"How come nobody just cuddles anymore?"
It's a complaint you'll hear from long-standing couples and casual daters alike. Even if sex is definitely happening, the intimate, caress-filled lead-up has somehow fallen by the wayside on the way to the big act.
But the cuddling that comes before sex, it turns out, is just as important as sex itself. In fact, science has found that initiating physical affection, whether it eventually leads to sex or not, is seriously good for our relationships.
Good news, spooners: A study, first released last year and set to be published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in March, looked at 397 cohabiting heterosexual couples to see how initiations of physical intimacy — that is, the physical nudges we use to indicate we're in the mood — influenced their relationship. This could mean cuddling, kissing, spooning and, hey, even sexy massages.
While past studies have suggested that these initiating moves might be negatively coercive, the latest study found that general attempts at physical intimacy increased relationship satisfaction, relationship stability, better communication and less conflict.
In fact, while both male and female participants experienced positive outcomes of physical intimacy, the relationship benefitted particularly when men made the initiating moves. The initiations of cuddling and touch provided women with reassurance and commitment, said study co-author Chelom Leavitt in a conversation with Mic.
It's always worth a try: While these types of small physical initiations might get swept under the rug in long-term relationships, frequent contact has a huge impact on relationships. Many couples naturally experience decreased sexual activity as time goes on, but this study suggests even if we think our S.O. might not be in the mood, it's still important to try. After all, it's not just about sex — it's about what the spooning and kissing our partners signifies.
"Initiation communicates a desire to be close, have sex, create interest in the relationship," explains Leavitt to Mic. "So even when couples don't have sex, they are strengthening the relationship by communicating desires to be close and committed to the relationship."
That ability for touch to confirm desire? It's also evident after sex. A 2014 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that couples who cuddle after sex report more relationship and sexual satisfaction. Why? Physical intimacy, like cuddling, encourages us to pursue more. As co-author Amy Muise told Women's Health, "Since it makes us feel good, we're more likely to want to do it again, and we get closer to each other in the process."
Touch itself can be powerful: Cuddling not only tells your partner you desire them; touch itself has encouraging health benefits. All kinds of physical contact, including hugs, have been shown to reduce stress, curb anxiety/depression and strengthen the immune system.
As previously reported by Mic, when we're physically close to someone, our bodies release oxytocin, the "happy chemical" that contributes to feelings of intimacy and well being in relationships.
Leavitt reminds us of the true work of cuddling: "Clearly there are people who are wanting more than just physical pleasure out of the experience — they are working to create more meaningful connections."
So, even if you're pretty sure there's no chance you're getting laid tonight, a back rub or some extra close cuddling couldn't hurt. Even if you don't have sex, they'll get the message.