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A couple's touch reveals more than affection

By Cari Nierenberg

Many couples seem to have a secret language all their own: A certain glance, or laugh, or curl of the lip and you know exactly what your sweetie is thinking. But what happens if you let your fingers do the talking instead of facial expressions, sounds, or words?

A recent study finds that, apparently, romance trumps when it comes to communicating through touch. 

Scientists tested the idea and found that couples were better than strangers at using touch to convey feelings like envy and pride, which are considered more personal emotions that require a degree of familiarity.

In the study, researchers looked at how well touch could communicate 12 different emotions, ranging from anger and sadness to gratitude and sympathy.

Thirty twosomes, or 60 participants, took part in the experiment and ranged in age from 18 to 54. Twenty-six of the pairs were heterosexual and four were same-sex couples. On average, the duos had been together for a little more than two years.

In the research, published in the February issue of the journal Cognition and Emotion, participants sat at opposite sides of a table with a black curtain between them. One person, known as the decoder, placed his or her forearm beneath the curtain, while the other person, or encoder, communicated an emotion solely through touch.

Couples were grouped in foursomes, and the same encoder conveyed the emotions to both a romantic interest and a stranger. Decoders were told whether or not the touch came from their partner, and they also had a list of the 12 emotion words to make their guesses.

Although researchers suspected that people who were romantically involved would have the edge over strangers in distinguishing emotions through touch, "I was surprised that they were able to do so with emotions, such as envy and pride," says Erin H. Thompson, a research psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, who led the study.

Envy and pride are very personal emotions that are hard to communicate with touch, yet couples could more accurately pick up on them, she says. Strangers had the most difficulty at communicating surprise, embarrassment, envy, and pride to each other.

"It's possible that couples share something unique in their communication that makes it easier for them to understand each other," says Thompson.

Further research needs to be done to learn whether other long-term relationships, such as siblings, close friends, or parents and children, are similarly successful at communicating through touch. 

"Touch can definitely speak volumes, and this research should encourage couples to be tactile with one another as a means of letting the other person know how they are feeling," Thompson points out.

A simple stroke on the shoulder, she explains, can mean, "I am here for you."

No words are required. And that's the magic of touch.

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