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Hunger for touch and the unhealthy consequences of bad relationships

Relationship distress adversely affects our immune systems, disrupts our hormonal systems, can delay healing and even cause depression and anxiety. Even though being in a relationship, according to some studies, can result in a stronger sense of happiness, being in an unhealthy relationship can result in emotional and physical damage. Are you in a bad relationship? Here is why working to improve it is critical for the quality of your health and happiness.

Fighting Couple, Back to Back

Touch hunger

According to Dr Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Americans are living on the edge of emotional isolation and live each day with fewer and fewer people to confide in. “North Americans have been called one of the world’s least tactile people, we hold, hug, pat, stroke, fondle and caress each other much less often than do other folks,” she explains. “Psychologists have suggested that we suffer from ‘touch hunger’ and that this is just one of the signs of our ongoing loss of connection and community.” This lack of connection is occurring despite the emerging research that loneliness can seriously harm our bodies as well as our resilience to stress. This lack of connection can be even more damaging when we feel it in context of our significant relationships.

Feeling isolated and alone despite being in a relationship

“The sense of isolation is a pivotal concern in love relationships,” says Dr Johnson, who is a clinical psychologist, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and a recognized leader in the new science of relationships. She says that this deprivation of emotional connection is most obvious when we are not touched or do not feel safe enough to reach and touch our loved one. Why is this disconnect so devastating? Dr Johnson explains, “The new science of love tells us that feeling a sense of connection to another is the deepest and most pressing need we have as human beings. Our social brain codes this connection as safety, and touch is the most obvious route into this safety.” When we experience tender touch, our “cuddle hormone” oxytocin raises and turns on the reward centers in our brain, resulting in us feeling recognized, significant, comforted or even aroused. Oxytocin also counters stress hormones like cortisol, further increasing the importance of connection and welcome physical affection as part of weathering the stresses and strains in life.

Emotional isolation is traumatic — physically and mentally

According to Dr Johnson, rejection and emotional disconnect triggers the same part of the brain that is triggered by physical pain. “Partners speak about the pain of rejection or abandonment in terms of life and death. This is not because they are immature or too needy. It is because emotional isolation is traumatic, reminding us of our essential vulnerability in a world teeming with danger,” she adds. Research on the effects of strained relationships and marriages shows that when men or women feel emotionally alone or are in hostile situations, they have significantly elevated blood pressure, higher stress hormone levels, are more at risk for heart disease, and even less likely to recover from a major cardiac event. Unhealthy relationships impact us physically, and they are instrumental in creating mental discord as well. “The quality of our love relationships is a big factor in how mentally and emotionally healthy we are. Conflict with and hostile criticism from our loved ones increase our self-doubts and create a sense of helplessness, classic triggers for depression,” explains Dr Johnson.

Strengthening your love relationship is key to your health

It is normal to have phases of disconnect in a significant relationship, but when the emotional separateness is perpetuated through withdrawal, hostility, and other hurtful actions, the negative effects of emotional isolation can literally destroy your relationship as well as cause harm to your health. It is crucial to take measures to bring you and your mate closer rather than let your relationship — and yourself — continue to suffer. “If we cannot recognize our basic need and ask directly for touch and connection — perhaps to be held, this moment of disconnection can be the beginning of a slide into more and more isolation and relationship distress,” warns Dr Johnson. She recommends reaching out to your loved one and ask to be held. “The couple therapy I do is a tested, cutting edge approach to healing a love relationship. The powerful outcomes it achieves seem to hinge on a couple’s ability to shape a ‘hold me tight’ conversation, where each partner can reach for the other, be held and hold in return,” she says. So, if you or your mate have trouble showing — or asking for — physical affection, couples therapy can be the turning point for you to enrich your relationship. Not sure about seeing a therapist? Then pick up Dr Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight (you can visit for an excerpt as well as additional information). It can give you insight into the defining moments of your relationship and guide you in reshaping these moments to create a secure and lasting bond.

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