Artwork by Peter Berkowitz

Better Sex through Non-Sexual Touching

Two people rarely have the exact same sex drive. One person might be happy with daily sex, another with monthly. Besides differences in basic libido, life events (illness, job stress, childcare) can cause a desire discrepancy in couples. A large desire discrepancy will eventually cause conflict, likely eroding other aspects of the relationship as well.

Why Non-sexual Touching is So Important for Sex

While couples don’t need to be conflict-free for happiness, we know that couples do need more positive interactions than negative ones. Dr. John Gottman’s research on this shows that the magic ratio is 5 to 1. That is, we need to have five times as much positive feeling and behavior with our partners as negative. Couples can increase positive interactions in many ways: by expressing fondness, appreciation, and admiration; regularly connecting by checking in with each other and staying in touch with your partner’s daily life events; and, of course, through physical intimacy.

For an amusing illustration of what goes wrong in many relationships, check out this performance by Flight of the Conchords. Miscommunication about sexual interest, lack of foreplay or after-sex cuddling, and showing little sensitivity to partner’s needs all leads to no sex or to perfunctory sex. And when couples rarely touch, embrace, or kiss except as a prelude to the bedroom, passion can dry up altogether.

But it’s important to remember that intimacy doesn’t necessarily mean sex. in fact, non-sexual touch is vitally important, both in itself and to improve sex lives. For each sexual encounter, it’s important that couples have at least five episodes of non-sexual touch. I use “five” loosely; a 15–1 ratio would be wise. Touching your partner several times a day allows closeness and intimacy to grow in a natural way.

Another reason to increase non-sexual touching is that many partners with a lower sex drive end up avoiding any touch for fear it’ll be interpreted as an invitation to sex. Sometimes partners are exhausted, sleepy, or just planning to go to bed with a book; they would enjoy physical closeness, but sex is the last thing on their minds. Sometimes the lower-drive partner pulls away, avoiding opportunities for physical closeness (cuddling on the sofa, kissing, or spooning in bed in the morning) — or even creates additional distance, for example by making critical comments. Over time, the higher-drive partner will make fewer gestures of closeness out of frustration and feelings of rejection.

Another consideration is that partners must still be sensitive to appropriate moments for non-sexual touching. A common dynamic is when men come up behind a partner, often when she’s standing and working in the kitchen, and grab her from behind or grope her. This may be meant as playful (and can be just that); it’s also low-risk, because a brush-off doesn’t mean as much if you’re “just messing around.” However, most women report that this gesture feels intrusive and disrespectful, as if they’re property. It’s better to invite or ask for touch when a partner isn’t busy.

While the partner with a higher sex drive has a responsibility, so does the lower-libido partner. If partners with higher sex drives start feeling unappreciated, they may drift away and start getting sexual needs met outside of their relationships through online activities, finding sex in other venues, or beginning an affair, without having exactly intended to slide into infidelity.

Non-sexual but physically intimate ways to show your appreciation for a partner include:

  • Caressing your partner’s cheek
  • Cuddling with one another
  • Tickling the inside of your spouse’s arm
  • Walking with your arms around each other’s waist
  • Sitting close enough so that you are physically touching legs or arms
  • Holding hands
  • Briefly rubbing your partner’s back while watching TV or standing at the kitchen counter
  • Playing footsie with each other
  • Kissing or nibbling your partner’s ear

Intimacy doesn’t have to be through direct physical touch, either. Eye contact is also very important. Many couples will go for days without looking directly into each other’s eyes. I confess that when I was in the thick of raising our twins and working many hours a week, that I neglected to notice that my husband had shaved his mustache. He didn’t mention it, waiting to see how long it would take me to notice. That was a wakeup call for me. And we work in the same office!

Of course, while non-sexual touching is important to help create intimacy, so is sex! In my next post I talk about romance and how to re-ignite it after years of neglect.

— Susan J. O’Grady, Ph.D.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.