-all health. Doctors have long been aware of the healing powers of touch and often recommend that people who live alone try to get a pet, such as a dog or cat, that they can pet regularly. One of the more interesting aspects of touch is that the benefits are not only for the person being touched, but also for the one doing the touching. This is why calm, regular physical contact with a pet will lower a person's blood pressure and help them live longer. This is also why you can achieve great benefits from touching whether you are the one touching or the one being touched.
If you find that you and your partner avoid having non-sexual touching, you are missing out on a very important way to improve your emotional health, your physical health, and the bond between the both of you. If an atmosphere of anxiety around touching has developed between you because of an avoidance of sex, it is important to start to talk with your partner about your feelings and your desire to have some physical touch, even if you are not desiring sex at that moment. Stroking the other person's scalp, arm, leg or back are very effective ways of touching in a non-sexual and healing way. Touching each other is a way to break that negative cycle, feel more comfortable with each other, and also create a calm and relaxing environment again.