Back Rubs Speak Louder than Words: Why Small Tokens of Affection Make a Big Difference

February 28, 2019

By Isabella Markert

I was sitting on the couch, forcing myself to rub my husband’s back. We were both in school. And we hadn’t had the time to go on a proper date or have a great conversation in far too long. I was starting to feel disconnected from him, so I decided I should do something to reconnect.

I rubbed his back with one hand and scrolled through my online textbook with the other. This got boring after, like, 20 seconds. But Kaleb smiled at me to show he appreciated the gesture, so I kept going. Honestly, it felt a little awkward for me. Back rubbing isn’t my thing.

But I love my husband, and I wanted him to feel that love. I had learned early in our marriage that small tokens of physical affection were important to him. So, as we sat there absorbed in our homework, rubbing his back was the best thing I could have done. And though the action didn’t feel “genuine” to me, it was a genuine display of love, and he could feel that.

Hugs, kisses, hand-holding: these may come easily to newlyweds but fade over time. Or maybe you’re like me, and small tokens of affection were never your thing. Regardless, these deliberate physical tokens are important in marriage. They help mitigate stress, they make us more agreeable, and they help us bond.

Touch helps mitigate reactions to stressful life events.

Tell me it’s not just me: When I’m stressed, I have a much harder time being kind to my husband than when I’m feeling relaxed. I get annoyed at things that don’t usually bother me, I snap, and everything seems to be his fault. In other words, my unmanaged stress is bad for our marriage. But a nice warm hug changes all of that.

One study found that “Women who report having received more hugs from their partners in the past have been shown to have significantly lower blood pressure levels than those women who do not have much history of being hugged by their partners. Accordingly, affectionate physical behavior can lower reactions to stressful life events.”

I thought it was just because my husband gives amazing hugs, but it turns out to be a little deeper than that. You’ve probably heard that affectionate touch releases oxytocin, which “is now believed to be a super hormone that helps with everything from illness recovery, life length, addiction recovery, depression recovery and anxiety prevention.”

Our marriages may be able to survive without the hugs, kisses, and hand-holding. But if we want this all-important relationship to thrive and be fulfilling, touch is crucial.

Think of the parts of your marriage as a food pyramid, and affectionate touch as fruits and vegetables—a nutritious and important part of any diet.

“Can one get through life without fruits and vegetables?” asks Matthew Hertenstein, PhD, associate professor of psychology at DePauw University. “Yes, but one’s diet would not be complete and healthy. In the same way, a lack of touch leads to nonoptimal health.”

Touch makes us more agreeable.

When we give our spouse an affectionate touch, it may make them more agreeable. And by “agreeable,” I don’t just mean pleasant; I mean literally more apt to agree!

Researchers Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence reviewed studies on touch and found some pretty compelling stuff:

  • Callers in telephone booths are way more likely to return a dime left in the booth if the preceding “telephone caller” touched them.
  • If a passenger touches a bus driver while requesting a free ride, the driver is more likely to agree.
  • When asked to participate in mall interviews, individuals who have been touched are more likely to agree to participate.

Now, I don’t make this point to say that you should give your spouse a shoulder rub to manipulate him or her into agreeing with you. I don’t recommend that. What I am saying is that touch between human beings, in general, is powerful and can encourage those involved to be more generous and soft-hearted. So when spouses are deliberate about giving small tokens of physical affection to each other, they pour generosity and soft-heartedness straight into the marriage. You may not get pocket change out of the deal, but what you might just get is an increased ability to overcome conflict, which I’d say is totally worth it.

Touch helps us bond

Let’s talk about oxytocin again. This hormone is known as the “bonding hormone,” and it lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to others, Hertenstein says. The hormone is released when we are touched and helps sustain feelings of deep attachment.

“What I say to people is stay in touch,” said Helen Fisher, PhD, a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “We are just built to touch—the brain is built to do this.”

Touch strengthens your marriage! So next time your husband playfully reaches for that ticklish spot behind your knee, let him. It’s biological.

Touching may not speak louder than words for you or your spouse, so it’s important to balance small tokens of physical affection with fun conversations, help around the house, or other small gestures that communicate your dedication to each other. When we find meaningful ways to “stay in touch” with our spouse, we become less stressed, more agreeable, and more bonded—all from a touch of affection.

Isabella Markert is a freelance writer, editor, and language educator. Isabella graduated from Brigham Young University, where she majored in English language and minored in editing. She is experienced in social media and web content and enjoys writing practical and fun pieces that make her readers’ lives better. When she’s not writing or editing, Isabella likes to play games with her husband and family, follow watercolor tutorials from Pinterest, and eat the snobbiest chocolate she can find.



Photo by Edward Eyer from Pexels

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