Love & OM: To Touch Or Not To Touch: A COVID-19 Calculus

Physio-emotional benefits of touch raise concerns about single people living without physical connection

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Lisa Carley Hotaling
Lisa Carley Hotaling
I have a graduate degree in Humanistic Psychology and live in Upstate New York.

The need for intimacy

Social distancing mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 hit single people especially hard. Many who had previously enjoyed their single life, dating, seeking casual hook-ups, or hanging out with friends, may have found themselves facing isolation and a newfound need for intimacy. In a recent poll, “Sixty-seven percent admitted social distancing has even increased their cravings for physical intimacy.”

A 43-year-old woman from Upstate New York began a new relationship with a man living in a local monastery just prior to the mandatory lockdowns. The monastery disallowed outside contact to prevent viral spread through the community. Their relationship continued through phone calls, text messages, and the infrequent physically distanced walk in the park.  However, the longing for physical intimacy only increased, and she ended their relationship.

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Through a popular dating app, she found a man who was a healthcare worker and maintained strict COVID-19 precautions. They dated and began a sexual relationship, keeping their circles limited to immediate family only.

In an interview with Transcontinental Times, she shared, “Overall, I felt I had to keep a balance between my own need for intimate connection and health safety. I probably leaned more towards physical connection for emotional health rather than to stay distant to protect my physical health.”

Sexting

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“We met through one of the dating apps while we were stranded in Bangalore,” said a 25-year-old software engineer in India. “And while the lockdown was still in place and shops and streets were closed, we felt the urge to meet. I met her on a shady street, we kissed, and we parted. That was enough to strike a connection.” The couple’s longing for one another was so intense, they violated lockdown laws to meet. “Having someone to confide in makes this dismal situation better,” he told Transcontinental Times.

Read also: Love & OM: The Journey To Self Through Relationship: Part 1: Basic Needs

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The couple went on to talk about their sex life. They opened up about sexting and said, “When we only had [our phones], we explored so much; we never knew there is so much to sexting and teasing. It only makes our desperation to meet more. Yes, we are desperate to feel each other’s skin.” The couple is holding on at the moment with a hope to again meet soon.

While social media, online dating, and “sexting” provide one kind of connection, there is no replacement for the benefits of human touch. Physical intimacy, including but not limited to sexual intimacy, releases critical hormones for bonding (vasopressin) and pleasure (oxytocin), among others. “Positive touch, even in the simple gesture of holding someone’s hand or in a spontaneous hug, reassures the recipient that someone cares. The receiver knows he or she is not alone” (Psychology Today).

Physio-emotional benefits of touch

Increasingly, endocrinologists and psychologists are closing the physio-emotional gap between the benefits of touch.

Psychologists have long known that the need for touch is essential to emotional well-being. A growing body of evidence confirms that touch is equally essential for physical health as well, reducing cortisol (linked to stress) and improving cardiac health.

For those who did not want to take the risk of physical contact with others outside their pod, virtual/video dating/sex saw a sharp increase as well. However, in the complex calculus of “to touch or not to touch” to prevent the further reach of COVID-19, one is left to wonder if we are preventing a viral pandemic while inadvertently opening the gates for a bio-psycho-social one.

Co-authored by: Onkar Mishra

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