How To Save An Affection-Starved Marriage

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Touch Deprivation: How To Deal With Lack Of Affection In Relationships

Affection can be one of the first things to fade in a relationship after you get married and have children. Along with life's many other stressors, couples all too often withdraw into themselves and forget how important it is to gently touch their partner on a regular basis.

Hundreds of couples have shared with me how the affection they used to lavish on each other transferred to their children over time. And of course, couples without children experience a lack of affection in their relationships, too.

Physical affection is, for many people, what makes a romantic relationship or marriage different from relationships you have with anyone else.

Right now especially, due to social isolation and the stress and anxiety around COVID-19, many people are suffering silently (or, let's be honest, while arguing furiously) from touch deprivation.

What is touch deprivation?

Also known as being touch starved or having skin hunger, touch deprivation is a real condition people experience when they receive little to no touch from others.

Professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Dacher Keltner explains, “Touch is the fundamental language of connection ... The right type of friendly touch — like hugging your partner or linking arms with a dear friend — calms your stress response down.[Positive] touch activates a big bundle of nerves in your body that improves your immune system, regulates digestion and helps you sleep well. It also activates parts of your brain that help you empathize.”

If you are craving affection in your marriage right now and longing to be hugged, kissed, or touched in other ways, you are not alone.

RELATED: Why Touch Matters In Relationships

You may be feeling lonely, ignored, unimportant and unloved, seeing your husband or wife as distant, cold, self-centered, and/or only interested in the children.

If this is happening in your relationship right now, read on, as I will tell you what works and what doesn’t when it comes to saving a marriage from a lack of affection.

Marriage counselors or well-meaning friends may tell you to have a serious discussion with your spouse about how the lack of affection in your relationship is bothering you.

This relationship advice presumes that your spouse did not know that you like affection or forgot all of a sudden! Or maybe they did not realize or notice that they were not showing you affection.

But telling your husband or wife to be more affectionate never works. Perhaps you already know that from trying it in your own relationship. If anything, it can drive your husband or wife further away.

If you're suffering from touch deprivation in your marriage, here are 3 ways to deal with the lack of affection before it's too late.

1. Stop bringing it up.

Talking about it, even just occasionally, will not get your husband or wife to change. While many relationship counselors may advise you to plainly tell your spouse, "You aren't being affectionate enough," it doesn’t matter whether you beg, demand, or joke, saying it pretty much never works in the long-term (and it doesn't feel good to hear, for that matter).

Of course, your husband or wife may make an effort when you first ask them to, but if you've ever asked for affection and been given it on only demand, you know what I'm talking about when I say that it feels horrible. It actually used to make me feel even more lonely when my boyfriend hugged or kissed me only because I pressured him to.

You want your spouse to be affectionate toward you and touch you because they want to. It's like when a family member insists you give them a hug or a kiss on the cheek when you really, really really don't want to. It feels forced.

If you are upset about a lack of affection from your partner, you're really longing to be touched and desired. By ordering their affection, you may notice your spouse's just how reluctant your husband or wife is to be affectionate with you. And when you notice that, it hurts — a lot.

When I was in the relationship I mentioned above, I used to ask myself dreadful questions like, "What’s wrong with me?" and "Why am I so needy?"

Begging for affection feels terrible, even if they comply, so my advice is simply this: don't do it. It harms you and pushes your partner further away.

Stop listening to the advice that tells you to complain and instead see their lack of affection as a sign that perhaps they're not feeling loved by you either.

Even if you are being affectionate toward them, physical affection may not be big on their list of the ways they feel loved. Perhaps they need support in other areas and prefer love be shown in a different way.

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They may also be resisting feelings of being controlled. Instead of telling them what to do or getting upset about something you cannot control (their behavior), practice doing what it is that makes them happy and showing them love in the way they prefer to receive it. such as through words of appreciation, respect, space, acts of service, thoughtful gestures, or gifts.

RELATED: How To Prove You Love Him Every Day, Based On His Love Language

2. Avoid the lack of sex and affection trap.

Dan (name changed to protect privacy) told me that he and his wife weren't having sex as often as he’d like to — in fact, barely at all — and he felt frustrated about it. He complained that his wife is never in the mood and that, after being turned down so often, he no longer bothers making an effort to get her interested.

"I stopped trying all together," he said. "It was hard taking the constant rejection."

When I spoke to Lisa, his wife, she said was fed up with the lack of affection she felt she received from him.

"The only time he kisses or hugs me is when he wants to have sex," she explained. "He will come up behind me when I'm washing the dishes or watching my favorite TV show and expect me to be all loving after he's ignored me all day. By then I’m tired and fed up, so there is no way I’m getting intimate."

This example is so common it comes up almost weekly in my practice. One partner wants sex and isn’t getting it, so doesn’t feel like being affectionate. The other wants affection and isn't getting it, so they don't feel like having sex. It becomes a vicious cycle, with neither feeling satisfied with or close to the other.

To break it, one (or ideally both) needs to give the other what they want first. When couples do that, their relationship transforms.

RELATED: How To Fix A Sexless Marriage Before It's Too Late

3. Focus on what you can control: yourself and your own happiness.

In a relationship, we can never control how someone acts, as much as we would like to. Controlling behavior leads to distance, resistance, and shutdown.

Instead, if you focus on being happy, easygoing and fun to be around, flirting and affection are more likely to follow.

Often when men or women confess to me that they know they have not been affectionate towards their spouse, it’s because they are stressed, dealing with a loss of some kind, concerned about the relationship, or worried about the future.

Rather than asking your spouse to change, support them and aim to inspire them by being loving, happy, and full of energy and light yourself.

By becoming more focused on your own happiness and self-care, you will become more attractive as you give them the space that they need.

The bottom line is this: Fretting about a lack of affection won’t help save your marriage or make your husband or wife be more affectionate.

Focus on what you can control, and watch the affection flow.

RELATED: 7 Ways Oxytocin (Aka 'The Love Hormone') Affects Your Love Life

Nicola Beer is a world-renowned expert in relationship psychology and transformation. Get her free report "The Secrets To Strengthening Your Marriage & How To Re-Ignite The Spark."

This article was originally published at Save My Marriage Program. Reprinted with permission from the author.