The frequency of affective contact is associated with physical and psychological well-being, and those who are deprived of it suffer from depression, anxiety, and a host of other illnesses.
However, there are people who resist physical contact with other people , even those close to them. These people also report more psychological problems than the general population.
Perhaps this is because, without knowing it, those who have little physical counting are depriving themselves precisely of the benefits of that contact. But it could also be that physical contact has the opposite effect on them, increasing psychological discomfort instead of alleviating it, and so they try to avoid it as much as they can without ever succeeding.
This is the theme that the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) psychologist Anik Debrot and his colleagues explored in a study they recently published .
To explore these questions, the researchers conducted three separate studies. The first was a survey of more than 1,600 people who were intimate. Questions about attachment style, well-being, and contact behaviors, including types (fondling, hugging, kissing, etc.) and frequency (ranging from never to four or more times a day).
The results showed, as expected, that people who touched their partners more frequently also reported higher levels of well-being . Furthermore, unsurprisingly, those with an attachment style that avoided contact generally indicated less frequent physical contact with their partner and also exhibited lower levels of well-being .
However, some people with an attachment to avoidance reported that they touched their partner frequently, and these people enjoyed levels of well-being similar to others who reported frequent physical contact.
This latest finding suggests that people with an avoidant attachment style can benefit from intimate contact just like others and, in any case, it certainly does not harm them. However, we must always be careful when interpreting data from self-reports like these.
To further explore the connection between avoidant attachment and the benefits of touch, Debrot and her colleagues invited 66 couples to visit their lab. Couples responded individually to surveys of attachment style, well-being, and touch similar to those in the first study. They were then asked to participate in a series of conversations with each other about times when they had made a sacrifice for their partner or had felt great love for their partner. These conversations were recorded and, subsequently, the observers counted the number of times they were touched . Participants also indicated their level of positive feeling before and after each conversation.
The results of this second study were similar to those of the first. But a new finding was that a high frequency of physical contact during a difficult conversation did not necessarily increase positive feelings immediately. Rather, the researchers speculate that it is the general pattern of touching in the relationship that leads to higher levels of overall well-being .
The third investigation was a 28-day diary study that consisted of 98 couples who reported attachment style on the first day and then noted positive mood and contact behaviors on a daily basis thereafter. The results confirmed the findings of the two previous studies, but also provided new information on the impact of attachment style on the partner. That is, those individuals with an avoidant attachment style not only reported lower levels of positive mood, but so did their partners.
However, avoidant attachment people who were receptive to the advances of their partner’s touch generally reported higher levels of positive mood. This clearly indicates that physical contact is beneficial even for those who tend to recoil when loved ones try to touch. Therefore, Debrot and colleagues suggest that therapists develop techniques to help those with an avoidant attachment style overcome their aversion to non-sexual physical contact .