Every year around Valentine’s Day people start agonizing about finding the “perfect” gift for their partner, and some spend extraordinary amounts of money on it too. But no matter the effort or financial cost incurred, many of us quickly discover that our gifts provided only fleeting happiness and were quickly forgotten. In order to avoid this outcome, I recommend giving your partner something much more personal this year: touch. It will be much easier on your wallet, and it has the potential to improve your relationship far more than any material object that you and your money can buy.
Physical intimacy is one of the keys to a happy and healthy long-term relationship. But I’m not just talking about sex here—non-sexual physical intimacy is at least as important. Why? For one thing, non-sexual touch is a form of communication. You can use it to convey feelings to your partner (e.g., affection, comfort), as well as learn how your partner is feeling (e.g., tense, stressed). In addition, touch stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone involved in feelings of bondedness. What this means is that when you touch your partner, it can bring you closer both physically and psychologically.
Touch is so vital for relationship success that it has become the cornerstone of most sex therapy programs for couples. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the founders of the modern sex therapy movement, recognized the importance of touch nearly a half-century ago and developed sensate focus exercises in response.1 Sensate focus is a couple’s activity that involves promoting relaxation through non-sexual touch. This has become a standard technique in couple’s therapy because we have found that so many sexual problems can be solved through this kind of touch alone, without the need for drugs or psychotherapy. For sexual problems resulting from stress, anxiety, or a lack of communication, touch can not only be a powerful remedy, but it can also make it less likely that such problems will emerge or become significant in the first place.
Unfortunately, many people find that the amount of touch in their relationship declines over time, which can sow the seeds of discontent and potentially contribute to sexual difficulties. So what can you do if you find this happening in your own relationship? Take a cue from the “Masters of Sex” and find a way to interject more touch into your love life. How? There are many ways to do this, but my go-to advice is typically massage—but not the kind where you book an appointment at a fancy spa, rather, I’m talking about a massage that you give with your own hands.
Why massage? There is a scientific reason: in the book The Normal Bar, scientists analyzed data from 100,000 people around the world and found that, among those people who reported being happiest in their relationships, 74% reported that they give back rubs to their partners.2 Mutual massage thus appears to be something that most happy couples have in common!
If you’ve never given a massage before, I suggest learning some techniques first to make sure that you hit the right spots. The last thing you want to do on Valentine’s Day is irritate your partner by pressing too hard or in the wrong area—you want this to be relaxing, after all!
There are a lot of great how-to books you can buy on this topic, but my personal recommendation is an online video series called Melt: Massage for Couples, which teaches couples a range of massage techniques in the privacy of their own home practiced over a sequence of date nights. The video segments are short, informative, and tastefully done, with the techniques taught by Australian massage therapist Denis Merkas.
To be clear, this is not an erotic massage program, and the Melt videos themselves are definitely PG. However, you can adapt the techniques to suit you and your partner—keep it light and fun, or make it more sensual.
Whether you invest in learning some massage techniques or not, keep the fundamentals of sensate focus in mind this Valentine’s Day: set aside some quality time to concentrate only on each other, work toward replacing feelings of stress and anxiety with relaxation through mutual touch, and communicate with your partner about what feels good. This is one gift you can’t possibly go wrong with.
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1Masters, W., & Johnson, V. (1970). Human sexual inadequacy. Boston: Little, Brown.
2Northrup, C., Schwartz, P., & Witte, J. (2014). The normal bar: The surprising secrets of happy couples and what they reveal about creating a new normal in your relationship. New York: Harmony.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.