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Is stroking good for your relationship?

January 17th, 2005

Dr Petra

Researchers from the University of North Carolina has just revealed that stroking is good for stress, and also relationships. Well, that’s if you’re a woman.

Their lab-based study of 59 straight couples had one party sit in a ‘love seat’ and watch a romantic movie whilst their partner stroked their neck for ten minutes.
Women were found to produce 20% more of the hormone Oxytocin post-stroking, and reduced blood pressure, although men didn’t seem to be affected in the same way.

So should I start stroking?
Evidence from this and other research suggests that for some people, non-sexual stroking and skin to skin contact can increase feelings of well being, and make partners feel more bonded. This may include learning to give your partner a full body massage, or perhaps a back rub at the end of a hard day. It could include sharing a bath or shower together, a hug before bedtime, holding hands whilst you watch TV, or a cuddle before you leave the house in the morning.

But just because the science says stroking reduces stress and blood pressure, doesn’t mean this advice just has to be brought into a relationship without some changes. If you and your partner already share contact, that’s great. But if you’re someone who doesn’t like much stroking or massage, then this may not reduce stress levels for you – it may increase them! If your relationship is in difficulties – for example if you are arguing, or are having other communication problems, then one partner attempting to stroke the other may cause more fights.

Finally, it’s worth thinking about why we need contact. It can make us feel loved, protected and wanted. For many straight (and plenty of gay or bi) couples, where one partner doesn’t feel desired, wanted, or is unhappy, they may associate the other partner’s attempts to cuddle them as a prelude to sex – or believe the only time they’re shown any affection is when their partner wants something. Hardly surprising that they’ll try and avoid all contact, and will feel increasingly unwanted.

Couples who wish to increase closeness can ask each other what sort of contact they’d prefer. Ask your partner if they’d like a massage, back, foot or hand rub, cuddles etc. And be sure to add what you’d like too. Make a deal that you’ll include non-sexual, comfort touching in your lives, not just touch each other as a sign you want sex, or when you’re having sex.

Some people find attending massage classes (which many gyms or community centres run) gives them some technique ideas. For those who wish to increase touching during sex, Tantric sex classes can help. And if your relationship is in difficulty, a relationship counsellor can give you specific tasks to improve your relationship and increase your touching skills.

Questions this research raises
This study has limitations because it’s based on a lab-based study of heterosexual volunteers. It doesn’t necessarily tell us what people do outside the artificial setting of a lab, nor does it inform us about those in gay or lesbian relationships, or those in short term relationships.

The inclusion of a romantic film in the study is a confounding variable – it could have been the romantic film that had as much (if not more) effect on the participant’s blood pressure levels.

The research assumes that stroking is good, and whilst there is some evidence for this, it isn’t necessarily true that suits everyone of all ages, life points, and across all cultures. For example, massage or rubbing during pregnancy or with certain health conditions can be positive, but has to be undertaken with medical advice.

Certain reports of this study in the paper have claimed that stroking can lower women’s blood pressure as much as prescription drugs. This may have been overeager journalists reporting, or possibly a misquote from the researchers themselves. However, there is no way such a claim can be made without a larger scale study. In order to prove that stroking was as effective as prescription meds, a randomised controlled trial to test the effect of stroking vs. medication would be in order. And that’s obviously not happened here.

It’s a nice story, an interesting piece of research. It has applications to relationships outside the laboratory. The only caveat we need is that it doesn’t become mandatory, or the fact that men didn’t respond in the same way as women in this study isn’t taken as a sign that men don’t enjoy non-sexual touching. That’s a myth that continues to deny men pleasure.

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