A GIF of Ardhaneswari Hanadyas and Ayub Patioran moving away from each other across the globe.
Not all relationships fare well when tested with long-distance. Photos courtesy: Ayub Patioran

Mental Health

How the Lack of Physical Intimacy Affects Relationships

‘COVID-19 forced us into a very intimate setting in the initial stages of our relationship.’

“When my friends here hug me or put their arms around me, I feel really sad and I imagine that the person touching me is not my friend, but my boyfriend,” Ardhaneswari Hanadyas, a student at Peninsula College in Washington, told Re:Set. She has been in a relationship with her boyfriend, Ayub Patioran for the past four years and began long-distance in December last year. Patioran is currently living in Indonesia. 

A study conducted at Binghamton University showed that couples who engage in touching that doesn’t necessarily lead to sex can build a more satisfying and positive relationship. Attachment to your partner is related to satisfaction with non-sexual touch which is proven to improve marital quality.  

Research also shows that conflict resolution is easier and quicker with the aspect of physical affection involved, even though increased physical affection may not always mean fewer conflicts. The benefits of physical affection are not just emotional according to the National Library of Medicine. Women who received more hugs from their partners showed lower blood pressure compared to women who didn’t receive frequent hugs from their significant others. 

Karan, who asked his name be changed to protect his privacy, and his partner had begun dating only a few months before the lockdown was enforced in India. He is a Delhi-based copywriter, and the lack of physical touch in his relationship affected him adversely. “COVID-19 forced us into a very intimate setting in the initial stages of our relationship,” he told Re:Set.

“I was at her place when the lockdown began and we moved in together not knowing how long it would last.”

“Our relationship progressed much quicker than it normally would have and we learnt a lot about each other quickly, which was overwhelming initially and that was difficult. For a while, it was nice,” Karan added. Physical intimacy was an important and integral part of the couple’s relationship and once they moved back to their respective homes, the lack of touch had an impact on Karan. They were now living an hour’s drive apart and the lockdown made it difficult to see each other on a regular basis.

“I felt empty. There was no way to get that [physical intimacy] anymore and it affected our relationship very adversely.” The lack of physical touch was a major reason for them to eventually break up. 

A selfie of Ayub and Ardhaneswari in a car.

Long-distance has made Patioran and Hanadyas more sensitive to each other’s needs.

For Hanadyas and Patioran, the lack of physical intimacy has led to a greater need for emotional intimacy wherein they end up wanting to spend more time together albeit virtually. “We are both touchy people, and a lack of that touch makes both of us sensitive,” Patioran told Re:Set. They miss each other and “if both of us are sensitive, it leads to an argument,” Hanadyas added.

While the couple made up for the distance through extensive video calling, touch plays an important role in other relationships as well. Whether it is a romantic relationship or platonic, touch can be manifested as a passionate kiss from a partner or an affectionate hug from a parent.

Hugs are known to release oxytocin, a hormone that is associated with happiness. “In non-romantic relationships as well, touch can help foster trust and closeness amongst two people,” Shriya Shrivastava, a Mumbai-based therapist, told Re:Set. 

Moreover, the intention of delivering the touch is important as well. “The way you touch a person also helps communicate a negative or positive intention,” Shrivastava told Re:Set. There is a difference between a playful touch and a functional touch. According to research, even a functional touch like a parent holding an infant to ensure the child’s developing muscles are intact delivers a message of security and safety from the parent, helping establish a bond between the two. “One must also note that there is imminent importance of teaching the difference between ‘safe touch’ and ‘unsafe touch’ to children,” Shrivastava told Re:Set. 

Touch is not just an important aspect of romantic relationships, but also familial relationships. At the zero hour stage of an infant’s development, skin-to-skin contact between a mother and her child helps initiate instinctive behaviours in addition to regulating the child’s heart rate, temperature and breathing, stimulating digestion, and calming the mother and child. Even as children get older, touch is an important factor for their overall well-being and happiness.

Also read: ‘Will You Die Before Me?’: What to Avoid Saying While Dating a Chronically Ill Person

Whether it is to provide reassurance during an unpleasant conversation to a partner, or the sense of security to a child, physical intimacy cannot be ignored. “Touch is essential for survival,” Shrivastava told Re:Set. But, with varying degrees of social distancing regulations in place across the world, couples must navigate around the lack of physical intimacy. 

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How the Lack of Physical Intimacy Affects Relationships