There are couples who arrive at my office seemingly more attached to their cell phones than to each other. Some clients instinctively put their cell phones out in plain sight so that they can hear the soft hum or bell of a text, email or call arriving. Before we start our session, I ask them to remove their phones from the sacred space for the duration of the session. This request is sometimes met with a look of fear, as if I'm asking people to remove their life support systems. "She comes to bed with her cell phone”, or "he's always on his computer" are common complaints. Our electronic devices have become sources of comfort and instant gratification of our wants and needs. How handy that we can keep our cell phones snuggled up to us in our back pockets or have them just a zip away in our hand bags. We can be just about anywhere and if we have a craving for a Starbuck's latte we can simply ask- "Siri, find me the closest Starbucks --and poof, just like that, she navigates us with her reliable and soothing voice to the closest Starbucks to get our caffeine fix. Siri responds calmly and consistently to the emotional need we have to experience an entity in our lives who prioritizes our curiousities and moment to moment desires. However, Siri can't touch nor ever replace the deep longing we humans have for direct, warm and affectionate physical contact.
Much research over the past 80 years validates touch as an essential need for our development and well-being. In the 1930's, Psychologist Harry Harlow proved the true centrality of touch to normal primate development. He proved that simple room and board is not enough. We need physical comforting and affection. Researchers proved long ago that touch deprivation has devastating impacts human development. Thousands of Romanian orphans experienced the failure to thrive ( the inability to gain weight, grow properly or reach typical mental and emotional milestones) as the result not being held. Newer research conducted by James Coan, PhD, found that the simple act of women holding the hand of their husbands while receiving a shock to their ankle decreased their level of anxiety and pain significantly.
The famous family therapist, Virginia Satir, wasn't exaggerating when she used to say: "We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth." Dozens of studies have demonstrated the positive physical and emotional impact of oxytocin, the love hormone we produce when in physical contact. We are designed to touch and be touched; our well-being and growth potential as physical and emotional beings depends on it.
Much research has also proven how important it is to, simply, gaze at one another. Michael Orlans, an attachment researcher, states "The gaze between baby and caregiver is a primary form of communication for attachment. The infant gazes into [their] mother's eyes and receives powerful messages about her emotions and involvement, which influences the baby's feelings of safety and security." This primary source of information is often neglected in our new-age relationships given that much of modern communication is made without eye-to-eye contact. It might be a shock to learn that sitting on the sofa watching Game of Thrones on your giant TV screen with your sweetie isn't the ideal nourishment for your relationship -though watching TV is the most common way couples describe how they, "connect."
Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, discovered that 93 percent of the way humans communicate is through non-verbal elements such as facial gestures, posture, and tone of voice. Where does that leave Siri in our lives? If she's front and center, then you're only getting 7 percent of your prescribed human diet of connection.
My work with couples serves to return us to our most basic form of connection, rooted in gaze and touch. Before we get into the verbal exchange of information, couples sit in chairs, facing each other, holding hands and gazing. The momentary discomfort that comes with being out of practice melts into a state of limbic resonance; one that's millions of years in the making. Couples who haven't touched each other in months sometimes begin crying at the extreme intensity of emotion that gets released when they sense "coming home" to their most basic need for connection. In the truest sense of the expression, couples sync up with each other as their two operating systems exchange information in the way that humans are designed to communicate.
My advice to committed couples in this day of modern marriage is to sync up to each other with gaze and touch with the same urgency they check their emails, voicemails and tweets.