Touch Hunger/Starvation Is Real And Can Make You Crazy

There were many medical articles on touch hunger or touch starvation during COVID, which focused on how older people who live alone become depressed when they have nobody to touch them.  Yet, there are no medical articles on the touch hunger that I see every day in my (virtual) office when people have a spouse who doesn’t want to touch them.  This is unfortunate, because the touch hunger that exists in many marriages is no less real and causes no less of a tremendous psychic and physical burden.

In one article about touch hunger in COVID, we learn:

When physical contact becomes limited—or, in some cases, eliminated—people can develop a condition called touch starvation or touch deprivation.

“When someone is [touch] starved, it’s like someone who is starved for food,” Shah said. “They want to eat, but they can’t. Their psyche and their body want to touch someone, but they can’t do it because of the fear associated with, in this case, the pandemic.”

Touch starvation increases stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects. The body releases the hormone cortisol as a response to stress, activating the body’s “flight-or-fight” response. This can increase heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension, and can suppress the digestive system and immune system—increasing the risk of infection.

People who are stressed or depressed, perhaps because of lack of touch, will have problems sleeping, Shah said.

“Every single medical disease including heart attack, diabetes, hypertension, asthma—every single physical disease—is altered if you are more anxious, more depressed or if you have more mental health issues,” he said,

Long term, he added, going an extended period without positive physical touch can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

I see this constantly in the spouses that I see who are in a touchless marriage.  I have long thought that at least half the SSRI prescriptions that are written would be eliminated, at least in middle aged men, if they were in more physically affectionate marriages.  I say this as someone with recurrent depression myself, so this is not minimizing anything; touch is extremely important for the daily management of depression for me and others. It can help alongside medication or it can be a standalone; here’s research about how massage helps with depression in cancer patients.

I know males who literally think that a positive side effect of their antidepressant is less of a sex drive because then they are less upset about their thwarted need for sex.  This is very sad.  If women said this out loud it would seem like a lot less of a “funny joke” and more tragic.  But it is tragic when anyone tries to medicate or exercise or meditate away their natural need for touch.

In therapy, I have told clients that their spouse would act less irritable, angry, depressive, negative, and anxious if they were given more touch, and this is the first time they have heard this information.  It is a shame that our culture has deemed it un-PC to say that humans need touch, and certain humans need it more than others.  This censure is amplified a million times if anyone says that people “need” sex, despite that sex drive perpetuates our species,  Yet, it’s fine to say people “need” words of respect and affirmation.  This is nonsensical.

We know that all other creatures need touch.  There are sites where you can choose which dog breed you want as a pet because certain breeds need more or less cuddling.  If you have a high physical touch need spouse, you are stuck with a breed who needs cuddling, and to ignore this need is the same as ignoring their need for food or water.

It is insane to me and a marker of our Puritanical culture that there are articles like 5 Science Backed Reasons To Cuddle With Your Pet Every Day but nothing equivalent about cuddling your partner, unless it’s in Cosmo magazine.  I will take a quote from that linked pet article and replace it with “husband” (in about 2/3 of the couples I see, it’s the husband with the touch starvation):

2. Cuddling Makes Your Husband Feel Loved and Secure

Men are pack animals that naturally want to bond with others… Giving your husband plenty of affection empowers him and makes him feel loved and secure.

Lack of affection from their wives can cause husbands to become inactive, withdrawn, and change their eating patterns. It’s hard to tell if men feel sadness and depression in the same way women do, but many therapists agree there are times when that’s the only explanation for a man’s change in behavior. If your husband is acting strange a trip to the doctor is definitely in order, but some extra cuddling also can’t hurt.

That quote makes complete sense, yet it would be nearly impossible for me to get it published on any mainstream medical or psychological site.  Why?  Anti-sex societal norms and the current climate where sexual needs at minimized while emotional needs are elevated.  Yet sexual/physical needs are inextricably linked and even undifferentiated from emotional needs for many people, at least within a marriage.

If this article resonated with you, think deeply about it.  Nobody deserves to feel like they are starving, whether this is you or your partner.  The more couples I see and the more years I’m in practice, I increasingly feel like the number one thing to teach our kids is how to recognize their own love language (take the quiz for your kids here) especially if it’s physical touch.  Kids who like to cuddle become adults who need that same cuddling, and your child should know that compatibility on this domain is of utmost importance in later partner selection. 

Putting that aside, for you now, within your current situation, try and think about how this post can help you understand you and/or your partner in a new way.  And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Teaches My Seven Year Old Already, “You Like To Cuddle, That Will Be Important When You Find Someone You Love One Day.”

Order Dr. Rodman’s newest book, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and order her first book: How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family

This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person

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  1. FL
    August 11, 2021 at 4:15 am — Reply

    And to add to this great article (something people don’t tend to wrote about), if you like cuddling, study the person you are interested in with others, esp their family, before you get too involved, and see how tactile and/or cuddly they are with them – that is the real test – NOT how they are with you, the person they are attracted to. Sexual attraction masks a whole lot of things.

  2. FL
    August 11, 2021 at 4:17 am — Reply

    … including a person’s dislike of being touched on a day to day basis.

  3. FL
    August 11, 2021 at 4:28 am — Reply

    Is it really an ‘anti-sex’ culture we live in…? Sex is thrown at us everywhere. Isn’t it more that deviant sex is being called out? Along side the message to women: ‘you shouldn’t be touched unless you want to be touched!’, wrongly extended to include the partner. I am just agreeing w Dr Psychmom that once committed to someone, that should include striving to meet their touch needs if their is a disparity between partners in the need for touch.

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