Divorce rates are spiking in 2020, who to listen to?
I remember when I was a teenager and I got a new puppy. I took the puppy to a training school. The rambunctious little thing was yapping away. All the other puppies sat there silently, well behaved, making me look bad. I was petting the puppy. Trying to soothe her. Wanting her to shut up so the trainer would stop looking at me.
It didn’t work. The trainer singled me out.
“Stop patting your dog,” she said. “If you pat your dog when she is being naughty, you are giving her positive reinforcement for her misbehaviour”.
I stopped patting the dog. Her behaviour eventually improved. In my dog-owning naivety, I had exacerbated the problem through constant physical touch.
Touch is an instinctual part of living. I instinctively touched my puppy to try to calm her down. Our parents likely instinctively touched us when we were sad, trying to reassure us. It’s surprising then that when it comes to how frequently we should touch our partners, two famous sex therapists feud over their drastically different opinions.
One famous therapist — John Gottman — thinks the more touch the better. Touching each other more (e.g. holding hands, cuddles, etc) leads to better sex life. The other — Esther Perel — believes the opposite. Her opinion strangely reminds me of my old dog trainer: constant touch can pacify our partner. She says that this can unintentionally derail our sex life. Through too much touch, we dampen sexual desire.
This difference of opinion strikes me as odd. Odd because they are both famous therapists, yet their opinions are polar opposite. This is a relevant 2020 issue. Divorce rates are spiking due to lockdown, so it seems important to have clear guidance on how to have functional relationships amid the pandemic living.
The importance of touch
To understand both sides of the argument, we need to grasp the role of touch more generally. When I moved to Copenhagen alone a while back, my partner remained abroad for 7 or so months. Living alone in a new city, knowing few people, meant there was no one to hug. No one to touch my arm reassuringly when I felt sad.
I noticed this lack of touch. I came across this interesting podcast about how touch is the ‘forgotten sense’. Here, Professor Francis McGlone details how there are two different types of touch: fast-touch and slower tactile touch.
We have fast touch receptors are on our fingers, feet, and the palm of our hand. Fast touch has an incredibly quick speed of transmission from the body to the brain. Faster than a formula one racing car: if you touch a hot pan, nerves will send information rapidly from your hand to your brain. You will instantly drop the pan. But this information is free of emotions.
This is compared to slower tactile touch. Slower tactile touch has different receptors, receptors that are across the rest of our body. If someone strokes your arm, it activates your slower nerve network and takes 2–3 seconds to register in your brain.
This type of touch has an emotional quality and is essential for bonding, comforting, and intimacy. You won’t feel sad initially when you drop the hot pan, but after a few seconds when your slower network has communicated with your brain, sadness may cause tears well in your eyes. Or anger may erupt, resulting in a “f*ck!”.
This slow touch network plays a fundamental role in dealing with stress, bonding, and loneliness. Studies have found that in moments of acute stress, holding a lover’s hand can reduce heart rate, pain, and level out breathing through the synchronisation of our nervous system.
The jury’s out on touch: Perel Vs Gottman
Considering the known importance of touch in our daily life, what is Esther Perel’s rationale for abstaining from touch in a romantic relationship?
In Perel’s book Mating in Captivity, she describes a couple who attend counseling in an attempt to rekindle their sex life. This couple had a close and meaningful relationship, but much to their disappointment, they weren’t having sex.
Perel surmises that their regular, affectionate touch (hand holding, arm rubbing, cuddles) had come to replace sex. She ordered them to stop touching “because at this point you have smothered sizzle with affection, leaving it with no way to ignite.”
She reported that “a few months into our work together, Candace and Jimmy reported that they had noticed a difference, but they still had a long trek ahead”. But she didn’t divulge what their difference was or if they fixed their sex life.
The premise of Perel’s thesis interests me. It runs opposite to most therapists. Her thesis is that what we need for emotional intimacy (safety, honesty, communication) is the exact opposite of what we need for arousal. Rather, erotic desire thrives with a degree of separation, secrecy, and silence. So while handholding and cuddles may boost your emotional intimacy, it may do little to increase sexual desire.
As she says, “love seeks closeness, but desire needs distance”. Her solution is to maintain physical distance, don’t hold hands and touch, and through physical separation, desire will grow.
Dr. John Gottman is a famous couples therapist and is open about the fact he completely disagrees with Perel’s position on avoiding touch to create a flourishing sex life.
After studying thousands of couples, his core finding is that couples who have a great sex life all do these things:
- They say “I love you” every day and mean it
- They kiss one another passionately for no reason
- They give surprise romantic gifts
- They know what turns their partners on and off erotically
- They are physically affectionate, even in public
- They keep playing and having fun together
- They cuddle
- They make sex a priority, not the last item of a long to-do list
- They stay good friends
- They can talk comfortably about their sex life
- They have weekly dates
- They take romantic vacations
- They are mindful about turning toward
The ones in bold are the exact opposite of what Perel recommends. In one study of 70,000 people, they found that only 6% of non-cuddlers had a good sex life. This suggests that perhaps Perel’s suggestion of withholding touch to build sexual desire is misguided.
Who should you trust?
Considering you might be spending an incredible amount of time with your partner at the moment, it seems like a good idea to heed advice on keeping things running smoothly. On balance, Gottman’s findings come from a better evidence base, while Perel relies more on anecdotes. Nevertheless, Perel has a wide-reaching fan base. A quick scan of Reddit shows that readers of her books have reported increased satisfaction in their sex lives and partnerships.
Yet, considering the fundamental role of slow touch in regulating our nervous system and helping us build intimacy and resiliency, I think to do away with any touch is a shame. Perhaps now is the time to be touching more, not less.
Maybe Perel nor Gottman has it all right. Perhaps a more nuanced approach is needed. A mixture of Perel and Gottman, depending on your specific relationship needs.
But however you look at it, even if you are trying to increase erotic desire — don’t forget the incredible health benefits of slow touch.
A note on living alone
I couldn’t end before I made a quick note about living alone in lockdown. I mentioned before the incredible power of touch in regulating our immune system and helping us handle stress. If you live alone but are somewhere that enables you to still get a massage in a covid safe way, this form of slow touch has benefits in reducing stress and stimulating our slow touch receptors.
Or, if you are in a support bubble with a friend or family member, maybe it is worth discussing how to keep safe but still be able to hug each other. And of course, don’t forget the health benefits of self-touch! Beyond masturbation, increasing sensory experiences can stimulate some touch receptors in the brain. Try a warm bath, self-massage, a weighted blanket, or rubbing cream on your skin. And remember to practice self hugging!
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