The Five Fingers of Touch
Understanding your partner’s desires for touch is a key to restoring intimacy
Illustration 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).