The Importance of Touch & Containment in a Relationship

PDA: A Heterosexual PrivilegeFBad2

I remember when I first came out as bisexual twenty something years ago, I became acutely aware of the heterosexual privilege I’d taken for granted up until then. Suddenly, I didn’t feel comfortable displaying affection for my girlfriend in public. It made me feel somewhat estranged from her, because we had to pretend that we were something we weren’t and had to restrain our natural urges to be physically close. This, all by itself, is stressful and can put a strain on a relationship. The strain becomes even worse if one partner is more acutely uncomfortable with PDA than the other.

Of course, back then the culture was much less accepting of any overt homosexuality, but even today, in many places, the atmosphere is still pretty hostile toward same-sex displays of affection. In fact, there are many people who disapprove of any public expression of affectionate touch, no matter who is involved.

Touch is a Neglected Basic Need

Touch is an endangered species in our culture today. We’ve become wary of touching because so many people have abused this important form of connection. Even in long term intimate relationships, touch often gets neglected. We’re so busy, so tired, so stressed, etc, that we forget to indulge in this basic need. Touch can help alleviate the effects of tension, stress, and tiredness. It is relaxing, soothing, connective, and bonding.

I’ve always vividly remembered the scene from “Claire of the Moon,” which I watched during my coming-out days those many years ago, in which two of the characters demonstrate different kinds of hugs. First they pretended to be two straight women greeting one another by leaning in toward each other with just the top halves of their bodies, and never quite touching except to flutter their hands on one another’s backs. Then they demonstrated what it’s like when two lesbian women greet each other. They came together with the full length of their bodies touching and held each other warmly for several seconds. There was a palpable difference in the warmth, affection, and connection communicated in those moments, so different from the way straight women are conditioned to interact with one another.

Hugs Can Be Containers of Healing and Safety

A hug that lasts a minimum of 20 seconds encourages the release of oxytocin, the bonding chemical that helps us feel loved and happy. A touch in the form of an embrace or hold can help calm a person, both through the release of oxytocin, but also because it creates an enclosed space and communicates to the distressed person that you’ve got them protected. They are safe, they are loved, they are free to be as vulnerable as they need to be in that moment. Touch offers reassurance and comfort, as well as security and affection and connection.

An embrace or hold is a form of “containment,” an important concept in both counseling/coaching relationships as well as in intimate partnerships. Containment refers to a feeling of safety and security. This association of being contained with feeling safe reaches back to when we were in utero – the womb was our first safe place. Our mothers carried us, completely enclosed within her body, caring for us, feeding us, protecting us, within the safe container of her womb. Once we’re born, our caretakers  held us in their arms, often swaddling us tightly in clothes and blankets. As we grow, we’re held less and less, and unfortunately some people have never been held often enough at any point in their lives. As adults, we can hug each other, but we don’t always do so long enough or often enough.

Containment can be seen in the way a mother holds a hurt or scared child. It is used in therapy as a concept to convey the safe container that is the therapy room or relationship itself. Babies can literally die without enough touch and well-loved babies are those that are held often. Attachment parenting allows for children to sleep in the same bed with their parents up to a certain point. Hugs and holding are powerfully soothing acts. So it should come as no surprise that actual physical containment, especially in the form of a hug, can be so beneficial, especially when someone is in some type of distress.

Hug with Permission

The next time you witness your partner or anyone else in some form of distress, offer to give them a hug. Don’t force a hug; always honor boundaries and request someone’s consent before touching them, even your partner. This will add to the feeling of safety that a person needs in order to accept touch in the first place. Respecting boundaries and consent builds the safe container. Then an embrace can reinforce the feeling of being safe and secure within that container. Practice safe touch and containment today!


About Inara de Luna

Inara de Luna is a bisexual, polyamorous, kinky pagan who is also a Relationship Coach and a Sexuality Educator. She is a Gender, Sexuality & Relationship Diversity Specialist, with training and experience as a Marriage & Family Therapist. Inara is a sex positive activist, a published author, and a national presenter. She prefers to support those whose identities fall outside the mainstream norms. For more information, you can find her online at or on FacebookK/a>.