Touch me please! Why the physical touch divide?

In so many couples, one person seems to be getting more than enough physical touch, the other partner is starved for more. In both cases, the parties involved often take the demands or rejection of the other very personally.

This got me thinking.

Does anyone know if there has ever been a study that is essentially the other end of the scale of the Harlow Monkey contact comfort experiment? In this study, researcher Harry Harlow effectively showed that physical contact with a soft mother was actually more important to the monkey than food.

However, when viewing the video of the experiment, it should be noted that the surrogate mothers don’t have arms. Does anyone know if anyone has ever tested for what I’d like to call HugMAX? In as much as a mother’s comforting touch is important, it must also be instinctual for animals to flee when trapped. Whether it is a thorn bush or a predator’s jaw, it seems to me that at some point a flight response should kick in to some types of prolonged physical touch, even if no actual pain is involved.

In our house, one child was a cuddler; the other was a squirmer. As a toddler, my son loved to cuddle, whereas my daughter would try to wriggle away from a hug as quickly as possible. With her, it was like trying to cuddle a bobcat.

I wonder if each of us has a different upper end for enjoyment for physical contact where initial contact is needed and craved, but above the HugMAX point it starts to feel threatening and dangerous. If my hypothesis is correct, it would have one very significant implication: Unless both partners have the exact same HugMAX value, there is the potential that one partner will either feel trapped by “too much” physical contact or deprived of sufficient contact in the relationship, depending on whose HugMAX value is honoured more often. This would also imply that the seeds of couple dissatisfaction around physical contact are planted for nearly every couple! Whether it would be possible to change a person’s HugMAX value, and if so how, would also make an interesting study. (My guess is yes, because my daughter is a legendary hugger now.)

One really simple study I can think of would involve having couples comfortably embrace in a non-sexual context, but one partner would be in on the experiment. That partner would hold the hug until the held partner started to squirm to get away. The time, HugMAX, would be recorded.

Try it on your heartmate. I’d love to know how long it takes them to try and get away. 🙂

Does anyone know of any formal studies related to this? If you have very different physical touch needs than your heartmate, how do you cope? How do you fill the contact comfort gap?


Do you receive enough physical touch (sexual & non-sexual) from your heartmate ?

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About Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen

Becca works with couples to save and strength their relationship. She trains psychologists to do couple therapy internationally. She is a: Professional psychologist. PhD. in Clinical Psychology. Licensed Mental Health Counselor Research Faculty at Alliant International University. Director of the Training and Research Institute for Emotionally Focused Therapy. Certified Emotionally Focused Therapy Supervisor and Trainer.