Show me a person who claims to never have conflicts with his or her romantic partner, and I’ll show you someone prone to fibbing. Even the most compatible couples sometimes experience incompatible preferences, goals, or interests and find themselves with disagreements to resolve. Of course, conflicts can breed relationship discontent and cause stress, but discussing conflicts can also allow couples to solve problems and minimize future frustrations. Whether conflicts have positive or negative consequences depends on how a particular conflict is managed. Yet there is a simple, easy, and effective way to minimize the bad – and maximize the good – aspects of conflicts with one’s partner!

In a set of experiments, we tested whether a touch intervention would remind partners in a couple that they are interdependent or overlapped, make them feel secure, and ultimately allow them to avoid stress and behave constructively during the conflict. We thought this might be the case because our previous studies found that touch promotes feelings of security, reduces stress, and is associated with better relationship well-being in terms of relationship satisfaction, commitment, and intimacy. In other words, simple touching can have many positive effects for relationships.  Therefore, we expected that touch could be a simple yet potent intervention to improve conflict discussions.

In our first experiment, we assigned couples to hold hands (affectionate touch) or to hold weights before and during a conflict discussion in the laboratory. Participants thought that we were interested in the effects of being limited to only one hand, when really we were interested in the effects of touch.  Participants held hands or weights while building with Legos and during an 8-minute discussion about a conflict.

As expected, participants assigned to touch affectionately engaged in more constructive conflict behaviors (coded by objective observers) and experienced less stress (self-reported and observer-rated) during the conflict than those who held weights. Holding hands also had a unique benefit for people who tend to struggle with their relationships.  For those people, touching helped them behave less destructively during the discussion.

In two follow-up studies, we had some participants imagine receiving affectionate touch and other participants not imagine receiving touch prior to and while imagining a conflict discussion with a romantic partner. We replicated the effects of touch to reduce stress in both studies. In both follow-ups, participants who imagined touch also felt more secure and more interdependent or overlapped, and feeling interdependent and overlapped explained touch's effects on stress and conflict behavior. Also, when participants wrote what they would say to their partners during the imagined conflict, participants’ writings were less destructive and more constructive when they imagined receiving touch.

Our studies suggest that the simple act of touching when arguing can reduce stress and facilitate constructive ways of arguing. We believe that touching reminds couples that they are on the same team. This finding is important because if couples are able to improve their conflict discussions, even minimally, on an ongoing basis, they may be able to avoid declines in relationship quality over time. Future research may look more at these long term effects as well as examine whether this intervention is effective for couples with extremely severe conflicts or distressed relationships. As always, more research is needed, but the results of our study suggest that to resolve a conflict, just extend a hand.

For Further Reading:

Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. C. (2019). Hand-in-hand combat: Affectionate touch promotes relational well-being and buffers stress during conflict. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 431-446.

Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. C. (2017). Affectionate touch to promote relational, psychological, and physical well-being in adulthood: A theoretical model and review of the research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1-25.

Brittany Jakubiak is an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University. Her research focuses on affectionate touch, social support, and other factors that shape individual well-being and relationship outcomes.