9 minute read
Being touch starved can be like its very own special kind of prison. You’re craving physical touch yet feel there’s not much you can do to mitigate that. If this sounds familiar, know you’re not alone and it’s actually a phenomenon many believe is on the rise.
As a sex therapist and coach, I see this in lots of people – so – if you find yourself feeling touch starved in your relationship, this article will help you forward. It will help you understand why and what’s going on, why physical touch is so important to us human beings, and what you can do to get back on track.
Feeling touch starved can come from a lack of sexual touch or non-sexual physical affection. This can be as simple as not having anyone to hug you, kiss you, or hold hands with.
While it may be easy to assume feeling touch starved is something that only occurs in romantic relationships where couples have mismatched libidos (often called the pursuer distancer dynamic)– it can also occur from things like not getting pats on the back from colleagues or other people in your life.
This lack of physical touch is often difficult to manage and can have wider ramifications for your overall health.
Perhaps you’re feeling low, experiencing anxiety or depression, or feeling incredibly lonely – despite sharing your life with a partner.
According to Healthline, being touch starved is actually a condition that seems to be growing. The research is unclear as to why this is happening, but there are some theories worth exploring.
Working from home: when you’re at home there’s very little chance, if any, for physical touch. In a workplace environment, there are often small opportunities for physical touch such as a pat on the back or shaking hands when you enter a meeting with some colleagues.
Perhaps even greeting a colleague with a hug is something that, for obvious reasons, cannot happen if you’re working on your own from home.
Increased social media use: Being online has created the ability to have entire relationships where you never meet face-to-face. And while this is a huge positive because we can connect with so many more people we never would have met otherwise – social interaction online removes the opportunity to interact physically with your friends.
Both of these factors in combination are part of why researchers see a rise in complaints about feeling touch starved.
The fact of the matter is – human beings crave touch. And yes there are caveats to this such as not needing or wanting touch if we’re autistic, but from a general perspective: human beings have always relied on touch as an important part of the human experience, starting from the time we’re born.
Almost immediately after a baby is born, they’re placed on the parent’s chest for “skin-to-skin contact.” This is done because it’s crucial to a baby’s survival to feel that warmth and to regulate together. We call this co-regulation and in its simplest form, co-regulation is a way for people in relationships to reduce anxiety, fear, and to develop healthy coping skills together, in order to usher in calm and comfort.
Co-regulation is often felt through physical touch. This includes things such as a hug or skin-to-skin contact with the baby and parent to soothe and comfort both the parent and the baby.
This mechanism is crucial to our well-being, which is why we often gravitate towards hugging someone who is sad or anxious. It’s part of what makes us humans, human. We need other people, contrary to how we perhaps sometimes lead our lives in single-person households or through being very independent.
But not only is skin-to-skin contact important, but regular physical affection can also help us co-regulate This is because physical affection triggers the release of the neurochemical known as oxytocin, (often called the love hormone or the bonding hormone).
Oxytocin makes us feel good as it bonds us with one another. And the release of this neurochemical happens because we as human beings are wired for physical affection. This is why a lack of physical affection can lead to things such as loneliness, anxiety and feeling low.
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When you’re touch starved you miss out on the regular production and release of the neurochemical oxytocin in your body. This limits some of the “feel good” hormone’s ability to help regulate your mood on a day-to-day basis.
Without oxytocin, and without the corresponding bonding with your partner, it’s easy to start to feel incredibly lonely.
And loneliness in and of itself can lead to all kinds of other mental health challenges. These include depression and anxiety – but it doesn’t have to go that far.
The thing about being touch starved is, to some people it really can feel that bad. It can truly feel like a desert.
But before diving into what to do about it, it’s important to tease out exactly what being touch starved means – and how this links to being in a relationship where one of you wants sex more than the other.
The phrase “touch starved” refers to the complete (or almost complete) lack of physical affection and touch in your life. When a couple experiences a drop in or loss of physical touch in their relationship, this often feels awful to the person with a stronger sex drive.
But for the partner with low libido, it might not feel as painful. Because the partner with low desire doesn’t want to want sex.
Especially not if there’s been a lot of tension and arguing about a sexless relationship or less sex than usual.
These arguments often create a wedge between the partners in a couple. One where the partner with low desire actually feels increased stress upon touch instead of the intended co-regulation effect. The effect that touch perhaps used to have before kids came along, where it felt calming and wanted.
Over the years, I’ve worked lots with couples where touch-starved experiences show up situationally – especially when they have young children.
When raising children (especially in the very early years), there is a secondary phenomenon that often comes into play called “touched out.”
Touched out happens when a person (most often the person who has the most physical contact with the children) feels like they don’t want more physical contact – they want less.
This leads to a feeling of being touched out. Where you simply have no more to give at the end of the day. You’d rather curl up into a ball and vege out in front of Netflix with a bowl of crisps or a pint of ice cream.
When this happens – tensions arise between the partner who feels touch-starved and the partner who feels touched out.
When this imbalance occurs, the partner who’s feeling touch-starved will often start to get needy (or be perceived as needy). They will start to demand or ask for more physical affection as well as sex. All the while, these perceived demands make the touched-out partner feel less and less enthused about non-sexual intimacy.
And when you’re in the thick of it – it can feel hopeless. Like there’s a full-blown (albeit sometimes silent) tug-of-war happening.
The good news is that there are ways around this tug of war. And it starts by putting words to the problem; by acknowledging that one of you is touch-starved and the other is touched out.
Not that one of you is experiencing the right thing, and the other person is wrong or weird or broken for not wanting something (or wanting something more often than you).
Because while hurling insults at one another can get rid of temporary frustration, it doesn’t solve things in the long term.
Cause you’re both right – you’re both entitled to your experiences. But you cannot demand the other person feel the same way without making some changes.
By putting words to your subjective experiences, you and your partner can negotiate the kinds of touch you need from one another. Without neglecting or ignoring or feeling obligated to give sexually when you’re depleted and touched out.
But in order for this negotiation to actually work – the partner who’s touched out needs to get some of their needs met, too. Because once they feel less touched out, it will be easier for them to offer a hug. And this means that hug will be co-regulating for you both.
If the touched-out partner is asked for physical touch before they’ve even had 2 minutes to themselves – it will likely be a less than a positive experience for you both.
Because at the end of the day, if you’re touch starved, you want the hug your partner gives you to feel like something they want to give, right? Otherwise, we risk our partner overriding feelings of non-consent which can turn situations like these very sticky very fast.
And if it feels like a full-blown stalemate kind of situation, where even talking about how to fulfill each other’s needs is met by gridlock – this is the time to reach out for help. Because even if you’re turned on but your partner is completely turned off – there are always lots of ways around this kind of situation (even when it feels like there aren’t).
If you’re feeling a deep sense of touch starvation, going back to basics is often the easiest way to break a physical affection dry spell. Because human touch in all of its forms – helps.
This could look like savouring the physical touchpoints you do still have in a day – whether it’s a simple hug from your spouse, snuggling with your child, or hugging your friend hello.
If you’re in a situation where you and your partner are on opposite ends of the spectrum, talking about how to meet both of your needs, without it having to get sexual from the get-go – is usually a great starting point.
It’s true that interest in sex ebbs and flows during your lifespan. And if you’re in a season of life with lots of demands (hello 2-year-olds who need help with everything, plus endless emails and keeping up with the housework) it’s important to re-adjust your demands on yourself – and your relationships.
Discuss how you can re-enter a physical relationship (whilst taking those demands into consideration). One where you both get part of your non-sexual needs met first.
This way, you start to ease into physical affection that co-regulates and feels good to you both. And once that’s in place, you can start to consider creating a more active, fulfilling sex life again.
Remember, there are things you can do to move through this, even if it feels hard now. And if you dare to take the plunge, and work on your sex life and relationship with your partner – just imagine how much more intimate and fulfilling your life will be.
Because feeling touch-starved and touched out are feelings that can change. We just need to find the key that unlocks the dynamic and has you both wanting more.
Want help resolving this sticky touch starved and touched out dynamic? In my 1:1 online program Re:Desire – I help you do just that!
Re:Desire is a blend of:
– 1:1 weekly, low-pressure voice note coaching,
– powerful curriculum consisting of bite-sized videos and a curated collection of actionable exercises,
– as well as detailed feedback videos on all of your submitted exercises.
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With 11 years of experience in the helping profession - Leigh helps her clients create stress-free, shame-free, pressure-free sex lives, through her unique combination of sexological science, & psychotherapeutic & coaching tools.
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