Touch and Affection

Raoul and Rachel came to me for sex therapy. They engaged in sex rarely and Rachel had never experienced an orgasm with Raoul. They had various personal challenges that were also affecting their relational issues. Rachel struggled with obsessive compulsive behaviors and Raoul had a history of risky, relationship damaging sexual behaviors, including engaging in cybersexual relationships and massage parlors. Shortly before therapy began, Rachel had been involved in an extra-marital affair. During that sexual relationship, she experienced orgasm for the first time. Both of them felt betrayed and yet both expressed the genuine desire to repair their relationship.

Some couples, well, most couples, when they come to see me for sex therapy, have a few things to work through before we go straight to what's happening in their bedroom. I work first on verbal intimacy, then on relational intimacy, and then on the intimacy involved in simple affectionate touch. It's important to talk about how much affection you, as a couple, engaged in during dating and engagement and then during early marriage. Some couples talk about experiencing conflict around touch and affection during dating and engagement, either due to concerns with becoming sexual, or due to early awareness of their differing likes and dislikes around affection. Other couples say that they had free, exciting, fun, easy affection throughout dating and engagement, but found that simple, non-sexual touches had disappeared beginning early in their marriage. As mentioned in an earlier post, some individuals have a history of problematic reactions to touch for various reasons. These might include sexual abuse, demands for hugs and kisses from family members during childhood and adolescence, an overall physical dislike of touch from an early age, or experiences in the marital relationship where affection only occurred in connection with sex. As a couple, talk about these things and see if your spouse feels or has experienced any of this.

It's also important to talk about what kinds of intimate touches occur in your relationship currently. So I ask couples: Do you hold hands in public and/or private? Do you kiss when you greet each other or when you leave? Do you gently caress each other when you pass one another? Do you engage in hugs, cuddling, spooning?

One thing that is important to note is that for some, when we start working on touch, many of the underlying conflicts, hurts, and frustrations come to the surface. This isn't always negative or unexpected. That is why I always recommend working first on building quality verbal, emotional intimacy first alongside working on conflict resolution skills that lead to empathy, understanding, and connection. If you have already been working on these skills, and they are going well, you'll now have the opportunity to put them into practice when conflict arises around affectionate touch.

If you have been deeply disconnected before working on touch, this can be a very tricky stage. Beginning to touch again or return to touching again when there are still serious, unresolved conflicts may require additional healing. Otherwise, trying to improve in affection touch can be quite damaging and improvement in the relationship can stall. For some couples, if they are still not emotionally connected, doing touch exercises can become just a mechanical obedience that ends up either not helping them at all or actually doing harm. If you get stuck while trying to work through issues on touch, I recommend that you stop and get some help, either from a couple you are close to, or from a professional.

So what happened to Raoul and Rachel? Obviously, there were some serious relational injuries that needed to be repaired. This was the focus of early therapy as well as general conflict resolution and building a new friendship through growing in verbal, emotional, and relational intimacy. This was also a couple committed to their walks with God, so therapy included discussions about how they were involved with other Christian couples helping them and how they were repenting and being open with their personal struggles. As we approached working on touch, I checked to see if they were continuing to talk openly and often and if they were going on dates regularly. Touch was very awkward at first as Raoul had become very worried how Rachel would respond and Rachel did not know what to do with some of the negative feelings she had when they began to touch. It was very important for them to be genuine with each other about their feelings and their fears. When affectionate touch became genuinely enjoyable to both, we were then able to begin working on the enjoyment of sensual and sexual touch. However, through the process of therapy, I periodically came back to checking on the areas of verbal and relational intimacy and affectionate touch to see if any of those areas needed strengthening before we continued.