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.

Quality Space

Image of a couple sitting on the eddge of a cup of water, illustrating the article Quality Space by Joy Hosey

Image Credit: “Untitled,” by Sarah Clement

Hunter and Gina have come to see me for relationship guidance. They’ve been together for nine years, have two children, and are admittedly stuck. They’ve driven here separately, meeting up after a busy day of work and family. This is their third visit, and although Gina seems fidgety and Hunter distracted, they both say they are glad to be back in my office. As I guide us through a short, heart-centered meditation to help them get present as to why they’ve come, tears start to stream from Gina’s eyes. When the meditation is complete, both of them are visibly more relaxed and are softly gazing at each other as Gina exclaims, “I don’t even know why I’m crying!” Hunter smiles empathetically.

This is a common scene that I see with couples. There is something about having a dedicated space—in this case, my office—where sharing vulnerable truths and having them heard creates an atmosphere of intimacy. Whenever I first meet with couples, I always inquire about two key factors that affect long-term relating: How many hours a week do they devote to their relationship, and how much appreciation do they feel and express with each other?  Often, couples admit that their attention is going everywhere else—jobs, kids, pets, projects—and that their relationship is starved of quality time.

So how much time is required for successful relating? Well, according to renowned relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., five hours a week of “you-and-me time,” is key to long-term thriving partnerships. Gottman should know. He has spent four decades observing, interviewing, and videotaping couples and cataloging the multitude of micro-expressions and macro-patterns that make—or break—a relationship. He is credited with more than a 93 percent success rate in predicting whether a couple will divorce or not, based on his studies over the years.

While time spent together is a predictive ingredient for relational harmony, I focus more on the quality of the space a couple provides for their relationship. Space is not just a physical phenomenon, it is an atmosphere that includes nonjudgmental attention, mutual respect, and appreciation. When we create “sacred space” for intimate relating, a palpable atmosphere emerges that evokes breath, allows presence, and invites connection. And, with practice, it only takes a few moments to establish.

Shifting our physical environment can be a first step.  Many couples find that their relational stresses melt away when they go to a place that nourishes them both, whether it’s a five-star hotel or camping in the wilds. Yet it’s also important to find ways to create space for your relationship at home, where habits are more embedded. Like many couples, my husband and I have our favorite places to sit in our living room. Sometimes, though, he surprises me by moving two chairs and a small café table we have to a completely different location. As we look out onto the garden or some other less-familiar visual, there is an atmosphere of freshness and playfulness in our communication. One of our primary sacred spaces is our hot tub. When we enter it together at the end of a busy day apart, our intention is to get current with each other and to reestablish our connection anew. We also consider our bedroom a sanctuary for relating and relaxing. We do our best to keep it technology and clutter free.

Working with elemental energies—whether through warm water, lit candles, deep breathing, or sitting on the earth—is a reliable way for us to cultivate inner spaciousness. Yet physical ambience is just the backdrop; what matters most is the quality of presence that resides in that space.  Ultimately, what sets sacred space apart from our normal habits is intent—we must choose to turn off our phones and tune in to practices that allow us to listen, breathe, touch, and literally face our beloved.

Carving out five hours a week for your relationship can seem daunting, especially with children and staggered work schedules. Yet, what if you committed to simply pausing, deepening your breath, and taking a full 20 seconds to meet your partner’s eyes at the end of the day? Twenty seconds is how long it reportedly takes for our oxytocin receptor sites to be activated and to begin flooding our systems with this well-known “love hormone.”  Intentional greetings are a space where we ritually acknowledge our shared connection; oxytocin seals the deal by rebooting our biochemistry so that we feel bonded. I encourage couples to get a steady diet of both if they cherish their life together.

Does Another Cup Runneth Over for Your Lover?

To more deeply understand your relational priorities, collect a number of small cups to represent all your most important relationships: partner, children, pets, work, friends, home and garden, personal time, creative projects, etc.
Now put out a larger bowl filled with dried beans beside these cups. Each day, take out as many beans as there are cups. In other words, if you have 10 cups take out 10 beans. At the end of each day, place your daily beans into the cups according to how much time and attention you gave to each cup. Do this for as long as you need to see your pattern.
Of course the goal is not to have equal distribution every day. But if you see that you are consistently putting most of your beans into a particular cup, you may want to create a space to connect with whomever you’ve been neglecting.
This article, written by Joy Hosey, first appeared in the November-December 2014 issue of Spirituality & Health and the Spirituality & Health website.