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Touching Back - A Surprisingly Important Love Skill

Synopsis: This mini-love-lesson starts with touching back as a predictor of love success; and goes on to what not touching back does; sex love and touching back; some guidelines for touching back with love; more.

Touching Back As a Predictor of Love Success

Did you know that in a love relationship touching back is one of the best, single factors indicating a love relationship is satisfying and successful?

By ‘touching back’ we mean first receiving a loving touch then making a return action of loving touch.  This is important in all forms of love: friendship love, parent to child love, romantic love, etc.  It does not surprise most people to find out that more successful, satisfied, loving couples touch each other with love more than other not so successful and satisfied couples.

But a much better indicator of love success is reciprocal, return, touching actions.  At least that is what is reported in a recent edition of the magazine, Psychology Today, in a fairly comprehensive article on various aspects of the importance of touch.  However, there are some particulars concerning touching back after being touched which make touching back with love a little more involved than you might think.
Think of a person who loves you, softly caressing your cheek or of a person encircling their arms around you and giving you, what for you would be, the perfect hug.  Now think of a person who loves you reaching out to hold your hand or gently rubbing their fingers across your arm.
At this site, under the Subject Index heading “Touch”, consult the “50 Varieties of Love Touch” mini-love-lesson.

What Not Touching Back Does

Think of what you feel when you say hello to someone and they do not say hello back.  Think of what you feel if you stick your hand out to shake hands with someone and they don’t put their hand out to meet yours.  Many people feel a sense of rejection, or non-acceptance or having been judged very negatively.  In more subtle, subconscious ways it’s pretty much the same for many situations in which touching back could occur but it does not.

Not touching back when you have been touched lovingly can have a corrosive effect on your love relationships.  The indications are that the more you touch back and give reciprocal contact the more your love bonding together will occur.  And it appears the more you don’t touch back with love when physically touched with love the more likely it is that your love relationship may erode and come to an end.

One of the more powerful ways to send ‘a rejection message’ to someone who is trying to heal a wounded relationship is to angrily say to them “don’t touch me!”  And then of course there is ‘turning a cold shoulder’ which powerfully tells someone that you are not about to lovingly reconnect with them yet, if ever.

What Touching Back with Love Accomplishes

One understanding of love relationships goes like this: ‘for there to be a growing, real, healthy, love relationship love must be cycled’.  To do this you send out love messages that are taken in by another.  This by itself does not create an ongoing, love relationship.  For a ongoing and possibly lasting, love relationship, the person who takes in love must then send love back by love actions and messages which forms a first loop of a love cycle.  Then that process must continue and that cycling is what grows relationships stronger, bigger and better.

Tactile or touch love is one of the most essential ways for that to happen.  We now know that the neurochemical, oxytocin, which helps the process of living beings to feel emotionally bonded with each other, is created in the brain when tactile love is experienced, especially in the cyclically way just described.  Other healthy, positive brain chemistry changes, stimulated by loving touch, are also suspected to be occurring.  Being lovingly touched back is especially good for helping people not feel isolated but rather supported, safe and included.

One simple, but often surprisingly effective things I do in couples, parent/child and family therapy, is request people to experiment with loving touch and giving loving touch back.  I once had a couple do this little experiment of touching each other’s hands and touching back, focusing on doing it with love.  For over 10 years they had not touched each other in any friendly or positive way.  They hesitantly experimented with the ‘touching and touching back’ of each other’s hands.  They ended up weeping in each other’s arms, vowing to make up for all the time they had lost.

I have seen long estranged family members, parents and their adult children, and people in broken friendships get very similar results.  I’ve also seen people hold their arms wide open to receive another and that other refuse the offer, so the touching back experience did not occur and the relationship continued to dysfunction until we found other ways to improve it.

Touching Back and Loving Children

See this picture.  Two parents are talking with each other and each parent has their child standing next to them.  A very loud, big, powerful and angry sounding dog begins to bark in the background.  Both children grab their parents legs and squeeze up close.  One parent reaches down and pets their child’s head and caresses their shoulder reassuringly.  The other parent makes no reciprocal touch action in response to their child’s touch.  Which child is going to start crying?  Which child is more likely to soon be easily agitated, and then if not reassuringly touched, withdraw and possibly that night have a nightmare about big, mean, scary dogs?  The research on parent/child attachment pretty much shows the lovingly touched child will be more strong and secure, self-confident and more okay later in life.

There is an older school of thought that says ‘if you want to make your child independent and tough you don’t touch them, so they learn how to handle it on their own’.  Most of the results on this approach, that I am aware of, do not point to that being a healthful strategy. This school of thought was once so popular that the US government sent out pamphlets to new parents advising that they avoid giving touch to their children, which supposedly, was pampering and weakening their character.  They stopped this when real research showed opposite results to be occurring.

Touching Back Friends And Family

If a friend gives you a hug, or pats you on the back or makes some other form of physical contact with you which perhaps expresses friendship love, what do you do?  If other friends express their affection for one another physically do you feel embarrassed?  If a male and a female hug, or two females hug, or two males hug do you interpret it as sexual?  If people in public touch and touch back romantically, have you been programmed to identify it as ‘inappropriate’ or worse.  There is a suspicion that the people who lovingly touch each other and touch each other back cause the least trouble in the world.  There is some evidence to suggest that friends who do not touch each other with friendship love are less likely to form deep, lasting friendships.

Lots of people do not touch back their same-sex friends because they have a certain amount of homophobic fear.  This also occurs in some families.  A family-reconciliation counselor who works mostly with families that are having difficulties because one of the family members is homosexual gives this test.  She says, “Can you get to where you hug your homosexual family member just as easily and vigorously as you do any other family member?”  She then gets them to practice.  One thing to examine is this question, “What is the difference you make happen when a male and a female friend or family member touches you and you have a ‘touch them back’ opportunity?

Sex, Love and Touching Back

Some people seem to identify all touch with sex.  Some do not know how to differentiate love and sex, and when to show one and not the other.  If you get a loving touch that has no sexuality in it and then interpret it as having sexuality or being primarily sexual, the way you give a touch back may be relationally destructive and quite unwelcome.  If someone touches your shoulder, or elbow or perhaps your knee (all hard parts of your body) that touch is probably not sexual.  If they stroke your inner thigh it probably is sexual.  A kiss on your forehead usually is not at all the same thing as having someone else’s tongue in your mouth.  It is quite possible for loving touch to drift into including some sexuality.  What is important here is mutuality.  If both people who are lovingly touching each other mutually become sexually reciprocal, it may be pretty much okay.

Misreading the signs of reciprocity is where many people make mistakes.  It is important to remember, love is far more important than sex.  When sexual touching back occurs in response to what is primarily a love touch the love relationship can be harmed.  Therefore, usually it is very useful to go rather slowly into that which might become sexual.  Making sexuality overwhelm the expressions of love or push it aside can be problematic to a ‘just beginning’ or to an ‘ongoing’ love relationship.  Here’s a good thing to examine in yourself.  Study which of your actions are more likely to convey love as primary and which may convey sex to be of primary importance to you.  Also examine the question ‘do you interpret other’s touch actions as sexual when primarily they may be trying to convey love?

If two people are lovingly holding and caressing each other and it becomes more sexual, that can be a very good thing.  Here too, mutuality is important.  If one person is laying quite still while being lovingly and sexually touched, their actions may be interpreted as being too much like “a cold fish”.  Mutual touching back action is the cure for that.  As one client said, “One of the most wonderful things my husband and I do is curl up in each other’s arms and mutually hold and fondle each other’s genitals after having had sex.  Sometimes we go to sleep that way and it is incredibly intimate and special.”

There are people who just want to be touched and do not think about touching back sexually or with love.  There also are other people who are uncomfortable receiving touchback experiences.  They make it very hard for the cycle we’ve previously talked about to occur.  Generally the more two people are simultaneously lovingly and/or sexually touching, caressing, petting, stroking, etc. each other the better.  However, taking turns, where the giving and receiving and then giving of the touch back cycle can be fully concentrated upon and absorbed, also is a good option for many couples.

Some Guidelines For Touching Back with Love

∙    At first ‘Touchback’ in ways similar to how you were touched.  The same amount of pressure, energy, speed, the amount of area and the type of area touched on you will provide a guide for the first touching back.  Then if you receive additional touchback, in turn, you may wish to expand your own touching back.  If someone puts a hand on your leg while you’re riding in the car you might want to place your hand on their leg (as long as it doesn’t interfere with driving).  If someone reaches to hold your hand, give a similar hold back with a little squeeze, about like they squeezed your hand, as your hands came together.  Your touchback does not have to be a copy of theirs but if at first it is similar, the experience is more likely to go well.

∙    Talk over ways you like to be touched and ask about ways the other person likes to be touched back.  The more people who love each other ‘get really clear’ about how they want to be touched and how they like to give touch the better their touching relationship is likely to go.  The only way to get truly clear is with clear message sending and receiving.  Some people go for years getting hugs too tight or too soft, or too low or too high, or in some other way not just right for them just because they never clearly ask for what they truly want.

∙    Always be willing to experiment with new and different ways of touching back.  For instance, have you tried the ‘two hands on one’ return handshake, or the ‘love nudge’ at the movies, the ‘playing footsy’ under the table, the ‘pick them up and twirled around’ when they hug you response, or the ‘hold their face gently in your hands and kiss their eyelids’ return love action?

∙    Notice every time you are touched.  Some people do not, and without awareness there is little chance that they will, give a loving touch in return.  While you practice noticing, be careful about misinterpreting the touch you are receiving.  Is it conveying friendship love, sexuality, is it somehow controlling or otherwise negative, is it sympathetic, empathetic, sweet, saccharine, possessive, etc.?  There are many possibilities.  Your interpretation gives guidance to how you will give a return touch and whether or not it will be one of love.

Well, dear reader, at least for a while, are you going to give some thought to your love expressional, touching back actions?  Are you going to develop your touching back love skill more?

As always, Go and Grow with Love

Dr. J. Richard Cookerly

Love Success Question
In regard to loving touch back actions, growing up what was modeled for you in your family and are you currently guided by that?

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