Attachment and Affection:
Does Insecure Attachment Influence Our Desire for Physical Touch?

 Attachment and Affection:
Does Insecure Attachment Influence Our Desire for Physical Touch?

All humans need affectionate touch. It’s a form of comfort right from birth—a way for caregivers to show their love for their newborn baby. 

As we age, affectionate touch continues to be vital for our well-being: It helps us communicate with others, regulate our stress, sleep well, fight off infections, and soothe aches and pains. 

Yet, some people feel more comfortable with physical touch than others, and this can depend on our attachment style. For anxious attachers, touch often means reassurance. But for people with an avoidant or disorganized attachment style, physical touch may feel uncomfortable and even stress-inducing. 

To answer all of your questions on attachment and physical touch, this article will cover:

  • The science behind affectionate touch
  • What happens when we don’t receive enough touch
  • How our attachment styles influence our desire for physical touch
  • Ways to maintain healthy levels of affectionate touch in our relationships

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The Science Behind Affectionate Touch

As soon as we’re born, we crave affectionate touch. This is evident in the “golden hour” when a baby is first born. Golden hour (also known as “kangaroo care”) refers to the initial 60 minutes of skin-to-skin contact between a mother and her newborn baby. Studies show that this contact increases the chances of breastfeeding success, boosts the relationship between mum and baby, helps to regulate the infant’s body temperature, and decreases mum’s stress levels. 

Affectionate touch continues to be important as a baby grows. Babies often seek comfort from their caregivers, at first through crying and then by reaching out. Then, as they grow from baby to toddler, we often witness children seeking solace in their trusted caregiver in unfamiliar situations or when they hurt themselves.

Benefits of Affectionate Touch for Adults

So, we can see how important affectionate touch is for children. But how about adults? Research shows that physical touch has many important functions in adulthood, including:

Enhancing our Interactions With Others: Human touch is an important way we interact with one another—we hug a loved one, shake hands with a new acquaintance, and kiss our partner. Physical touch is how we bond.

Regulating Stress: Skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and it’s highly sensitive—it sends “good” and “bad” sensations to our brains. When we receive affectionate touch, our brain releases the “happy hormone’ oxytocin, which improves our mood and strengthens our bond with that person, which in turn reduces our stress levels. 

Boosting Immune Function: The stress relief affectionate touch provides has a protective effect against illnesses like respiratory infections and can lower our heart rate and blood pressure. Positive touch also boosts serotonin release, which is important for healthy immune function. 

Aiding Sleep: Touch shortly before or during sleep improves the quality of our slumber and helps us feel happier and calmer the following morning. Evidence suggests physical touch also reduces the likelihood of spousal arguments the following day. 

Reducing Pain: Positive physical touch, such as a massage or simply holding hands, is extremely effective at relieving mild physical pain and soothing aches like back pain and headaches. 

As we can see, we never lose the need for affectionate touch. But what happens when we don’t receive enough of this all-important form of affection?

What Happens When We Don’t Receive Enough Touch?

Not receiving enough touch can have profound effects on our physical and emotional well-being. However, the effects of touch deprivation differ in childhood and adulthood. Let’s consider each in turn. 

Touch Deprivation in Childhood

Research shows that babies who don’t receive kangaroo care after birth tend to have weaker immune systems, sleep problems, and poorer emotional regulation and self-control in adulthood. Not experiencing this initial skin-to-skin bonding can also have a significant impact on maternal attachment, possibly even leading to an insecure bond between mum and baby later down the line

Touch Deprivation in Adulthood

If we don’t receive enough touch as adults, we can become stressed, depressed, or anxious—experts call this “touch starvation.” 

When a lack of touch triggers stress, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol, which increases our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, and makes our muscles tense up. All of these effects can worsen our immune and digestive systems, which can have a knock-on effect on our sleep and increase our risk of getting infections and other illnesses.

If touch starvation continues for a long time, we may develop post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Attachment and Affectionate Touch

From our experiences with our primary caregiver, we develop a set of beliefs about ourselves and others, which can influence how we feel about touch. 

For example, when we form a healthy attachment, we generally want to stay close to our caregivers, as they provide security and support. As a result, we learn to see others as responsive and dependable, which makes emotional and physical closeness more comfortable. It’s, therefore, not altogether surprising that research shows that secure attachment is associated with giving, seeking, and appreciating touch from a romantic partner. 

However, if our relationship with our caregiver was unhealthy when we were a child, this can influence how comfortable we feel with affectionate touch and how much we wish to receive.

Avoidant Attachment and Affectionate Touch

Avoidant attachment is characterized by discomfort with closeness and a fear of intimacy, often arising when the caregiver doesn’t consistently meet their child’s needs. As a result, the child becomes distrustful towards their caregiver and, in adolescence and adulthood, believes that other people are untrustworthy. 

The question is, does an avoidant attacher’s fear of closeness impact their desire for affectionate touch? In short: yes. Experts suggest that avoidant attachers in a relationship tend to downplay their attachment needs, believing that intimacy is less important than independence and autonomy. As a fundamental attachment need is affectionate touch, avoidant attachers often dismiss this, too. 

Research suggests that avoidant attachment is associated with negative feelings towards physical touch and more touch avoidance and aversion than other attachment styles, especially in anxiety-provoking situations. Consequently, avoidant attachers tend to offer their romantic partners less physical touch when they need support and express negative attitudes toward holding hands and cuddling. They also touch their partner less often than people with a secure attachment

Furthermore, avoidant attachers report higher levels of pain related to touch compared to securely and anxiously attached individuals. This indicates that avoidant attachers don’t only find touch uncomfortable, they may find it painful.

Anxious Attachment and Affectionate Touch

Anxious attachers typically don’t feel “good enough” or worthy of care and affection. These beliefs often stem from feeling like their caregivers abandoned them (emotionally, physically, or both) in early life. The perception of inconsistent, unreliable care anxious attachers receive teaches them that others won’t support them when they need them. Anxious attachers often feel worried about closeness and intimacy in adult relationships due to these difficult early experiences. However, unlike avoidant attachers, this discomfort typically motivates those with an anxious attachment style in relationship to seek physical touch, not avoid it. 

Attachment anxiety is associated with feelings of touch deprivation, even when receiving healthy amounts of affectionate touch. Researchers suggest that anxious attachers have a strong desire for closeness because of fears of abandonment and rejection. As a result, touch becomes an important form of reassurance, causing them to both seek and give high levels of affection in romantic relationships.

Disorganized Attachment and Affectionate Touch

Disorganized attachment manifests when caregivers consistently don’t respond to their child’s distress or meet their emotional needs with derision, anger, or abuse. The caregiver becomes a source of fear for the child, who, in turn, develops the belief that the world (and the people in it) are unsafe. 

Studies show that adults with a disorganized attachment style in relationships perceive all forms of touch as unpleasant, but prefer non-affectionate touch. As a disorganized attacher’s early experiences with touch may be stressful, this could indicate that they find all forms of physical touch threatening, which may make it feel unpleasant. However, we need more research on this relationship to understand this fully.

Four Ways to Maintain Healthy Levels of Touch in Relationships

Unhealthy early relationships can create complicated feelings toward touch, which can impact our romantic relationships in adulthood. If this is the case for you, try the four ways to maintain healthy levels of touch listed below:

1. Understand Your Partner’s Attachment Style

We have seen throughout this article that our attachment style significantly impacts how we perceive and experience physical touch. Therefore, to maintain healthy levels of touch in a relationship, we must understand our partner’s attachment style. 

By doing this, we can recognize how affectionate touch feels for them. For example, if your partner is anxiously attached, reading up on how this attachment style formed may help you understand why touch means so much to them. In contrast, if your partner doesn’t give or seek much physical touch, this may be due to their avoidant or disorganized attachment style.

2. Communicate With Your Partner

Ask your partner how they feel about touch and how they like to receive love. An anxious attacher may want more physical touch, whereas an avoidant partner may prefer acts of service (such as cooking their favorite meal) or quality time, like watching a movie together.

It’s important to speak about touch openly and non-judgmentally with your insecurely attached partner so that you can agree on a level of affectionate touch that works for both of you. Communicating with your avoidant partner, or anxious, can make you both feel safer in the relationship, helping to build trust.

3. Build Your Tolerance to Touch Over Time

If you have a disorganized or avoidant attachment style, chances are, affectionate touch feels unpleasant. If you’re in a relationship with an anxious attacher, trying to find the right level of affectionate touch may feel like a constant battle. So, what can you do?

Alongside learning about your partner’s attachment style and communicating openly about your experiences of touch, you can build your tolerance to touch over time. You could start by holding hands and maintaining eye contact before moving on to more intense forms of affectionate touch like cuddling and initiating affectionate touch. 

But be patient and gentle with yourself. If any form of affectionate touch feels too much right now, you can start by testing it out on yourself. For example, by massaging moisturizer into your arms or slowly moving your fingertips over your face.

4. Learn Self-Regulation Techniques

Learning self-regulation techniques can help calm you, regardless of your attachment style. If you’re an avoidant or disorganized attacher, you can use self-regulation techniques to calm yourself when you feel triggered by affectionate touch. And if you’re anxiously attached, self-regulation strategies can come in handy when you feel like your partner isn’t giving you enough affection. 

Techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, meditation, and somatic shaking can help to calm the body in moments when you feel yourself getting triggered.

Final Words on Attachment and Affectionate Touch

Touch feels different for everyone. Some people can’t get enough, while others would rather go without. While many factors may influence our preferences, research suggests that our early attachment experiences can be a significant determining factor. 

Linking our early relationships with our feelings towards touch can help us understand our responses to touch in our adult relationships. It may also allow you to recognize if you and your partner’s touch preferences don’t always align. 

You can achieve a healthy balance of touch in your relationship by understanding each other’s needs, communicating your preferences, and learning tools to regulate yourself when triggered. If you have a disorganized or avoidant attachment style, building up your tolerance to touch can also help you give and receive affectionate touch in your relationship. 

It’s important to remember that our feelings towards touch are deeply personal and won’t change overnight. So remember to treat yourself with kindness, compassion, and patience.

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