Relationship Tips Blog

The Five Fingers of Touch

illustration titled Holding Hands by Sarah Walton, illustrating the article The Five Fingers of Touch by Joy Hosey

Image Credit: “Holding Hands,” by Sarah Walton


One of the most common issues I hear from couples is the desire for “more intimacy.” But what exactly does this mean? The classic partner polarization is that for one person, intimacy means more sex, while for the other, it means more emotional connection. Upon deeper examination, however, what generally emerges is that both parties desire more physical closeness.

Skin-to-skin contact is our most primal interface with the world. In infancy, through a merged state with our mother source, we experience safety, nurturance, bliss. As our ego develops, skin becomes our body ego’s demarcation between “self” and “other.” The characteristics of what psychoanalysis calls “skin-ego” can be vulnerability, pleasure, or excitement. Neuroscience supports that the receptors in our skin deeply influence our nervous system development.  When we have feelings—anger, embarrassment, anxiety, joy, or sexual arousal—we often feel it directly as a heightened charge at skin level. Imbalances in “skin-ego” lead to either a sense of feeling overly exposed to our environment (aka “thin-skinned”) or defended against intrusion or disappointment (or “thick-skinned”). When we allow someone “to get under our skin” we are admitting vulnerability.

But getting the type of physical contact we want is not always easy. Asking your partner for more touch and expecting them to understand what you mean is like telling them you are hungry without telling them what kind of food you want. Take Deni and Pam, for instance: Deni delights in slow, featherlight stroking on her skin, while Pam requires firm, deep pressure to help her relax. Their early forays in intimacy were fraught with frustration until they finally understood each other’s unique wiring. Much like the five basic taste sensations (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami), there are also specific tactile styles. I call these basic styles The Five Fingers of Touch. They are:

Nurturing Touch: Often, when a couple comes to me after a long period of disenchantment with each other, both parties are longing for a revival of nurturing touch. Shoulder or foot rubs, back scratches, or head stroking are all common ways we communicate loving support to our partner. This helps us feel safe and bonded and is an essential antidote to stressors in our lives.

Playful Touch: Tapping, gentle pinching, wrestling, and conscious tickling can evoke levity and laughter for many couples. Making faces, growling, or other funny sounds can shift a dull atmosphere to one of comical camaraderie.

Passionate Touch: This involves short bursts of robust energy that disarms your partner. An unexpected full-body embrace or firmly holding their face or squeezing their buttocks can wake you both up from a trance of business-as-usual relating.

Sensual Touch: Awakening somatic senses is the key here. By subtly applying various types of pressure, tempo, vibration, and temperature, you can help shift your partner’s attention from outside concerns to internal pleasure. Soothing or tantalizing sounds, smells, and tastes can be added to enhance the receiver’s experience of sensory arousal.

Sexual Touch: Erogenous zones exist all over our bodies, not just our genitals. Knowing your partner’s favorite turn-on zones—and discovering new ones—can open up new realms of intimacy. And keep in mind that what feels good in one encounter may not be true in the next. Sexual touch is a wonderful opportunity to explore new tactile arenas while tenderly dialoguing with your partner about their experience.

There is an old relationship aphorism that says when a couple is having sex, it accounts for about 15 percent of their relational focus, but when they’re not having sex, it accounts for 85 percent. So when a couple wants to rebuild their sexual rapport, I invite them to invest a lot more attention in the first four fingers of touch—Nurturing, Playful, Passionate, and Sensual—to help open new pathways to Sexual touching satisfaction.

Are You Willing? An Intimacy Game Worth Playing

This simple game empowers people to ask for more of what they want, as well as to gain comfort in interrupting touch that doesn’t feel so good. It also helps both partners learn to be more present and more creative with each other. Here’s how you play:

  • Create a safe space with a time boundary (start with 15 minutes each way) and no outside distractions. Decide who will be the first “Toucher” and “Receiver.”
  • The Toucher names any boundaries he or she may have in offering touch in service to the Receiver, to which the Receiver agrees.
  • The Receiver lies down comfortably and asks for a form of touch by saying, ”Would you be willing to . . .” (e.g., “stroke my arm?”)
  • The Toucher responds to the Receiver’s specific request.
  • The Receiver then affirms his or her pleasure and/or practices asking for more of what they want (e.g., “Would you stroke my arm a little more lightly and extend the stroke up to my shoulder?”)
  • When the Receiver feels “complete” with a particular touch he or she says, “Would you be willing to stop now?”
  • The Toucher’s response to the Receiver’s requests is always “Yes, thank you.”
  • The Toucher may ask, “Is this what you want?” Otherwise, silence and deep breathing are encouraged.
  • The Receiver is encouraged to practice asking for—and expanding upon—forms of touch that bring pleasure.
  • Receiver and Toucher can experiment playing this game with eyes open and eyes closed to find out what invites more receptivity.
  • Upon completion, take a moment to share your experience (or a couple may prefer to wait until both have received before talking).

This article, written by Joy Hosey, first appeared in the January-February 2015 issue of Spirituality & Health and the Spirituality & Health website.

Building a New Relationship with My Feet

image of a child's feet, illustrating the article Building a New Relationship with My Feet by Joy HoseyAs a kid, my hands and feet were a source of quiet shame for me. I was born with what adults kindly referred to as “old soul’s hands,” which in the schoolyard translated to a regular inquiry from kids: “How come your hands look like an old lady’s?” My feet, with their gap-toed goofiness, didn’t fare much better. “I bet you could peel a banana with those!” teased one schoolmate. It wasn’t until I started practicing yoga in my late 20s that my wide toe span garnered admiration. Suddenly, my “monkey feet” were the envy of other, close-toed bipeds. My journey into appreciating feet was just beginning.

When I discovered reflexology in my late 30s, I was immediately fascinated with its practical applications. Reflexology is an ancient healing modality that recognizes the hands and feet as precise maps of the entire body, with reflex points that correspond to all the organs and systems. A far cry from a “foot rub,” reflexology addresses health by helping to harmonize all the major body systems, including spinal, muscular, lymphatic, digestive, immune, and endocrine. Through applying pressure to reflex points in the feet, a healing response occurs in the correlating system. There are various styles of reflexology, depending on the lineage. I consider it a powerful “folk medicine,” a living modality that is influenced by whatever culture — or person — adopts it.

Learning reflexology was like receiving a secret treasure map to the body. At the time, I was working as a Pilates trainer and Breema instructor, two modalities that actively include the feet. Pilates is generally practiced while barefoot, so when I began to learn reflexology, it was easy to observe how tendencies in the body correlated with tendencies in the feet. Weak/tight hips equaled weak/tight ankles; shoulder and neck issues were evident in the toes — the same for low-back issues. Working consciously with the feet brought balance to the entire body, and vice versa.

What I found was that when my clients began paying more attention to their feet, their feet responded. “What is this point? It keeps talking to me!” was a standard comment. I would then get to play translator for the budding relationship between my clients and their feet. I secretly enjoyed their surprised looks when, in reading their feet, I could accurately relate to them the physical issue their feet were reflecting. For many, this seems like magic, but for a reflexologist it’s business as usual.

Yet it wasn’t until I left my Pilates practice that the more soulful aspects of reflexology emerged for me. I took three months in the wilds of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, completely removed from all that I knew and those who knew me. I walked barefoot, practiced yoga, and lived on the most ferocious coastline I’d ever seen.

I also had the opportunity to touch a lot of soles, Mexican and American alike. No longer looking through the Pilates lens of physical structure, something subtle and sublime started to occur: When I touched people’s feet, I received impressions. I saw colors, energy, spirits around them. I received messages about issues they were facing. Holding people’s feet seems to give me access to touching into a deeper level of their being.

Since my Baja sojourn, my “old soul’s hands” have touched hundreds of people, helping them renew, rebalance, and reconnect with their entire body and being through their most humble servants — the feet. Most people have a deeply restorative experience from a session (see Occasionally, a body reacts with a “restless leg” type syndrome. If this occurs, I invite my client to spend 5 to 30 minutes barefoot on damp earth. This seems to help rebalance the electrical system.

When people ask me how to best care for their feet, my advice is simple: touch them in any way that feels good. Soak them in warm water. Allow them to breathe. And most important, let your feet touch the earth as often as possible. And don’t forget to wiggle your toes!

This article, written by Joy Hosey, first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Spirituality & Health and the Spirituality & Health website.