The Importance of Nonsexual Touch

By Amy Juran, Writing Assistant Intern

couple smiling

I think we underestimate the value of nonsexual touch.

It can be so easy to overlook all of the benefits we can glean from giving and receiving affection in ways as simple as a hug or a soft pat on the back. It’s these simple interactions that can really tighten the bonds of our friendships and build trust between us. I think we associate touch so strongly with romantic relationships that we overlook the times people reached out a hand in comfort, and in doing so, we miss out on an amazing resource that we have in times of need.

It can actually be pretty risky to reserve physical touch purely for intimacy, the downfall being that our bodies need physical touch for edification, not just from a lover, but simply from people that we love. When we associate touch as a primarily sexual thing, we build up a huge storehouse of repressed physical desire that can get carried away when we are put in a romantic situation. The thought occurred to me that maybe if we recognize the value of nonsexual touch in our plutonic relationships and friendships, it might displace some of the craving that our hearts have for physical intimacy, and our romantic relationships might be healthier and less focused on the physical aspect.

Verbal affirmation can do so much for us, and kind words can heal all sorts of hurt, but nothing quite compares to a kind embrace for comfort. Conversations become memories with that little slip of an arm into the crook of an elbow as friends walk through the park, or the firm grasp of both arms in excitement. My favorite endearing gesture: the hand grab. You know, when you and a friend are in the midst of an intentional conversation and you both connect on something or share a nice, deep, gut laugh, and to seal the moment one of you clasps the other’s hand with a tight squeeze. It’s such a beautiful, heartfelt impulse.

We need more hand grabs in the world​.

Nonsexual touch tends to have almost this supernatural power to ease tension and anxiety. It seems almost impossible to remain stressed after I’ve confided in a loved one and they just wrap me up. It’s like there is a displacement of energy that happens where they take a bit of my burden and I get relief in return. And when we extend this comfort and kindness even to people we don’t know very well, we heal wounds and bridge gaps we never imagined. In Column McCan’s book, Let the Great World Spin, he paints a beautiful picture of a crowd all gathered around the spectacle of a man tightrope walking between two buildings. He describes how “perfect strangers touched one another on the elbows.” It’s a beautiful image, and McCan clearly understands the magic that happens when people draw near to each other in moments of chaos or panic. Any number of causes can bring us together, but it’s that simple touch and connection that really forms a bond.

One individual who immediately comes to mind when I think of extending a kind touch to strangers is Pope Francis. On multiple occasions he is seen publicly embracing beggars, kissing children, reaching out to anyone and everyone. It seems like he doesn’t have the capacity to pull away when he sees someone to care for, and he is a beautiful example of how opening our arms can build people up and make them feel affirmed.

Pope Francis hugs a child as he arrives to lead the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican June 19, 2013.   REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini     (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION)

Pope Francis hugs a child as he arrives to lead the weekly audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini (VATICAN – Tags: RELIGION)

Physical touch is something I truly struggle with, because it forces me to be vulnerable. It’s not necessarily second nature for me to reach out for a hug, even with my family, not to mention an acquaintance I hardly know. I tend to be more like a stiff board when it comes to nurturing and embracing. But every time someone else extends the gesture, it’s such a comfort. There’s almost an empowering effect, and an unspoken understanding of closeness that can truly boost my confidence. I think if we all dug deep into the innermost cravings of our souls, we would all arrive at nearly the same place: the desire to feel loved. And I say ​feel​ loved versus be loved, because it’s easy to assume that people know we love them, but when we reach out and touch, when we declare in a tangible way how much they mean to us, that’s when they truly feel validated.

Non-sexual touch can not only enhance our relationships, but I think our bodies need it. Instead of saving our physical contact just for our significant others, we should work towards being generous with our touch towards friends, family, and even strangers. When we arrive at a place where we love people, and are willing to care for them in our hearts and with our words, it can really make a difference to take one step further, and extend a hand or a kind embrace.

An honest and true life builds honest relationships

Our Development Coordinator and Administrative Assistant, Holly, shares her take on the benefits of vulnerable living:

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Growing up, I had a lot of anxiety and when I was overwhelmed the last thing I wanted to do was share how I was feeling.

When my sister would ask me to talk about it with her, I would close up and could feel myself bursting at the seams. But in the end, if I didn’t talk about it, I wouldn’t have to deal with it. And that for me was the easy way out at the time.

I think the reason why it is difficult to tell our stories and connect with others is because we haven’t been honest with ourselves and we hold things back that need to come out.

Maya Angelou explains it like this: “There is no greater agony than an untold story inside of you.”

 We have to remember that our story is significant and that we are created by a God who is writing the grand narrative. Our story is a part of the reconciliation of human relationship.

 As I got older, this tactic of holding things back, pretending, and bursting at the seams did not work on other people. In college, I had a friend who learned early on that I was hiding how I really felt and wouldn’t let me pretend. She forced me to be honest with myself and with her.

And opening up was completely freeing.

This was the beginning of building true relationships in my life. Yes, I had to be honest about not only the good parts of life, but also the parts that were messy and ugly. And even though this was difficult, I began to understand more of who I really am.

And as I began to be more confident in myself, it became easier to share my story with other people and ultimately started building healthy relationships with friends and my boyfriend (now husband).

Knowing our stories and being able to share them confidently will benefit both you and the people who are hearing it. But it takes time and trust to be able to do this well.

If you think about it, this is one of the reasons why relationships are messy. Two people who have parts of themselves they are ashamed of, parts of themselves they don’t even know and parts they have never shared with anyone else. In order to be in healthy relationships, we have to know our story, own it and share it with all of the good and the bad and the messy.

Relationships are lived out through our shared stories.

As you learn to share your story with people you trust, you begin to understand more of who you really are. You start to see what is important to you, if there have been any unhealthy patterns in your life, and what have been some of your darkest times.

Having confidence in who you are and accepting the messy parts of yourself makes it possible for you to accept other people for who they are. It also makes it possible for you to give other people grace because you know first hand no one is perfect.

Until we are able to know our stories, and allow other people to be a part of them, we cannot love other people well. Knowing our true identity, accepting our story and sharing it with others is the beginning of building true relationships with other people and living a true and honest life.

 Don’t be afraid to tell your story. It’s the beginning of something beautiful that plays a crucial chapter of this grand narrative.