Don't panic if the passion is gone. New research says it's hugs not hanky-panky that keeps couples together
25 July, 2011 Recently, I met a few close female friends for dinner. As is the way on these occasions, the talk swiftly turned to relationships. Tellingly, the topic of marital sex — or more accurately, the lack of it — was a big issue among this group of fortysomething women, many of whom have either young children, husbands with demanding jobs or high levels of financial stress. ‘We hardly ever have sex these days,’ admitted my friend and lecturer Jo, 37.
According to conventional wisdom, she and her husband of many years, David, 44, could be on the verge of divorce. After all, it’s a long-held tenet that lack of sex in a marriage is a sure sign that the emotional end is nigh. However, Jo insists that the lack of action underneath the covers isn’t affecting their relationship. ‘We cuddle all the time,’ she explains. ‘We go to sleep holding each other, we always have a big hug before we go off to work and we lie entwined on the sofa together watching TV at night. If we didn’t have that daily contact, I’d feel as if I was just living with a flatmate. But not having sex simply isn’t a problem for us.’ Perhaps it’s not surprising that we set so much store by sex. After all, there’s so much focus on it in films and on TV that it’s all too easy to believe that diminished passion signals a marriage in terminal decline. But according to new research, the frequency of cuddling is a far better indicator of the strength of a relationship than how often you’re swinging from the chandeliers. ‘Cuddling provides not just sensual pleasure, but also a feeling of comfort, security and companionship, all of which are just as important to a relationship as sex,’ explains Paula Hall, relationship expert for online dating service Parship. In fact, maintaining an intimate connection without the wild abandon of the hormonal early days can be vital for a happy relationship. ‘The advantage of non-sexual intimacy is that couples often use this time together to talk about their emotional lives,’ says Paula. ‘Whereas when sex is their only way of getting close, couples who find emotional openness difficult often rely on making love to help them connect. They can find themselves missing out on other levels of intimacy.’ Many other women I spoke to would agree. ‘My husband Ben and I split up last year,’ says Lydia Kay, 39, an office manager. ‘Sex was never a problem because we always found each other physically attractive. But we communicated less and less emotionally and, in the end, it wasn’t enough to keep us together.’ If sex is the focus, it can mean that emotional problems are never discussed — whereas non-sexual touching, such as cuddling and stroking, encourages more relaxed bonding and intimate conversation, due in large part to the crucial ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin. ‘Oxytocin is produced by touch and, as well as making us feel good, it also inspires us to touch more,’ says Paula. ‘That means that the more you touch, the closer you feel and the more you want to touch.’ Once assumed to be related only to childbirth, because of the role it plays in both encouraging contractions and then chemically bonding mother and newborn, recent research suggests that oxytocin’s ability to promote feelings of calm, love and connection also extends to couples in monogamous relationships. The feeling of ‘melding’ that happens when you gaze into a loved one’s eyes, and the after-effects of calm and well-being that follow even non-sexual physical intimacy, could all be down to this miraculous hormone. 'Couples who find emotional openness difficult often rely on making love to help them connect, missing out on other levels of intimacy' ‘We used to think that oxytocin was found only in the pregnant uterus, but in fact it’s found in many sites in the body,’ says clinical psychiatrist and author Dr Brenda Davies. ‘It’s been called “the love hormone” and its levels in our blood certainly increase when we hug, when we feel loving and even when we stroke a beloved pet. So it has a huge role to play in intimacy — and not just of the sexual kind.’ This wonder-hormone may even help you to broach difficult subjects. New research suggests that oxytocin can prevent the body’s ‘freeze’ response to threat, and reduce ‘fight-or-flight’ panic. So if you have a tricky discussion about money or the kids coming up, a big cuddle before you begin talking is the perfect way to approach a difficult subject. Oxytocin has also been shown to decrease blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked to weight gain and a depressed immune system. ‘It even plays a part in raising our self-esteem and, therefore, improves our capacity to have healthy, close relationships,’ says Dr Davies. ‘It’s also a powerful natural anti-inflammatory, and has anti-ageing properties — one reason why people living isolated lives, with little human touch, can age prematurely.’ Experiments with animals have shown that it can play a major role in ‘pair-bonding’ among certain species — like the adoring prairie vole, which mates for life and ‘cuddles’ its chosen partner during lengthy grooming sessions. The same urge to be physically close without necessarily having sex is evident in humans. One study suggests that after the intense sexual passion of the first few months, partners become ‘imprinted’ on each other. Once bonded, just the sight of your partner triggers a surge of oxytocin and a need for physical closeness that can be satisfied simply by cuddling. This is good news for couples who still love each other but can’t summon the energy for seduction on a nightly basis. ‘Steve can live without sex, but he gets much more bad-tempered if we haven’t cuddled for a while,’ confirms Susie Gould, 34, a teacher. ‘He’s harder to talk to and it’s as though our connection’s snapped. ‘But if we have a glass of wine and cuddle up on the sofa for a chat, he visibly relaxes — I can almost feel the tension leaving his body and we can talk about anything.’ While men and women produce equal amounts of oxytocin, its effects are intensified by oestrogen, meaning women tend to have functionally higher concentrations of the hormone. A Cambridge University study found that men who were given higher doses of oxytocin displayed greater levels of empathy with other’s emotions. 'The great advantage of cuddling is that, unlike sex, you can do it anywhere, any time' ‘When this hormone’s flowing freely, it puts us in a peaceful, happy state of mind,’ says Dr Keith Kendrick, who led the study. ‘It helps us feel emotionally connected to whoever’s the source of that touch and gets men’s oxytocin levels on a par with women’s. ‘For many women, you could say oxytocin is a godsend, as it makes men more empathetic.’ Of course, it’s often assumed that women are happy with a platonic cuddle, while men are always eager to get down to business. But another recent study from the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction suggests a different story. According to its research, among middle‑aged couples in committed relationships, tenderness is often more important to the man than the woman; regular kisses and cuddling lead to greater relationship satisfaction in men than in their partners. ‘I put weight on due to illness and I’d started to dread sex,’ says Kathy Logan, 50, who runs an online business. ‘But once Alan reassured me that he was happy just to cuddle and he wasn’t expecting anything more, it was lovely. ‘We developed a whole new side to our relationship because it got us out of that push-pull situation that a lot of my friends also seem to be stuck in, where one of you wants sex and the other’s making excuses and feeling resentful. With us, that had gone on for years, and I’d gone right off sex.’ Knowing it wasn’t on the agenda meant Kathy and Alan, 49, could appreciate each other again, without any expectations. ‘I’ve lost a lot of the weight now, and we do have sex again,’ says Kathy. ‘But it’s so different because now we can both say “I’m not really in the mood tonight, shall we just cuddle?” without feeling like it’s second-best.’ Paula Hall says: ‘Inevitably, there are times when sex isn’t an option due to illness or stress. By keeping in touch with hugging, a couple can continue to express their love and affection for each other.’ That rings true for my friend Jo, who says: ‘Work is very stressful at the moment, and we’ve got a one-year-old who doesn’t sleep. Just lying with my head on Dave’s chest and his arm round me makes me feel so much more relaxed and calm. If he’s away for work, I become tense, and I know it’s because we haven’t had that vital physical contact.’ ‘The great advantage of cuddling is that, unlike sex, you can do it anywhere, any time,’ explains Paula, ‘and enjoy all the benefits of feeling loved, cared for, protected and comforted.’ Suddenly, ‘Not tonight, darling, let’s just cuddle’ doesn’t seem like such a bad thing after all. Original Article