Physical closeness outside of our bubbles is something that many of us have been missing during the lockdowns and pleas for social distancing over the past year. For me so much of what that has meant is encapsulated in the title of a book that I have been recommending to parents and grandparents of small children. ‘While we can’t hug’ (Faber and Faber) by Eion Mclaughlin illustrated by Polly Dunbar is a mini-masterpiece. In just a few pages, and with a very few words, it celebrates like its predecessor (The Hug) what it means to be able to touch and to hug but this latest one also captures the pain and the poignancy of being unable to do so.
To psychologists, therapists and those who study human development it has been known for many years that touch is very significant in helping babies grow not just emotionally but physically and mentally too. In her book ‘Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain’ Sue Gerhardt clearly demonstrates how physical closeness with young babies aids their brains’ development. Nor of course do the benefits of touch disappear after childhood.
One of the things clients often talk about in my counselling room is their fear of physical closeness, stemming from past experiences of a lack of being cuddled and held, or the presence of inappropriate touching. Helping someone to talk about these things can be transformative both to their view of themselves and their relationships with others.
Just as challenging and even more so at times, is where these past deficits or bad experiences get in the way of a couple being able to express physically their love for each other. This can be either in the way they are affectionate together or in their sexual relationship.
Sometimes couples have to learn or relearn how to express their love for each other physically. Sensate focus has for many years been a very useful tool in the therapist’s available options as Dr Susan Pacey demonstrated in her recent article based on her own doctoral research ‘The power of touch? How the coupling of sensate focus and psychoanalysis brings so much to the surface’ ‘Available here’
Sensate focus, developed by Masters and Johnson in the 1960’s, is a series of structured homework assignments that can be used in psychosexual therapy to address sexual difficulties. It provides a framework to help work with differing needs or particular sexual dysfunctions, but also to help with communication around sex, to decrease performance anxiety and to build trust and intimacy for a couple. The early stages of sensate focus are about non-genital stroking and touching and for those who have not experienced enough cuddling and holding in their early childhoods, this is one of the most challenging parts to the work.
Lockdown has for some couples given more time and space to reconnect and spend time together and this has really benefitted their relationship. However for many others the stress and anxiety of the pandemic has meant huge pressures on their couple relationship when combined with work and home schooling.
At Coupleworks we have experience of working with people for whom their relationship has drifted and where, in particular their physical relationship has been damaged by their experiences of the past 12 months. ‘While we can’t hug’ is not the final word from COVID and it is good to know that in sensate focus we already have a well-tried tool for restoring something of what couples may have lost.